Mo. –Like the Robert Frost poem, we've discovered that taking
the road less traveled "has made all the difference."
In the mid-'80s, we converted our cropland to pasture, and started
managing our livestock and forages more like the prairie ecosystem
that once grew here.
The difference has been a leap in biodiversity (especially legumes and other desirable species), a longer grazing season and thicker forage stands. Healthier forages have improved soil structure and water retention, reducing erosion and making our farm less susceptible to drought.
Our livestock are healthier and happier too. We have 70 purebred Gelbvieh cows and run up to 40 stockers and 300 sheep on about 350 acres of pasture. That's about 50 percent more stock than we carried before we subdivided pastures and intensified our management.
Choosing this different road has made our life simpler and our problems fewer. We have time for community activities and travel, and we don't need off-farm jobs. Alice, my partner and wife, sums it up best: "Isn't this the greatest life!"
Life wasn't always so sweet or simple. After growing up in the city and pursuing urban careers, we welcomed the opportunity to start farming my grandparents' land in 1980. Our original goal was to become conventional superfarmers. We steadily increased corn and oats yields during our first three years.
Then reality hit us hard. A simple soil-depth analysis revealed that some of our best cropland had only 2 inches of topsoil left! But there was a ray of hope. An adjacent hayfield still had 8 inches of topsoil. That amount was only half of what was there originally, but the significance was clear. We laid two options before the family farm corporation: Strip crop or put everything into forages.
Big changes are hard to make. After strip cropping for two years, we admitted it was just a band-aid solution for our farm. Our land had no business being tilled. We finally made the right choice and seeded down all the cropland.
About that time, we toured New Zealand. What an education! Farmers there fatten lamb and beef, ship it thousands of miles, undersell us, and still make a profit. They accomplish this feat by producing high-quality forages through controlled grazing systems that depend on intense management, subdivided pastures and frequent stock moves.
Grain is too expensive there to feed it to livestock, yet their meat tastes superb. We were amused when a New Zealand woman asked us, "Don't you think grain-fed meat tastes, well funny?"
We came home inspired. We subdivided 40-acre pastures into 10-acre paddocks, and rotated stock about once a week. Not much happened.
Density Yields Diversity
We didn't give up. We knew controlled grazing worked because we had seen it in New Zealand. We took Stan Parsons' "Ranching For Profit" course and became familiar with the work of his former partner, Allan Savory. (See "Toolbox" in this issue for details on Parsons' new home-study course) These two men are largely responsible for bringing innovative range- and pasture-management ideas to North America.
In Africa, Savory and Parsons observed that wild grazing herbivores (unlike fenced farm animals) travel in large herds and stay close together because of predators. They also roam constantly because of the repugnance of their own wastes. As a result, forage is closely cropped, then has a chance to regrow before being grazed again.
If herbivores have clustered and migrated for millenia, then the forages they graze must be adapted to that behavior. To bring our deteriorating land closer to its natural prairie condition (short of bringing back predators), we had to start managing livestock to simulate the predators' effects.
So we subdivided more, cutting up pastures into 2- to 3-acre paddocks, and increased stock density by putting 30 to 40 cows at a time on these smaller paddocks. To mimic migration, we moved them to new grass every day or two.
Because of these changes, our pastures are evolving into what we call "modern prairie"–a more diverse, stable and natural environment than found in traditionally managed pastures.
We've seen our pastures thicken with new plants, and found warm-season grasses (such as big bluestem) volunteering in what used to be solid tescue.
In a small cross section of our farm, we found more than 100 plant species, not including trees. We planted just four of those, and only a handful of the l00 aren't grazed at some growth stage by our cattle, sheep or guard donkey. Each plant species taps a unique array of nutrients, and provides a unique environment above and below the soil, allowing other creatures to thrive.
Increasing the biodiversity of our land is an important goal for us, because it is the foundation of our pasture productivity and stability. Biodiversity– coupled with efficient reproduction and value-added marketing leads us to more profit.
Flush When It's Lush
Just as we subdivided and increased stock density to imitate natural predator effects, we also use nature as a guide for our herd's genetic and reproductive management. Our breeding season matches the growing season. We don't feed grains to boost reproductive performance. Females are expected to breed during the spring burst of forage growth. If a cow isn't bred to calve between March 1 and April 30–for whatever reason–we sell her. She apparently isn't well-adapted to our environment and management.
- Heifers weigh nearly two-thirds of their mature weight at breeding.
- Cows have a body condition score of 5 at calving.
- Cows are gaining weight two weeks before breeding.
- Calves are removed for 48 hours breeding to stimulate estrus.
- Calving season is 60 days.
- Bulls are checked annually for fertility
We used to reason that the earlier calves are born, the higher their weaning weights. So our herd calved in January andFebruary. Cows were lactating and being bred while still on hay–a very costly practice.
It makes much more sense to match the breeding season–when a cow is at her peak nutritional demand –with the time when pasture nutrition is also at its peak. So now we flush the cows on our lushest grass in mid-May, and then turn in the bulls.
