Pasture Proving Ground: This grazier puts tools and techniques to the test

Greg Bowman

HONEY GROVE, Pa.–Ed Rits rotated pastures when he was a dairyman, but he didn't see the potential of intensively managed grass until he switched to raising beef cattle in '87. He's been sharpening his grazing skills and product expertise ever since.

By developing his 100-acre farm around its 59 acres of pastured slopes and valleys, Rits has cut yearly inputs by $51,000 and slashed labor by 6,300 hours per year. He's also increased income by 50 percent. Debt-free since '88, he's financed all improvements with profit from his 25-cow Holstein x Hereford herd.

In the process, he's picked the brains of many recognized grazing experts and heard pitches for lots of products. He doubts any claim until he proves it right or wrong.

"Grazing is new for a lot of people, and there's some 'snake oil' being promoted. I want to help farmers get started with grazing, to keep their costs low and help them understand how grazing can work on their land," says Rits.

Family health problems forced him out of dairying. Service as a district conservationist with the USDA's Soil Conservation Service got him thinking about whole-farm resource management. It also put him in contact with grazing advocate Tom Calvert, an SCS conservation agronomist based in Somerset, Pa. When Rits realized he could profit from his land without struggling to produce crops in his flinty soil, he was ready to start farming again.

LEARNING FROM GRASS
"For years, I'd been moving my dairy cows through 35 acres of pasture divided into five lots," says Rits. "But I hadn't been managing the land resource. I'd keep them on a lot until the grass was too short, then turn them onto one that was too old. I couldn't understand why the cows didn't seem happy there. Sometimes, by coincidence, I'd get them on a lot with just a little regrowth and they loved it. But I wasn't meeting the needs of the grass and the animals together."

Rits follows one of Calvert's fundamental recommendations: Start with what you've got. In the farmer-to-farmer consulting work Rits began in '92, he emphasizes these points to new graziers:

  • Know your soils. "I was trained as a soils man, and that's where I started looking when I made the change," says Rits. Poorly drained soils need special management–especially in animal pressure and in what species you encourage through grazing or planting, he says.
      
  • Focus on feed value. Figure out how your farm can produce the maximum nutrition for livestock. "Sure, 180-bushel corn can produce up to 40 tons of corn silage, but it's not the highest quality feed. That same ground in alfalfa at 25 percent protein will give you a lot more feed value."
       
  • Watch before you plant. Find out what is growing naturally in your pastures, and graze it for several seasons. Observe how well it meets the nutritional needs of your livestock, and how it responds to intensive management. I waited five years before I planted my first new species. I knew by then that I needed a high-protein crop in fall to finish calves, and MATUA brome looked as if it would work." (See side-bar, "Starting MATUA.")
              
  • Maintain pasture fertility. Rits composts purchased chicken litter and solid cattle manure from his barnyard with straw and sawdust. He windrows the mixture in early summer, lets it stand without turning until fall, then spreads the finished material on pastures before the soil freezes.
        Compost encourages earthworms, which in turn break down dung pats. Rits says it took him five years of intensive grazing and several applications of compost to build up earthworm populations in his paddocks to their current robust levels. "Earthworms take care of dung pats in five days, reducing those green spots of regrowth that cattle reject."
         
  • Provide water. Rits started out with a traditional round concrete trough recommended by SCS for spring improvement projects" He had the traditional problems, too: cattle loafing around a heavily manured, muddy, tromped-down area. The spring still serves the herd in winter, and provides water in summer for the 32 paddocks closest to the barn. A pressurized water system now supplies 52 paddocks that are more remote or across the road. Rits uses surface lines with quick couplers to supply garden hoses that attach to mini-tanks. (See "No Tipping, No Waiting" ) He routes the hoses under fences and through culverts in waterways.
       
  • Ask lots of questions. Rits says beginning graziers should go slow, do their homework, and try to work with other farmers. "I've found The New Farm, Stockman Grass Farmer, and on-farm examples to be the best sources of information," he says. "Don't think you have to rush out to an expensive grazing conference with speakers from far away," he says. "Start by talking to graziers in your area, then in your state. You'll get a lot more from the 'big names' when you've got some of your own experience."
         
