Me and my gang – grazing
It’s hard to describe the pleasure I derive from practicing rotational grazing on our farm. When I tell people I have to go and build fence or that I am building fence each and every day and moving the cows, they exchange glances and nod and say, “Sure, that sounds like fun… .” And then their voices trail off and they think of ways to get the conversation steered (no pun intended) over to more mainstream ideas, like where are you going on vacation, have you seen so and so’s new landscaping, etc.? I gently try to herd them back to the topic, but usually to no avail. I’m used to being the odd man out anyway, I wore hand knit sweaters in high school, and while it is all the rage now, trust me, people thought I was odd. And you know what, they’re probably right!
We started out doing MiG (management-intensive grazing) just like all the other graziers, moving through the grass multiple times a year. We learned more than we thought was possible about electric fencing, and built a relationship with our cow herd, that to me was foreign, and only reserved for the milk cow/milkmaid marriage. Growing up, moving the cows, catching the cows and generally doing anything but feeding the cows was a pretty haphazard affair, and I won’t say adversarial but we had some wild ones. Blackie would have fit in perfectly!
Basically in a nutshell, to graze your stock rotationally you need to only allot what they will eat in a 24 hour period. The key to building soil, and good grass/forage, and having healthy livestock is the rest period. To achieve this rest period you have to contain your animals, and portable electric fencing is what helps you do this. Just as important as moving the cows forward to fresh grass, you need to keep them from going back to the grazed area that needs to recover from the animal impact. In grazing lingo, that is called the law of the second bite. If the stock is allowed to regraze the tender young growth, you will set back that plant about 40%. The plant needs to recover before being grazed again. And when you have to start buying feed, 40% adds up quick! Much easier to keep that back fence in place, than it is to buy hay or grain.
So you have a front fence, back fence, water and minerals placed right there. This all gets moved each day. If this sounds like drudge work to you – well, it’s not. It is the highlight of my day. I get to see how the grass and animals reacted, if they tromped out the weeds and manured all the right spots, if I gave them enough, too much, or not enough. Each day, each week, each year, brings me something new to think about – am I going backward or forward? Do the cows look good, have the grasses and forbs changed? There is no magic template or set of rules that you can use. True rotational grazing isn’t just doing the math and dividing your acreage up into a set number of smaller pastures and then just moving through them. Sure, you can do grazing that way, but you will have poorer performance from your animals and your land. My land contains distinctive keylines, and I have to place the animals accordingly.
I think the single most important thing that rotationally grazing has taught me, is to work with, not against what you have. Whether it is land, animals, spouse :O, children, grass, trees, rain, sun – whatever. I no longer force the cattle to the corral, we don’t chase them, they follow us, I also know now, that some areas of our pastures will never produce exactly the same or as much as more fertile spots. I know I say this a lot on this blog, but I have learned to seewhat is before me, I don’t just have a blank slate of soil, grass, trees and cows. I know I’m getting all silly and glisteny-eyed here, but some people never do see what they have. Take, take, take and no give, give, give. And no, I am not starting some rescue ranch for cows, they are here to do what they do best, and what I hope to do – leave the place better than I found it for the next generation.
One of my favorite writers, Bud Williams, said recently in an article that change is for people who want to do better. Some will change, some won’t. For me to raise my cattle the same old way we did when I was younger, doesn’t cut it anymore for me, I want to do better. I don’t want to be the cattleman at the Creep Feeder Cafe bitching and moaning about the low prices. I want to make my own price. I’m pretty set in my ways, but being an early adopter is in my genes (and my jeans too), my grandfather opened a gas station in conjunction with his blacksmith shop – he could see that change was coming and I am sure it was hard to change from shoeing horses and setting wagon tires to working on temperamental automobiles and putting rubber tires on the new “horses.” But he did it, and I am doing it too. If you’re a commodity farmer and not liking what price you’re getting, then stop what you’re doing and change. Make your farm and all your hard work mean something – produce a good product, and meet your customer face to face and name your price. I know it sounds like jumping off the deep end, but the hardest part about grazing, change or direct marketing is starting. Misery loves company, so leave the misery behind and find positive feedback from customers, and seeing how your land and animals respond. And don’t think it has to be a all or none proposition. I am just as proud to say I do some things the old fashioned way, like churn butter, for instance, as I am to say I am not grazing our cattle the old way.
