Category Archives: Grass & Forages

Shoulda Listened the first time

Ten years ago, my good friend, Jim Gerrish, (American Grazinglands, LLC) stopped by on his way from his daughter’s house back to his home in Idaho and we walked my farm, which he was already familiar with from his days at FSRC as lead grazing specialist, (and as our neighbour) and he worked up a paddock design and grazing plan. I did not follow it to the letter, but just recently, I have taken MiG (management-intensive grazing) to the next logical step in Total Grazing concept as taught by Jaime Elizondo, I am moving fences and retooling. Early this morning, i woke to the possibility that i was moving towards Jim’s original design and recommendation. I pulled out the professional consultation booklet and, sure enough, it is nearly precisely what i’m now moving towards. Now, the changes are not huge, but they are critical and a good workout.

Now, in my defense, there is a reason that i didn’t go entirely with his plan and that is because the EQIP program i signed up for which paid for all this fencing required solar water/temporary water tanks. Since i am not comfortable depending on solar/battery water pump when checking the cows only every 3 days, i could not, in my quality of life choice, rely on solar pump supply. My pump doesn’t have a check on it, indeed it will pump for 45 minutes per battery then completely drain that battery and the solar panel cannot recharge it once it is flat. That is a problem. Now i have significantly improved that situation because now two batteries are linked together. In other words, if the cattle drink a lot at night or when the skies are super dark for an extended period, the batteries will allow about 1 1/2 hours of continuous pumping and will be flat if there is no voltaic recharge during that time. However, having two batteries there has not been a charging failure.

Since I’ve discovered the new (to me) Total Grazing program in which the best balance is 4x moves per day nonselective grazing (for cattle satiation and soil/forage improvement), i will be at my farm nearly everyday or as often as possible so i can keep an eye on water supply from the solar pump. There are a lot of other things i can do whilst there, plus being away from home, maybe i can lose a few pounds by avoiding easy access to food. In fact, today i am actually looking at quality tents so i can spend more time camping and fishing in the two big ponds i stocked with good fish a few years back. (Any recommendations on waterproof tents?!)

Okay, back to the story – Jim figures with my soil types (but not having tested how poor and depleted they are), that 400-500 animals units could be sustained year round on my 520 acres. However, despite 3 day grazing periods and 40 day day rest periods, i found that the carrying capacity has appreciably declined each year even though a LOT of hay was being fed. Something had to change leading to selling off some 76 head of cows/calves last fall. There are but 75 animal units now and i still am feeding some hay even now, in large part, to protect the tiny green plants trying to grow – May 1 is our traditional ‘start of grazing season’ date in north Missouri. The decline in numbers is also due in large part of leasing out 120 acres to organic soybean cropping these past 4 years.

Jim also uses an 80% seasonal utilization on cool season pastures and 60% for warm season, but MiG as i was implementing it, couldn’t come close to that! Therein lies the change in movement, allocation, and observation of gut fill, manure consistency, and plant growth. BUT, and this is a big but, it will require me to be at the farm full time. Given the distance to drive there is the challenge to try and fit into a quality of life long term decision. But my life has far fewer demands on my time now that the children are educated, grown, and gone (except for Dallas – thank goodness he has stayed to help!)

Cheers!

tauna

Forage Samples

Before i took off on my driving trip to warmer weather in Continued Wanderings, and before super cold weather set in, i collected forages from standing forage (winter stockpile) for grazing to see what it’s value for animal nutrition would be. Since i raise beef cows, it is not so critical to have high quality all the time like a dairy cow needs, but since starting this new (to me) #total grazing scheme, i wanted to train my eye, so to speak, as to what the numbers look like in comparison to what the actual forage looks like.

There were three applications i wanted to measure;

1) Stockpiled forage which had been allowed to grow to full maturity since last being grazed very short in late May. This test will give me a good indication of what forage quality will be going forward with the total grazing plan i’ve implemented since fall, in which, forage is allowed to grow to full maturity before being grazed in winter.

2) new growth stockpile or that which had been grazed in August and had a little time to regrow (likely highest quality but lowest quantity). Once again, north Missouri was very short on late summer rains so very little forage could be stockpiled under the traditional MiG grazing plan, so many producers bought hay in preparation for a long winter of feeding – as you read in a previous posting here, i decided to sell stock to avoid hay feeding.

