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 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.

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.

Hay Challenges

I had planned to talk about the challenges of feeding hay in the winter in north Missouri last year, but never got around to it.  As it turns out, there are a different set of challenges this year, so i’ll roll them in to one blog.

Winter of 2017-2018 was really long, cold, bitter, but it was too long ago and though i know it was a challenge, i can’t remember.  So, starting with winter 2018-2019, which was the second consecutive long winter following a drought made for a very tough feeding season despite selling about 30% of my cows/calves.

My plan was to set out hay for bale grazing in July while it was dry, leaving the Netwrap on for protection of the hay, then using electric polybraid to ration it out to the cows in the hopes of minimizing waste.  Sounds like a plan, but you what happens to best laid plans.  I did set it all out – about 70 bales spaced appropriately on about 5 acres, then set up the tape.  then came the bitter winter early on along with deep, deep snow.  Of course, then with no way of removing the Netwrap because of snow and ice and snow and wind took down and buried the polybraid.  Cows and calves had their way with the hay.

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Unfortunately, the amount of mud and trampling destroyed the 1/4 mile roll of polybraid and the Netwrap from 70 bales is buried.  I needed to remove it before grass grows but it was impossible even with Dallas using the harrow to try and pull it up a bit.  Sadly, most of it is still out in the pasture even now February, 2020.  But the resultant organic matter definitely improved forage production!

This year (2019-2020) blessedly has been mild by comparison of the past two winter.  Though we had an early cold snap, it didn’t really dig in cold until Jan 11 when a blizzard rolled in (the day i arrived from Fundo Panguilemu) with 1/4 inch of ice by the time i got to my pickup in the economy parking at airport.

I had started feeding hay way back in August to allow as much forage to grow for winter grazing as possible.  Thankfully, we had an excellent growing season though a late start in 2019.  However, the two previous years of drought has set back our typical production.  But haying while it’s dry only works if your growing paddocks are out of reach for the cows – otherwise, they will practically refuse to eat hay if they see green growing grass.

The freezing spell which lasted until the 31st of January allowed us to unroll hay on frozen ground, but couldn’t take off the netwrap very often because it was frozen to the bale.  We cut it across the bale so we could at least unroll it, but that leaves the netwrap under the hay.

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Today (2 Feb 20), it was warm enough for me to survive outside for a while (actually spent 3 hours outside because it was 55F!), yet though thawed enough that i could pull up some of the netwrap from underneath the hay that the cows had left behind.

While i was gone to Chile (first of January), it was dry enough that Dallas was able to unroll about 22 bales on another location that needed more organic matter, so that is set for later to be eaten.  And in December, Brett had set out about 30 bales with netwrap removed on a section that needs soil building with organic matter before breaking through the barely frozen mud.  So once the cows run out of grazing (hopefully there is enough to last ’til first of March), then they’ll back track to these areas where hay is already set out.

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I set up the polybraid around the remaining bales hoping they won’t need to be fed this winter.  Time will tell.  But unless it freezes hard again, it may not dry out until July or August.

Welcome to north Missouri – always 2 weeks from a drought in the summer and  cow killing mud under sometimes deep snow and ice in the winter.  It’s been said there are 3 good days a year in north Missouri.

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It’s muddy!  Back to grazing.

 

 

A Spot of Winter

Yesterday (the 16th) is cold with a sharp wind, but sunny – not cold like in states closer to the 49th N parallel, but i don’t live there – my north Missouri Tannachton Farm at 39.95 is even too far north, but this is where my husband lives, so guess i’ll hang around.

Anyway, today the ice is coating all surfaces and the forecast is snow, single digits, sleet, ice, pellets, wind so to prepare for a nasty week ahead, I decided to take advantage of yesterday’s weather to set up a polywire electric fence with step in posts to strip off 1/4 of me cows’ next paddock.  If ground is somewhat dry and there is no ice, i have to weigh in my mind whether or not it is better to give them a 20 acre paddock vs a portion.  They won’t waste a lot in those conditions, so does my labor in setting up the fence offset less waste?  This is how i think.

However, knowing there is going to be ice coming, i know that once quality and quantity winter stockpile is coated in ice, each hoof step can break the stems and leaves and do considerable damage to the grazing experience.  Then my labor becomes much more valuable.

Considerations:

  1. evaluate quantity and quality of stockpiled forage.
  2. evaluate ground/weather conditions as to amount which may be destroyed just by livestock walking on the forage.  (mud, ice, rain)
  3. Dry cows in good condition need the least quality of forage – if you have finishing cattle, young cattle, thin, or nursing cows, higher quality forage is necessary.

These factors give value to your labor.  How much you determine your time to be worth will decide whether or not you can justify driving to your cattle and stripping off small allotments of grazing.

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How do i shift cows?  open the gate and get out of the way!

 

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In just a couple minutes all 170 animal units are shifted to new paddock.  Happy cows and calves.

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Get out of their way.

 

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Candy to a cow in mid-January with an ice storm on the way.  Filling their bellies!

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This tire tank is protected from wind and catches the sun.  With 170 animal units watering out of it, it takes many days of bitter weather before i need to start the overflow or chop ice.  You can see a bit of floating ice that the cows easily broke through by themselves in this tank.