  • Study before you buy. While the profit in grazing comes from what you don't spend on tillage and harvesting, Rits says it pays to ponder what you will spend on hardware purchases long before you're ready to pound posts. Most of his local farm-supply stores don't stock suitable fencing hardware for intensive rotational grazing, and buying the right mail-order products can be challenging for the novice. "If you're not going to work with a consultant who's familiar with the market, plan to spend two years looking and reading," says Rits.
        He's learned a lot over the phone from fence-product suppliers, and says many grazing specialists in Extension and SCS are helpful. He sways it's not fair to try to milk product information from fencing–installation contractors. "Tell them up front you're looking for information. Don't occupy their time unless you plan to use their services."

START AT HOME
A paddock by Rits' house serves as his "making do" demonstration. There he has soft metal wire, metal posts and white ceramic doughnuts still in use–with old woven wire in place from years ago. The high visibility of the woven wire, set outside the remaining wooden posts, helps young calves realize there's a barrier. A single strand of electrified polywire convinces them and trains them for life. Rits also is quick to point out the limits of old fencing materials. Ceramic insulators on a wire loop don't work when polywire comes within a half-inch of the loop, and black rubber milker hoses are too soft to insulate loop of fence even on a dry day.

Think through each step of your pasture management and livestock movement before you position your first fence, he tells new graziers. There are lots of ways to hold up wire, but how often you plan to move a fence – and whether the posts need to bend – determines whether the cheapest post is the best value.

Rits has salvaged material for no-cost posts from area manufacturers. One batch was preservative-treated wood left over from construction at the local feed mill. "They were kind of bulky to handle in the field," he admits, "but I had nothing invested except the time to saw them to length." He used them in a permanent fence.

Where post flexibility isn't the issue, steel rods and rigid plastic pipes can work well, says Rits, as long as the necessary clip or insulator material keeps the total expense reasonable.

To show the cost range of posts he has tried for movable fence, Rits has a permanent display near his farmstead. Some are carefully designed commercial models. Others are adapted from inexpensive materials that were available close to home. For his annual grazing field day, he attaches price cards to the more than 20 post/insulator combinations and describes they've worked and weathered in the field.

His lowest-cost combination is a free post of stiff plastic pipe, outfitted with a cotter pin to hold the polywire. Not counting the labor to drill a hole, his material cost totaled 2 cents. At the top end is a long-life fiberglass post, fully bendable, with a slide-on plastic wire clip that allows the grazier – but not his animals – to slip out the wire. Cost to Rits for this combination of Spider system components was $1.77: $1.36 for the post, 41 cents for the clip.

He says the relatively pricey Spider combination earns its way in some locations on his farm because it is nearly deer-proof. "I installed my Spider posts after deer tore out in one night the polywire on rigid posts I had spent three days erecting, " he says.

Spider posts are flexible and the double-wedge clips allow wire to slide freely. He can step on the wire and hold it to the ground to cross it. When deer walk into the fence, they can't avoid contact and don't dislodge the electric barrier. "You have to learn where you can make do, and where it pays to go with a system that really works," says Rits.

The unique Spider G-spring gatepost attachments also win his favor. The insulated arced handles on wire ends carry current into post plugs, but allow removal of wires for passage. Because disconnection releases a wire's tension, Rits carefully sites a second post near the opening. The catch post allows him to maintain electrical current and tension while he moves cattle.

"Economy" fiberglass posts – his cost 50 cents each – tend to splinter more quickly in response to weathering Rits notes. He uses them for fence he doesn't plan to move. For posts that he plans to handle repeatedly or that have to flex, he selects more expensive types with a glossy, smooth coating that holds up well for several years.