3) This sample will be a compilation of waterways, buffer zones, and other areas not worked up to raise organic soybeans. This one is from the Bowyer Farm and is 4 1/2 year old ungrazed or mowed old growth primarily toxic endophyte fescue.

As expected, all forages samples are marginal at best as far as feed value and crude protein which necessitates the feeding of some sort of protein supplement to help the cows’ guts break down the highly lignified grasses to grind out the nutrition in the forages. Even though i knew this going in, i felt it was worth the time and expense for my own education to have these images in my mind and numbers on paper to match up.

Education, sampling, researching, learning, observation are critical in any endeavor worth doing – ranching/farming is no different.

Scissors and a yellow plastic bucket are the complicated tools necessary to collect forage samples. These samples contained a lot of dry matter, so to collect a pound of forage, made for a lot of volume! This is the paddock # 8 sampling – the one not grazed since May 25, 2020 and collected on December 27, 2020
Once I brought home the sample, i cut it into smaller pieces to make it easier to handle and dry more quickly. Using a protein tub to hold the sample kept messiness to a minimum.
Once cut into pieces, i could stuff it all into a 2 gallon Ziploc bag – it was really full – and weighed it up to be certain i had at least the required 1 lb sample for testing. Then i stuck all samples in the deep freeze because i wanted to wait to send it after the holidays – it still took 14 days from north Missouri to Ithaca, NY while paying for 3 day priority. Not happy.

Click on the link above to open the forage samples information from Dairy One Forage Testing Lab.

Paddock 8 – last grazed 12 May 20, forage sample taken 27 Dec 20

Paddock 24 – last grazed 11 Sep 20, forage sample taken 27 Dec 20

Bowyer Farm – last managed Nov 2016, forage sample taken 27 Dec 20

Snow Still on

The snow is still on along with some ice and this prickly thistle must have some vital nutrients since i observed a few of the cows purposefully selecting bits off this frozen plant. Typically, they’ll only eat the flowers off in the late spring, but this cow is showing her calf how to strip off the branches and leaves and eat them here in winter – leaving the stalk. Otherwise, there is a lot of fescue and other grasses they will thrive on with a bit of effort in this paddock. Not doing the more intense total grazing right now since there is more snow forecasted and i sure don’t want more polybraid strung out again. Uggggh. Additionally, these paddocks they are grazing now are really just gleaning in preparation for better total grazing next winter.

Permanent Ley Update

So very odd that i’ve completely forgotten to finish this summary of my expensive permanent ley scheme which was completed the fall of 2017! So quick answer is that three years hence, there is a beautiful and diverse stand of valuable desirable mix of grass and legume species. Much of the original plants seeded are returning each year. I’ve been careful to allow them to mature and go to seed each year since to add to the seed bank. However, i still have not gained in cow days per acre in comparison to what i had before though the species are higher quality and likely allow better gains and performance in the cattle. Overall, i won’t do it again. I don’t like tillage and now that i’ve started total grazing, i’m hopeful i can improve forage while making money instead of spending money.

Update on that permanent ley seeding initiated last summer (2017).  We are still quite dry and with an unusual fall and lengthy, cold, harsh winter followed by a record setting cold April followed by a record warm May, grasses here in north Missouri are really confused and not producing.  The deal is that cool season grasses which show their greatest growth in spring had no chance this year.  April kept the soil temperatures far too cold for growth, then May spiked the heat, so grasses stopped growing!  Many grasses normally 2-3 feet tall were heading out and setting seed at only 6-8 inches!!  Another challenging year in agriculture.

The result of the shortage is that a lot of cattle have gone to market.  We have already sold ALL of our yearling calf crop born last year because of the shortage.  Plus, as part of a managed drought plan, we’ve also sold a good number of cows that we wouldn’t normally have done.  North Missouri was already short on livestock (due to the spike in crop prices a few years back, many pastures were plowed up and farmed), and now it is significantly more depleted.

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This beautiful burnett plant is such a valuable plant and three years later, it still comes on strong each spring.  Always excited to see it!

Three years after renovating this paddock, there is still a lovely mixture of red clover, lespedeza, birdsfoot trefoil, timothy, meadow fescue, chicory, and others!