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Polywire (i actually use this Powerflex polybraid– it lasts much longer than twisted wire) and pig tail step in posts.

Buckman 80
My cows are on the part of Tannachton Farm i call the Buckman 80 because i bought it from Jesse and Janice Buckman years ago.  The red line is the barbed wire perimeter, the yellow is the ‘permanent’ hi-tensile electrified single strand wire powered by a Parmak solar 12 volt energiser.  The purple line shows where i put up the polybraid for temporary grazing (strip grazing).  The area measures about 6.5 acres, i estimate 5000 lbs per acre of standing dry matter for grazing.  My mob eats about 6000 lbs per day, so 6 acres times 5000 lbs equals 30,000 lbs.  Divide that by 6000 allows about 5 days of grazing.  Always estimate conservatively to allow for waste and error in estimates.

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Buckman 80 in the fall.

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This is the same paddock though being strip grazed in the spring.  

What Is the Greatest Challenge to Being A Grass Farmer?

This article is printed in the most recent issue of The Stockman Grassfarmer and written by our good friend, Jim Gerrish.  For more great articles like this, subscribe to The Stockman Grassfarmer.  If you are interested in an upcoming speaking engagement or prefer private consultation, contact Jim.

What Is the Greatest Challenge to Being A Grass Farmer? By Jim Gerrish

MAY, Idaho,

Allan Nation used the term “grass farmer” to describe a new type of agricultural producer who was something beyond the conventional mold of a farmer or a rancher.

The true grass farmer is someone who understands the foundation of our business is harvesting solar energy and converting it into a salable product.

A grass farmer strives to create a healthy landscape where water infiltrates and does not escape the boundaries of the farm as runoff; someone who understands that life in the soil is as critical to farm production as the life above the soil.

A grass farmer understands the fewer steps you put between your livestock and the direct harvest of solar energy, the more likely it is that you will be profitable.

The true grass farmer is someone who becomes one with their landscape and the life within it.  Grass farming has been described as farming in harmony with nature.  This is contrary to many of the basic tenets of conventional or industrial farming where nature is viewed more as an enemy to be vanquished.  Droughts and floods.  Weeds and bugs, Scorching summer and bitter winter.  All of these are aspects of nature conventional farmers and ranchers do daily battle to overcome.

It is very hard for most conventional farmers to understand grass farmers.  For this lack of understanding grass farmers are often ridiculed, ostracized, and sometimes, sadly, beaten into submission to the gods of iron and oil.  Sometimes that conflict is fought in the local coffee shop, sometimes across the neighbor’s fence line, and sometimes across the kitchen table.

That brings me to the consideration of what is the grass farmer’s greatest challenge.

Four years ago, I received an anonymous letter from a frustrated grass farmer.  It was five pages long and it outlines a 30-year long struggle to convert the family farming operation to an entirely pasture-based grass farming business.  The letter writer asked me to somehow tell this story and try to help other farm families struggling with the same issues find some resolution.

I thought about that letter quite a bit at the time and tried to find something to pull out of it for a monthly column.  I came up empty.

Earlier this year, I spent a day with a farm family and when I left, one of the family members put an envelope in my hand and suggested I read the contents some time later,. I did and, lo and behold, it was the same letter I had received anonymously four years earlier.

Now I had a face and a person to attach the story to.  The victim-less crime now had a victim.  How many times do we experience that in life?  Some issue that never mattered an iota to us becomes a cause when it becomes personal.

I think the greatest challenge to becoming a true grass farmer are those family members who cannot see the farm with the same vision.

If your brother is a crop farmer who sees only gross income, how is he going to switch from growing corn bringing in $1000/acre to a cow-calf operation with a revenue of only $300/acre?  That is a very hard sell.  But, why does he have a job in town?  He says he can’t make it just farming.  When the breakeven cost of growing a bushel of corn is $3.85/bushel and the price is $3.46/bushel, a gross income of $1000 doesn’t pay the bills.

If you have a gross margin of $240/calf and it takes you three acres to run a pair year around, the gross margin per acre is $80.  Which enterprise is actually better for the farm?

As long as your brother looks at gross income rather than gross margin per acre, he will never understand grass farming as a viable business.

When you have been taught all your life to till ground, kill weeds, spray bugs, and take whatever price the elevator offers you, it is hard to understand there is another way to use the farm.

If your culture says land must be divided with a 5-strand barbwire fence on the quarter section line, how can you accept weird shaped pastures created with single polywire?  The whole cultural construct must first change.

As long as the mentality is that is it OK to spend $100,000 for a new tractor but you must buy the cheapest electric fence energizer at the farm and home store, grass farming will not move ahead.  As long as the thought process i that the land rental rate is too high to run cattle on that field so we better plow it up, grass farming will never advance.

When farmers can wrap their heads around the idea that Mother Nature is our friend, then grass farming will move forward.  When we truly believe our mission as stewards of the land is to create a living landscape on every acre of ground we manage, then we will become true grass farmers.

Sadly, that is why we still say we advance only one funeral at a time.

Hate to start the New Year with such a downer thought.  Let’s see what February brings.

 

Jim Gerrish is an independent grazing lands consultant provide 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 26.  He will present a Stockman Grass Farmer Grassroots of Grazing Schooland a Stockman Grass Farmer Management-Intensive Grazing School in February.