But as usual, I am digressing here.
What do you need to start? First off, functional cows. Terry Gompertsays it the best when he says a functional cow is the one who always calves without assistance, rebreeds and does well on what you have to offer. Many people starting to farm transfer their old town lives to the farm. The cows have to be a certain breed, preferrably a rare heirloom, and the more money you can spend on fancy electric fencing supplies the better, and add in spending a lot of time building said “portable” fence too. Trust me if you blow your wad( in time and money) on expensive purebred stock (this goes for pigs, sheep, goats and poultry too) and the fencing and things start to go wrong, you’re done. If you have to get rid of your cattle in a hurry at the auction, it doesn’t matter that Bossy set you back a couple grand and has huge vet bills racked up – she will still only be worth what meat cows go for that day. Figure about 50 cents a pound, if you’re lucky. Don’t get me wrong, Della is a purebred, but she is one cow, the rest are a motley crew to be sure. But, it doesn’t matter, they calve every year on time, they do well on our mountain grass and hay and raise good calves.
Hoping to improve our pastures even more we have been moving more toward a higher stock density, which is called Holistic High Density Grazing. Meaning that high impact for a short duration of time. With a small herd this is hard to achieve. Imagine about 25 cows, calves and yearlings in less than a 1/4 of an acre. To someone who is used to the continuous grazed, free-range idea that sounds nigh on impossible! I used to be one of those continuous graziers myself! Our cows traveled the pastures and woods and springs and about all we did was put up the hay in the summer, kept the permanent fences maintained, and harvested the calves in the fall, metered out the hay, and oh yeah, bitched and complained about the price at the stockyard. What made us change? The stockyard closed. Suddenly, what do you do with a bunch of calves that you want to get rid of? We went to the next closest stockyard, but it was east of the mountains and buyers there don’t want the wet calves from the west, and here in Western Oregon we don’t want the dry side calves either. So change we did. There have been many bumps and potholes in that road traveled to today – but I would never go back to the old way.
How’s it going, this HHDG? Another curve in the road of learning… I am having a hard time getting enough grass trampled into the ground. But, I know I will get better as I learn to interpret what I am seeing. For awhile, I was moving the cows every twelve hours, and I realized that during the day, they were more mobbed up, due to the heat, so the manure was not as well distributed throughout the paddock, whereas at night, they moved freely in their confines and crapped up every square inch! Seeing that made me giddy. And you wonder why I am a social outcast It meant that just by changing the order of grazing a paddock I could add more fertility to weaker spots, just by allotting that space at night.
Another thing we have been seeing is slicker and fatter cattle on the grass that has been rested longer. Most of the time all you ever hear about concerning feed, is protein, protein, protein. But, while that is fine for the omnivores like chickens and pigs, cattle are true herbivores but they need energy as well as protein. So while you can feed your cow high protein alfalfa or other forages and she will give you X amount more milk, you are doing her a disservice. It’s no wonder cows have maladies these days, that were pretty rare 50 years ago. You start messing with the cows engine and she ain’t gonna run right, know what I mean? In the dairy industry it is rare to see cows that don’t need their feet trimmed! What’s up with that? Cows have been eating grains and high protein feed for so long it is now part and parcel of many breeds. And that goes for beef too – feedlot style feeding and hoof trimming will get to be commonplace. My cows have never needed their feet trimmed, they show no abnormal hoof growth and we have very soft ground, no rocks, and no concrete. It took a long time for me to make the connection here, because we had one cow, Pandora, who foundered on cull carrots that we got for free. (Free isn’t always worth it.) Her feet were a mess, and showed more growth than normal, but they would break off, before we ever had to trim her. Most years Pandora had bull calves, and I always wanted her to have heifers. She gave me two heifers out of 13 calves, and I could not keep them because she had passed on the abnormal hoof growth to those girls, it was apparent by the time they were weaned, while her male calves never had feet problems. Last time I checked dairy cattle for the most part are female, and if the hoof thing can pass on as a maternal trait, there you have it. Hoof trimming is the norm, but it is never connected to digestive troubles because we are so good at just looking at what is in front of us. Just like a little robot, “Hoof long, must trim!” Not cow has tummy ache, can’t tell human, feet hurt, stop feeding me grain and carrots!