A Perfect Match by Jim Gerrish

Once again, Jim Gerrish, owner American GrazingLands,  pens a thorough and relevant article.  This one published in The Stockman GrassFarmer June , 2020 issue.  Click here if you’d like to request a free copy of The Stockman GrassFarmer.

A Perfect Match

May, Idaho

Some things just seem to fit together really well.  Bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches come to mind, among other things.

How about no-till, cover-crops, irrigation, and MiG?  That is another combination that is hard to beat.

Industrial farming with conventional tillage has led to widespread land degradation through soil erosion, loss of soil carbon, and destruction of soil life.  No-till minimizes soil disturbance and the concurrent loss of organic matter soil life.  The downside of no-till farming over the 50 or so years since its inception has been heavy reliance on potent herbicides like paraquat and glyphosate.  To eliminate the need for those herbicides and their toxic side effects, innovative farmers have figured out approaches.  The roller-crimper as a mechanical tool can terminate existing vegetation and turn it into moisture-conserving mulch.  High stock density grazing can also terminate or suppress existing vegetation and turn it into dollars.

The exponential growth in cover-crop use over the last decade has also accelerated the adoption of no-till farming across the USA and around the world.  While many farmers started using cover-crops based solely on soil health benefits, others came to realize livestock were the missing link in their efforts to heal the land.  We quite talking about sustainable ag a few years ago and started talking about regenerative ag.  Why settle for sustaining the agricultural wreck we have created over the last century?  Why don’t we try fixing it instead?

Ray Archuleta uses a great example to illustrate the difference between the sustainable and regenerative concepts.  ray asks,  “If your marriage is a wreck, why would you want to sustain that?  If your farm is a wreck, why would you want to sustain that?”

Regeneration is meant to create something healthy and strong that will last your lifetime and beyond.  I think it is a valuable lesson in world selection and world viewpoint.

In a similar vein, many years ago I said the most tragic divorce that has happened down on the farm was the divorce of livestock from the land.  Taking grazing animals off the landscape and locking them up in concentration camps removed a critical component of ecosystem health.  We will only regenerate a healthy landscapes with effectively managed livestock as part of the process.

We can argue about the sustainability of irrigation.  Around the world, including the USA, aquifers are being pumped to the point of depletion.  Land is being degraded due to salinization from irrigating with high salt content water.  Pumping costs are increasing in many irrigated farming areas as water is pumped from deeper and deeper wells.  No, irrigation in that sense is neither sustainable nor regenerative.

Living in the Intermountain Region of the USA for 16 years now and enjoying a different type of irrigation basis.  I think there is a time and place for irrigation in a regenerative ranching or farming context.  With direct snow-melt as our water source we avoid aquifer depletion and most of the salinity risks associated with irrigation in semi-arid landscapes.

For many years, a lot of this region was flood irrigated.  There are a number of benefits to flood irrigation.  Flood irrigation can rely entirely on gravity flow of water so there is no pumping cost.  It can hydrate parts of the landscape outside of the farmed fields.  The infrastructure investment is fairly low.  However, Water use efficiency cannot be counted as one of the favorable aspects of flood irrigation.

Per ton of forage grown, flood irrigation typically uses about 50-80% more water than sprinkler irrigation.  As we think more and more about the pending worldwide water crisis, all of us in agriculture must become better versed in water conservation whether we are in high natural rainfall or irrigated environments.  That brings us back to thought of no-till farming with cover-crops and the role of grazing animals in groundwater management.

We have all heard and read those popular press articles citing how many pounds of water it takes to produce a pound of hamburger or a steak.  Some beef industry estimates are as low as 1000 lbs of water per lb of beef all the way up to 12,000 lbs of water/lb of beef claimed by some vegan groups.  Since a pound of beef only contains about 10 ounces of water, the rest of all that water has to be somewhere else.  That somewhere else is mostly in the soil or the atmosphere meaning that same water will be used for something else tomorrow or the next day or the next.

Our job is to get as much back into the soil or the deeper ground water system.  This is where MiG comes into the picture.  We use time-controlled grazing management to manipulate the amount of living plant residual and the amount of trampled litter we create in the pasture.  Both of those grazing management responses are critically important factors in managing soil water.  Infiltration rate and surface runoff are directly tied to our day-to-day grazing management choices.