 STARTING MATUA

AFTER FOUR YEARS of carefully watching his pastures evolve, beef producer Ed Hits decided he had an ecological niche for a prairie-type grass that would surge during fall on his south-central Pennsylvania farm. His native cool-season species recover in autumn from their long rest periods of summer, but don't reach their spring productivity.
    A '92 planting of reed canarygrass didn't thrive, so in '93 he turned to MATUA brome, a New Zealand import. Its high production potential made the management needed for its establishment seem worthwhile, he says.
He plowed and disked the well-drained field April 30. He planted 25 pounds of seed per acre (at a seed cost of $1.58 per pound) with a Brillion planter, followed by a spring-tooth harrow to incorporate the seed just below the surface. Soil moisture was optimum. The MATUA germinated in 21 days, but had lots of competition from broadleaf weeds and foxtail by July 6. He mowed the stand to 4 inches and baled the hay.
   On July 13 he sprayed with a half-pint of 2,4-D and a half-pint of Banvel per acre to suppress weeds and give the MATUA a competitive advantage. He also spread urea to provide 50 pounds of N per acre. He cut and baled again in August, October and November, finding no broadleaves and only a little foxtail.
    For cues on MATUA management, Rits relies on forage specialist Dr. Gerald A. Jung at the USDA-ARS Pasture Lab, State College, Pa. "What's critical is harvesting after the 45-day period allowed for seedfall from August 15 to September 30," says Rits, citing Jung's research. "Even after seedfall you have good forage. Harvest really lets the sunlight penetrate to the soil and helps the seed germinate and thicken the stand."
   Jung says MATUA is like birdsfoot trefoil in its palatability at maturity. Unlike trefoil, MATUA grass can't be stockpiled. Leaving the grass tall over winter can cause it die out in cool climates, says Rits.
  This year, he hopes the MATUA will lessen his dependence on other grasses and legumes in the September-to- November period, allowing him to lengthen rest periods and stockpile the more durable forages for winter. Also, he needs the strong feed value of the imported brome species to help finish stocker calves since he moved up his weaning by a month to September 1. He reasons that the calves will gain weight sooner if they get used to an all-forage diet, and believes the cows can use the extra month of grazing to put on body condition for winter.
    He plans to fence the field so cows graze MATUA this fall.                                                                        – G.B.

ALFALFA COMES THROUGH
Rits' September 1 grazing field day will be a good time to see how successful his alfalfa and MATUA plantings were in extending the rest periods for his grass/clover pastures.

"Alfalfa's a drought-saver on my flinty soils," says Ritz. He tries to harvest it about 33 days into its regrowth cycle rather than watch its height, which depends on moisture levels. In order to protect his pasture sward from overgrazing and to stockpile some grass
for winter in-field feeding, he feeds hay in August or September during dry periods. Rits pays special attention to balancing the needs of the legume and of his cattle around each fall's first killing frost. "I've had as much problem with bloat on frosted alfalfa as I have from grazing it wet. I make sure the cattle eat dry hay in the morning and then turn them on about noon," says Rits. His cattle pick out the grass first, then get to the defrosted alfalfa. He lets the cattle graze the alfalfa down to about 4 inches tall.

TROUGH TIME EVENS WATER TEMP
Rits' cattle told him last summer that white plastic pipe didn't entice them to drink more water, despite claims that the bright pipe keeps water cooler. He says graziers in the South, where days are longer and summers are hotter, may get more benefit than he did. Promoters say because white pipe reflects sunlight, it provides cooler water than does black plastic pipe. Rits tested water temperature coming out the ends of the pipes–where the "white" water was indeed cooler–and in the tank, where water from either color pipe soon measured about 10 degrees less than air temperature.

The important figure, however, was how much water the cattle drank during hot periods from each supply source. Rits compared water consumption by a group of cow-calf pairs during two six-day periods when daytime highs exceeded 95 F. The cattle were on the same paddock during these periods.

The group drank within a gallon of the same amount during each/period, Rits' records show. Further, he's observed that in areas where cattle don't graze, grass usually falls over above ground lines after several months, providing an insulating shade layer. In the six-day periods, his cattle drank 93 percent of their water during the day, 7 percent at night. Pipe color matters for another reason in colder climates. Rits knows one Ontario farmer who says he uses heat- absorbing black pipe because freezing is more of a problem than is overly warm water.