Oh yeah, it is my birthday today and I am celebrating by writing this verrrry long post about my favorite subject – cows!! Just checking to see if you’re still with me.
The other day I had to go to DMV to get my new drivers license and geez you have to prove 10 different ways that you are a citizen, couple that with the fact my first name is Spanish, I have to go through lots o’ hoops! At least with the election over, I not getting phone calls offering help to register to vote, or cards in the mail directing me on voting rights. Times like these I wish I could change my name to something a little less ethnic!
Anyway, on that trip we took photos of other pastures and cattle in our area so I could explain the difference, and some pros and cons between continuous grazing and rotational grazing. I’m kind of a visual person myself, and I was hoping it might keep me from rambling on… .
Here is a functional cow, she won’t win any prizes at the fair, but she always has nice calves, never has any trouble, and now as I look at this photo, I see she has no flies. That’s a good sign. She had a heifer this year, and I am breeding one of her heifers this year for the first time. In case you were wondering her name is Pretty One, not to be confused with Pretty Girl who is my only purebred Hereford and has crappy calves.
This is just after paddock shift, and they get right to work grazing. The fully rested mature grass will provide starch for good rumen fermentation and the green undergrowth of clovers and other “weeds” will provide the protein. When you shear off grass at this height, remember you are causing that plant to shed roots too, which helps build organic matter in the soil. The high density stocking will concentrate large amounts of manure and urine in the soil and hoof action will work in plants that aren’t eaten.
This is a close-up of the showing clovers, plantain, dandelions and different grasses.
This is what the paddock will look like after 24 hours. What you want to restore or make your pastures more productive is high impact, short duration. This is covered with manure but the cows will not be back in this spot until it is recovered. Depending on rainfall, that may not be until October, or later. Ideally, I should have more trampled in grass for carbon to go with all that manure. But, I am learning and haven’t been able to wean myself off of the haymaking just yet. Grazing year-round on stockpiled forage would be ideal, but working out the exact details will take a while.
Here is a pasture less than a quarter mile away. Low impact and long durationare very detrimental to the environment and as you can see to the inhabitants as well. Mmmm, I can just taste that grass-fed beef now. They assume that the four calves in this small 2 acre pasture have something to eat because they see them grazing all the time, but it is hard for cattle to eat short grass, they have no top teeth and must tear off the grass. They are starving literally. The brown hair on this black calf means low or no minerals and parasites for sure, because these cattle never get to cross the fence line to the 30 acre hayfield that gets cut every year and sold, because that is of course the hay field! They also assume we have more grass, because we must ”put something on it.” It isn’t like they can’t afford to fill their barn with feed either or spend a few hours shoring up the fence on the hayfield. Fall will come, they will butcher these steers and within a week there will be 4 more to replace them. They always look better when they arrive, and really this two acres is capable of growing a certain poundage of meat. They have just spread it out over 4 beeves instead of having 1 in good shape. The pasture never gets any rest, or chance to recover.
Note to people reading this who want to buy grassfed beef, quiz them, and find out what they believe in – a new pool and landscaping before they buy some hay or hay first, then the pool. This shows how important good feeding is, and how unimportant a particular breed is. This steer is a purebred Angus, marbling will never be a part of his vocabulary since he can hardly even grow, let alone put on meat and fat. Another sad thing, a vet lives across the road from this and doesn’t even notice. If that was a skinny horse out there, you can be sure Animal Control would be there in a heartbeat. They arrested an old lady several years ago, because the hay she bought was not good enough for her donkey. Pets cannot be starved but by golly, if it is a food animal go for it – I wouldn’t want anyone to have to pay a decent price for food!!!