We used to accelerate estrus by separating calves from their mothers for 48 hours beginning the day the bulls are turned in. You can't buy a better, more natural estrus stimulant: But since most of our cows are already cycling by breeding time, we have discontinued this practice. Most years, about 75 percent of our cows conceive during their first estrus cycle and calve during the first 21 days of the calving season. Only a handful remain unbred after two cycles.
Cycling within such a tight period, the cows' nutritional needs rise and fall together, simplifying nutrition management. Calving chores are easier too. The days of checking, weighing and tagging newborn calves are concentrated into a short season. At weaning, the calves are nearly the same age, so there are no runts to get bossed around. And at marketing, a uniform group of calves is more valuable–as well as a beautiful sight to behold.
The vast majority of our forage production comes during just three months. The big challenge of livestock production is to ration out that spring and fall growth over the entire year. We use several planning tools to make the job easier.
Stan Parsons designed the grazing chart we use. (Contact: Ranch Management Consultants. 7719 Rio Grande Blvd. N.W., Albuquerque NM 87107, (505) 898-7417.) Along the left-hand side of the page we list the paddock identifications. Running horizontally from each paddock ID are 365 boxes representing the days of the year. Each day a paddock is grazed, we shade in the corresponding box. The chart shows us at a glance how long cattle grazed each paddock and how long it rested.
We record forage growth in each paddock using our grass budget chart. Every 10 days we take an enjoyable hike through all 63 paddocks. We rate each paddock on a scale of 1 to 10. Since this rating is purely subjective, the same person should score each time. My scale goes something like this:
We multiply each score times the number of acres in the paddock. We add the results to give a total forage score for the farm for that 10-day period.
Then we plot those totals on a forage growth graph. (See below.) Connecting the dots for each 10-day period gives us a trend line so we can see where we're headed. We can predict whether we'll have surplus forage and have to make hay, or whether we'll be short. By adding 10-day rainfall totals to the graph, we can easily see how our pastures respond to moisture.
Natural Lamb Adds
Because we don't buy and sell our purebred livestock on the commercial market, we sacrifice some flexibility. We compensate with sheep and stocker calves that serve as a buffer against the peaks and valleys of forage growth. If forage is tight, we sell some stock. If we have a surplus, we buy more.
Sheep fit beautifully in a well-fenced cattle operation. Since only about 60 percent of their diet overlaps with cattle, pasture utilization improves. They can graze with cattle or apart.
Even though our farm is in prime coyote territory, we haven't had any attacks. Rotating paddocks helps prevent predators from knowing where and when to expect their prey. Electric fencing probably discourages them too. We have a Great pyrenees dog, but feel that our guard donkey might be adequate, alone. Since she grazes with the sheep, she's certainly less expensive to feed than the dog.
By managing our pastures better, we've reduced our feed costs and added stockers and sheep–increasing the livestock we carry by 50 percent on a weight basis. We've also increased our profits by not buying fertilizer and lime. (Why encourage more grass to grow until you can effectively use all that you've got?)
But the greatest contributor to our bottom line comes from adding value to what we produce. We made a great move when we switched from commercial cattle to registered Gelbvieh stock. Gelbvieh are very efficient producers, plus we receive a premium for seedstock.
A new endeavor that holds promise is direct marketing our lamb. Adding value by processing, packaging and delivering frozen lamb is more profitable than selling through normal markets. We sell everything from whole lambs to popular cuts. In a short time, we have expanded to include our own lean ground beef and shiitake mushrooms. We also market garlic braids, pork and eggs from other organic farmers.
Our selling strength is that our lamb is raised in a wholesome, natural environment, free from all the chemicals that city folks are concerned about. Having lived in both worlds, we can easily relate to our urban customers.
Another goal is to help make consumers more aware of where their food comes from and how it is raised. We believe consumers have the power to change agriculture with their shopping decisions, and we want to help them shape the future.
Thinking about intensive grazing and nature as a model focused our attention on the land. We were struck by how much of the big picture we failed to see. Disturbing the soil–both physically and chemically–had taken its toll.
As our faith in conventional advice plummeted, we began to think for ourselves. For example, we developed a new attitude about "pests." We used to agonize over ragweed: It seemed to appear in all the intensively managed paddocks. But then we asked ourselves, was it taking over or just filling in bare spots? We came to realize its roots loosen the soil and its leaf litter catches water. It is a colonizing plant that prepares a seedbed for more desirable species. We also found that livestock eat ragweed when it's young and tender.
Nobody likes flies. But we started asking questions about them too. Are fly outbreaks caused by stock congregating in their own wastes too long? Do these pests provide any benefits, such as breaking down manure and speeding up nutrient cycling? What are the costs and benefits of a quick-fix fly killer? We decided flies aren't really the problem: They are just a symptom of poor management.
When we consider questions like these, we look to nature for answers. Nature teaches us tolerance, patience and a new perspective on problem solving. We now recognize what Native Americans always knew: We are just another strand in the web of life, supporting and supported by the rest of nature's creations.
Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, May/June 1992, p. 14-20.