When we can easily produce twice as much animal product per acre using MiG compared to ineffectively managed pastures, that translates to a doubled water use efficiency.  Think about the cost of seeding cover-crops on irrigated land and the relative return on investment between those two different management scenarios.  Regardless of the particular pasture in question.  MiG always increases the return potential.

Jim Gerrish is an independent grazing lands consultant providing service to farmers and ranchers on both private and public lands across the USA and internationally.  He can be contacted through www.americangrazinglands.com.  His books are available from the SGF Bookshelf page 20.

 

 

 

 

Grazing Patterns

Managed grazing takes some work, but good decisions yield excellent results as measured by animal performance, increased soil biome, desirable grazing plant species, and good ground cover to protect the soil from heat and erosion.  Little to no improvement happens in any of these areas if the land is allowed to lie idle.  In fact, if animal impact is removed from the land, the negative effects may increase the opportunity for desertification.

Below are some random photos i took today which tell a little bit of the story and my grazing plans (which change with the weather and time of year).

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The recent grazing history for this paddock #23 is 3 days of grazing in early June 2019, 5 days of grazing mid July 2019, and 7 days of grazing late December 2019.  They are just now returning to this paddock for the first time since December 24, 2019.  That doesn’t tell you the whole story of course – how many cows/calves/bulls were there? (i do have that information),  but my point here is to illustrate the importance of plant recovery and every year and every paddock will respond differently to varying amounts of grazing pressure.  Observation is key.

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This is a patch of the paddock i spent a lot of money renovating it.  I’m still on the fence as to whether or not it was worth it.  The forages now are much more desirable (before it was 90-95% toxic endophyte fescue) and now there is an amazing array of diverse species.  However, overall production of forage is about the same as measured in cow days per acres.

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This native warm season grass is proliferating all over my farm more and more each year.  Slow to recover the first 10 years, but now, like other natives, coming on more quickly.  Only by allowing the forages to recover by managing where the animals loaf and graze will this happen.  This yummy Eastern Gamma Grass is called the ice cream of warm season grasses.

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Close up of seeds of the Eastern Gamma Grass starting to form.

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Red clover in the foreground.  The smaller purple flower is alfalfa.  I’ve never planted alfalfa on my farm.

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See the small green plant in the foreground with tiny leaves growing close to the ground?  that is lespedeza – livestock and wildlife graze that in the fall and will get fat!!

 

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This is the same paddock where you see lush forage growing.  Not all the severely eroded spots have mended.  May never heal in my lifetime, but i will keep trying with the managed grazing.  My farm was heavily farmed for years in its earlier life and it is far too steep to have ever had a plough put to it, but it was and there is very little top soil left.

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Setting up a polywire with step in posts in super tall and thick forage in 90 degree heat with high humidity is not my cup of tea, but i will do it a few time for the good of the land.  Here you see the polywire, which is electrified and keeps the cows where i want them.  They have grazed and laid down the unpalatable stuff so that soil microbes will  now have ready access to nutrients they need to build more soil.

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This is just another view of the laid down forage though you can see here they did more grazing before trampling what they didn’t want to graze.  More dunging here will hasten the breakdown.

 

 

Purdin Paddocks 23 and 24
For fun, here you can see how i stripped off smaller segments of larger paddocks.  This was to facilitate better utilization of the forage, whether by grazing or trampling.  The cows were in the paddock strip defined by hwy Y and the blue strip first.  They had access to the timber to the north for shade and walked to water in the ditch or to the pond to the north (not shown).  They were allowed access to each subsequent paddock going to the left (west) without a back fence since they had to go back to timber for shade.  If i didn’t have time to do this, i wouldn’t, but this management scheme increases days of grazing without being detrimental to the land or animal performance.  Today, they were given access to the strip between the orange line and lime green line.  No long having access to timber because there is plenty of trees in this temporary paddock and there is a water tank below the large pond to the upper left.  For an idea of scale, the lime green division fence is 1/4 of a mile.  The perimeter of the two paddocks (red line) encompasses 38 acres.  Most of my paddocks hover in the 20 acre range.