Here’s another pasture still in our area but 8 miles away, these fields never get any rest either. It used to be a dairy, and they took the buyout in the 80′s and went into beef. These guys aren’t hurting either, they sold the land that McMansion is on for a cool quarter million. Do they feed their cows? No, they get what they can get. This is the classic continuous grazed pasture. Stale, growing more weeds than grass and parasite ridden. There are about 50 cows on 80 acres here, and they run out of grass by July 4th usually because the grass never gets a chance to get out of the ground. Our pasture looks brown too where the cows have grazed, but they will not come back to the grazed areas until the regrowth and rest occurs.
If it still doesn’t make sense, just think of a bag of chips that is too much for you to eat in one sitting. Leave the bag open and come back and eat chips until the chips are gone. Do you want to do that? Probably not, the stale chips will be better than nothing but not ideal like when they were fresh.
This is probably a good place to interject that buying good minerals is never a waste of money. I read recently on blog or something (I can’t remember where) about a farmer who was adamant about not buying or feeding minerals for his stock. Their thinking is that the animals will get enough from the pasture and browse to maintain health. Maybe it will work, I hope so, but if it doesn’t they will start to see reproductive problems, and a myriad of other maladies start to crop up. With new farmers we usually see train wrecks within about 3 years. At first it seems great, calves and lambs are coming, and then all of a sudden it seems like the reproductive complications start, prolapses, failure for labor to progress, slow breeding which then puts the birthing schedule at the wrong time of year, plus many other chronic, sub-clinical problems. A no mineral plan in order to develop a hardy strain, also needs a strict culling program to go hand-in-hand. If a cow, sow, ewe or doe the loses her baby, she needs to go down the line, obviously she is not able to make it without mineral supplementation. I would rather go the way of buying good minerals and help the animals help themselves to greater health. But, it never does cease to amaze me that a person who will not buy minerals for their stock, will not bat an eyelash at calling a conventional vet to “fix” the problem that they caused with poor management in the first place, and then they don’t cull the animal, they continue on, because they can’t take the loss or admit they might have had a hand in the mess. Animal husbandry is hard work, and takes more that an idealistic attitude and a checkbook.
Here’s our brown pasture, showing high impact, short duration. In the forefront is where the cows just grazed, next showing a small amount of green, is where we cut hay. Off in the distance to the left you can see a grassy strip that I moved the cows through two weeks ago around the steep edge of the hayfield. We used to cut hay and then turn the cows in soon to “clean up” the edges. What they actually where doing was getting that second bite on the tender regrowth from the hay cutting, and leaving the rank growth on the edges. We had no idea how much we were setting back those hayfields. Now we know and graze the cows next to where the hay will be cut or has been cut. This also is making it easier on the equipment operator too, I can graze the steep and irregular shaped field perimeters and make the haying go a little easier, and I am gaining a little ground that way too, and keeping undesirable plants from creeping in. We’re in almost a rainforest setting here, so one year without grazing or mechanically cutting can mean quite a bit of pasture loss due to blackberry or other undesirable plants coming in.
This pasture is across the road from the 80 acre pasture two photos back. This is a common sight, no grass and a cow campsite under the trees. The trees have the ability with their deep roots and falling leaves to find ample fertility and minerals, but if the cattle are allowed to hang out here in the shade, they are depositing too much manure in one place. This is called translocating nutrients. This pasture is always poor too, there are enough animals here, they are just allowed to free range and deposit their manure where it isn’t really needed. Not to mention the parasite load is probably great in these types of campsites. Probably with $50.00 for a small amount of posts, wire and insulators plus a little more for an energizer, they would never have to buy fertilizer again, ever.
This photo shows what I mean by a keyline, where the slope meets a swale or on a ridge break. In this field I build a long strips and then build shorter fences dividing the long strips into smaller paddocks, size depending on the time of year and condition of the grass. The grass is starting to regrow again because I have not allowed the cattle back in this portion of the field. The north facing slope to the left is poor from being cropped in the twenties with daffodil bulbs. The grass is poor on this slope whereas to the left on the ridgetop and to the right in the swale the grass grows well. The cattle will get access to these hedge trees once a year, not every time they visit this pasture.
Is it worth the work? For me it is. I have more time than money, I have control of what my livestock is eating and I am building top soil and helping our farm absorb the 10 feet of rain we receive a year.
With that in mind I will leave you with a video of Della making milk, and a reminder to check out the Food Renegade posts for this past week!