No Tipping, No Waiting
JUST GETTING COOL, clean water to each pasture is not enough. If cattle drink faster than a tub can refill, they can find ways to amuse themselves with dangling float valves and with empty troughs that they can roll with the toss of a bovine head. Producers usually are less amused.
"I want cattle to be grazing, walking to get a drink, or walking right back to eat more grass," says beef grazier Ed Rits. "There's no gain while they're waiting on water."
Low-volume systems can work adequately when cows drink one at a time. "But my cows always seem to drink in threes," says Rits. He is testing component combinations this summer to find a reasonably priced system that can supply water for three mature cattle drinking simultaneously, each consuming about 5 gallons of water in about 2 minutes. That's a typical situation for his herd– one that taxes most movable in-paddock water systems he's tried.
"Many float valves won't let enough water in, and 25- gallon tanks that hold only 17 gallons cause trouble," says Rits. "If a tank gets nearly empty, cattle will tip it over trying to get more water."
He's put together two prototypes that do better. Rits selected a 30-gallon polyethylene tank newly designed for pasture watering by Sentry Inc., a division of Agri- Engineering Inc. It holds 23 gallons, leaving him an 8-gallon cushion after the 15-gallon drawdown–even if no new water flowed in. The 14-pound tank has almost straight sides, making it nearly tip-proof by cattle.
With slow-drinking (or unusually docile) animals, a 2.5- ga1lons-per-minute valve might suffice. But Rits wants a surer thing, so he outfitted a tank with a 10-gpm valve. Price for the high-volume valve and tank is about $70, only $10 more than for Sentry's 3-gpm valve/tank set. He also uses a Philmac valve, from Rife Hydraulics that provides about 7.5 gpm at his 40-psi line pressure–less in the more distant paddocks where pressure is lower. An oversized, 6-inch float is big enough that cows can't get into their mouths. Rits also uses Rife's 30-gallon tank that is factory-modified to accept the valve. (The tank assembly–complete with quick-disconnect fittings–sells for less than $200.)
He'll have several other components in his pastures this summer. Tanks include: a 55-gallon commercial food transport barrel cut down to 30-gallon capacity; a white 25-gallon tank from Kentucky Graziers Supply; and a black plastic 35-gallon tank from New Zealand.
Valves in his pastures this summer include:






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  • Dare float valve. "Slow, but dependable for young heifers who can drink in groups, or for single cows."
  • An upright universal Job valve from python that is situated in the center of a tank. Rits occasionally has to jiggle the valve's pin to keep water flowing.
  • A bottom-entry Job valve activated by a string and float. "This float system works very well. My cattle like to play with some of the other string systems."
  • Kentucky Graziers Supply float valve. After Rits reported to KGS that water came out through a small opening within the valve, he received an improved version that works fine. But he says the float valve nut can still come loose, leaving the mechanism vulnerable to cow damage.
  • Hudson full-flow valve with a diaphragm for quick start and shut-off. He'll outfit this valve in a cut-down $5 plastic barrel with $10 of plumbing supplies and $10 in labor.


THE TRIALS OF SUMMER
With the chores of last winter behind him, Rits is happy to be back to managing pasture and this summer's crop of observations from his ongoing product evaluations. He's experimenting to make a better-quality compost, and to compare the value of compost versus fresh manure for fertilizing orchardgrass hay.

Rits wants farmers to more actively help each other innovate, adapt and prosper with sustainable methods. "Unless you meet with others who are going the same direction, you lose enthusiasm, because you think you're the only one doing it." He sees on-farm research at his Tuscorora Mountain Acres as one way to strengthen the pool of existing knowledge farmers can share.

Editor's Note: You can contact Ed Hits at RR1 Box 87, Honey Grove PA 17035, (717) 734-3745.


Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, May/June 1994, p. 19-20, 22, 24-25.