What is it about turning calves out to pasture makes me smile. No nanny cows now so will the calves respect familiar boundaries without adult supervision? #totalgrazing
Thankfully, it’s not heavy ice, but it is slick and i’m cramponed up to keep from falling and even though i use polybraid and not poly tape, the ice was heavy enough to bring the fence down to the ground.
With below freezing weather for the next 5 days, i left it up as best as i could and still have it peeled back so the cows wouldn’t get trapped behind it. Sounds odd, but stock can always get across a fence one way, but are stymied by a return.
So they are set now with access to the water tank though it is unlikely, with all the snow, they’ll make the trek, but they also have a clear path to their protein tubs. The poly and reels are frozen stiff, so the cows/calves have the whole paddock for their enjoyment. There isn’t a lot of forage on the remainder of the paddock so i’m not concerned with them wasting any. Just glad i don’t need to go back and check on them in this cold and icy weather (with winter storm moving in tonight and another 5 inches of snow forecasted)- did i mention a few times i don’t do cold?
This is where that flexibility in grazing happens.
Cows graze right through this little bit of snow and ice – teaching their calves how to graze. Still a lot of green beneath the snow.
Thursday, although only in mid-30s (F), the sun came out brightly and there was no wind, so i braved the temps and went to my farm. I was concerned about the deep cycle 12V battery running my solar energiser getting low on charge. With temps below freezing each night, a battery outside, if flat, can easily be ruint. (my solar panel is currently under renovation)
My last entry described my plan to strip graze south of the timber, so here is an outline. There is a great deal of difference in the amount of forage just south of the timber vs heading on down the hill to the south, so my paddock sizes need to be adjusted to allow for 1 1/2 hours of grazing. Cows really won’t graze longer than that before relaxing and chewing their cud.
In this case, they still have plenty of grazing in the timber, so they were not hungry at all. I will be leaving them for several days here so they will clean up.
How do i make any determination as to how much area to give my cows? Basically, it’s a math problem. The art is training your eye. When i pulled out the polybraid (white lines), i took large steps to estimate the distance, then multiplied that number times 3 feet. In this case, it was right at 300 feet. I step off the bit on ‘y’ axis (purple line), using the second strip for an example because it is straight across to make for simpler explanation. Anyway, it is about 70 feet. So 70 feet times 300 feet equals 21000 square feet. There are 43,560 square feet in an acre, so the area in question is 48%. Obviously, for ease of figuring in my head, i’ll use 1/2 acre. Now, the art part. I estimate in this paddock there to be only 1000 lbs of forage per acre available to total graze, so total is 500 lbs. Using a 70 animal unit figure and knowing they will eat about 30 lbs per day per head. My herd will consume about 2100 lbs total forage per day. If i was on target for giving them 1 1/2 worth of grazing (4 moves per day) or 1/4 of their time grazing, they would need 525 lbs of forage to graze for that time period. Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly since i’ve been estimating forage per acres for decades now – you can see that estimates come out extremely close. That’s just pretty cool.
My explanation is probably clear as mud, but it’s not difficult in real practice.
Paddocks will be smaller as i move down the hill since the forage is much heavier – some will be up around 3000 lbs per acre and i will adjust the grazing strip size as needed to accomplish my goals of total grazing.
My cows have learnt to come to the reel end so they will walk behind me as i reel up the polybraid to gain access to their new forage break. This reel, polybraid, and posts will be used to leapfrog ahead to form the next paddock.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Kathy Voth, Fred Provenza, and others have long promoted letting cows eat weeds. There are few weeds that are poisonous and unless cows are starved, they won’t eat them anyway. Many farmers and ranchers clip or mow pastures and weeds, especially this time of year preparing the paddocks to grow for winter stockpile.
I like to mow pastures – i’ve clipped pastures with a 9-foot sickle bar mower bouncing around (sweating and burning) on a modified wide front end Farmall 460 for years. The result is a beautifully laid down forage that allows the new growth to pop through and look like a lush lawn. It’s a good feeling —but i now question its profitability and no longer mow.
Alan Newport recently wrote on an article (Who’s Afraid of Weeds and Brush?) on this very thing. Greg Judy espouses the benefits of weed grazing in his books and videos.
