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