Who’s afraid of weeds and brush?
Over the past year I have been grazing beef cattle at high stock density, and at times at ultra-high stock density grazing (UHDG), and I am regularly amazed at the things they eat.
A few examples are: Most of the leaves from buck brush (aka Indian currant), almost all the leaves they can reach from most trees, the top half or more of sericea lespedeza, a fair bit of ironweed and most ragweeds, and at least the top half of goldenrod. In fact, they clean up or at least take part of nearly everything in their environment. And they do it by choice. These plants are sometimes the first things grazed, sometimes the last things grazed, and sometimes taken in the middle of the grazing period. In other words, they are not eaten in desperation or starvation.
I’m sure some of you are asking what qualifies as UHDG. Johann Zietsman, the Namibian rancher and consultant who pioneered UHDG back in the 1990s, says a stock density of 1,000 to 2,000 animals per hectare. If we consider that one hectare is 2.47 acres and that Zietsman and his “disciples” typically run cows that weigh closer to 700 pounds than the 1,500-pound average for modern cattle, this helps us figure out a stock density of maybe 283,000 to 567,000 pounds of stock per acre — or higher. This generally matches my own definition that UHDG starts somewhere around 250,000 pounds per acre, while high stock density or very high stock density probably runs from 60,000 to 250,000 pounds per acre.
Anyway, last night my wife and I turned the cows into a really small paddock with tall and dense forage, in which I’d estimate from past experience they were grazing at well over 500,000 pounds of stock density. The little calves and the cows were all eating almost everything in there. There were still some cheatgrasses, some bermudagrass, a smattering of other warm- and cool-season grasses, and quite a bit of both lambsquarter (pigweed) and giant ragweed of the knee-high to thigh-high variety. They took it all out. It appeared to me each animal was eating a little bit of everything, switching from one plant type to another as they grazed. It’s pretty much what I’ve seen time and again under UHDG or even high stock density.
These are the same results I’m hearing from people all over the globe, on every continent. All are connected through Zietsman’s website and app-based discussion groups he runs. Their pictures and comments they share from their own ranches tell me volumes.
I’ll remind you the first goal of this type management is maximum sustainable profit per acre, which actually incorporates inseparably the goal of land improvement with beef production.
However, an advantage of this type management that has occurred to me lately is the reduced need for goats and sheep to eat the things cattle normally won’t eat. Maybe a little work by goats will be needed at times, but the cattle graze and browse almost all the plants. (Cedars and full-sized trees, of course, will require other control methods.)
Further, as I watch cattle of all ages graze/browse every imaginable kind of plant, I can only imagine what kind of quality they are building into their bodies, therefore their meat and milk. Even calves like fresh tree leaves that haven’t been exposed to grazing, therefore haven’t built up high tannins.
A few weeks ago, I published a blog about the importance of secondary and tertiary compounds in the quality and healthfulness of beef and other meats. It was called Here’s how grassfed beef really could be superior. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do so. Fred Provenza and others recently published a great paper on the importance of these compounds particularly to humans eating meats from animals adapted to diverse, native habitats.
So, besides achieving the highest sustainable stocking rate, the fastest rate of soil and rangeland improvement, and the highest potential profit in a cow-calf operation, you’re also getting the best weed and brush control possible with cattle and the greatest consumption of plants providing a wide variety of nutritional benefits. And by the way, once they learn to eat these plants they will continue eating many of them even when grazing at lower stocking densities.
The caveat is that conventional cattle of today are very poor at this job. They have been bred to graze selectively under continuous grazing and generally to receive large amounts of hay and supplement through large portions of the year. We need to breed cattle suited to this task.
And incidentally, they will have good carcass quality because any beef animal that can thrive under this kind of grazing, laying on fat for winter survival, then fattening in the spring on green grass for calving and reproduction. Any animal that can get fat on grass has great potential to produce a quality carcass, and the US Meat Animal Research Center carcass data on the African Sanga breeds, as well as other testing, has indicated this is true.
The innovators and early adopters of grazing management and now cattle breeding are leading the way. I’m watching.
Great article in Progressive Cattleman.