Category Archives: Grass & Forages

What Is the Greatest Challenge to Being A Grass Farmer?

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

MAY, Idaho,

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.  

 

 

They’re Laying!!!

Back home and starting to get settled into regular chores and a few moving ahead projects.  Despite coming home to sub zero temps, 1/4 inch ice, and swirling snow, just two days later it is starting to melt and at 33 degrees F (headed to 44F just before dark), it’s not too bad outside.

While i was gone, my silly Welsummer hens began laying – thank goodness – they are about 7 months old and until this past week had laid not one single egg!  Apparently, they had not read the book that they are a breed which starts laying at 5-6 months.  Granted, i am willing to give them a pass because i did accept them after June 8 (because of Nathan and Heather’s wedding and knowing we would be gone, i didn’t want baby chicks around), so that put them going into the shorter days which is typically when hens start laying fewer eggs.  And these gals are truly pastured hens and never on a high powered ration.  But when 6 months rolled around, i’m thinking they ought to be laying something!  I  checked them and most had developed the visible and measurable signs of being mature enough – yet no eggs.

Here’s the lovely dozen eggs i found this morning!  In the photo, the lighter colored one is from a purchased dozen of eggs from the store which say they are on pasture.  Here’s the interesting part, that store bought egg is considered a large egg yet is very similar in size and weight of these first eggs laid by my hens.  In other words, my hens didn’t start with pullet sized eggs, they started in with mediums and larges!  And beautiful shell color.

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Remember that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the quality of the egg nor does it tell you anything about how the hen was raised. The color of the yolk can be darkened by the ration fed to a caged hen  (marigold and/or corn).  Anyway, my hen’s eggs were all frozen, so these first ones will have to be thrown away since they could be contaminated because of cracking.  But maybe we’ll get some today to collect.

Stay warm and have fun!

tauna

Welsummer pullets hard at work keeping spiders and crickets from getting into the house last fall (2019).

 

Cover Crop Considerations

A hot topic in regenerative farming circles these past few years is the use of cover crops.  Do they have a place in ‘modern’ farming practices.  Modern mostly meaning supply/demand/government subsidies/market considerations.  Modern farming practices currently are very hard on soil health and microbes.

Nevertheless, there are some farmers who had embraced cover cropping decades ago with huge successes in improving soils and yields, some are just now dipping their toes in the ‘new’ (actually ancient) practice, and still others staunchly refuse to consider them.

These principles have been around for centuries, but more recently promoted by Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, Jay Fuhrer, Jon Srika, and others

Five Principles of Soil Health:

  1. Limit Disturbance – limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil.  Widespread tillage destroys soil structure and function.
  2. Keep the Soil Covered – maintain an armor of plant residue on the soil surface.  Residue can inhibit weed growth, moderate soil temperature, reduce erosion, reduce evaporation, and provide organic matter for soil microbes.
  3. Promote and Build Diversity – incorporating cover crops or diversifying your crop rotation or both!  The synergy of diverse root exudates improves soil health.
  4. Keep Living Roots in the Soil – keep living roots in the soil for as many months as possible.  Converting solar energy to biological energy feeds mycorrhizal fungi.  Miles of roots hold soil in place and increases water holding capacity.
  5. Integrate Animals – Properly managed grazing animals taking a bite of grass pumps more carbon back into the system.  Slobber, urine, manure, biting and ripping grasses, all add so much to the system, it’s impossible to discuss in this short blog.

For full stories and explanation of these five principles, i highly recommend Gabe Brown’s excellent book, Dirt to Soil.  

Shalom!

 

Hauling Hay With Ease!

Last winter was a nightmare of feeding hay.  We knew that winter stockpile for grazing was in short supply because we’d had two years of drought followed by wet weather AFTER the growing season in the fall.  We sold about 30% of our cows and had a normal supply of hay yet that wasn’t enough because winter began much earlier and wouldn’t let up until late May.  This was the second severe and harsh winter in a row.  Cows came out of it this spring in pretty rough condition.  Not wanting to ever get in that spot again, we researched inline hay trailers to help us haul hay home from local purchases.  After watching a lot of Youtube videos and learning about the various brands and what to look for, we decided on a Missouri built model Freedom Hay Trailers that we purchased from a Raymer Farms Sales & Service near Green City, MO.  (Actually just accidentally found them on Craigslist whilst searching for more hay this past spring (2019))

Allen purchased another 270 bales here just a couple weeks ago and the weather was perfect for hauling on gravel roads and dumping into pastures, so i got crackin’ and ended up pulling 11 loads to my farm about 13 miles from the hay field to my farm and includes mostly narrow, uneven, hilly, bumpy paved roads followed by 2 miles of steep single lane gravel/dirt roads then pulled into the pasture.  Except for loading, i handled the pulling, net removal, and dumping by myself.  Allen had hauled several loads from another location earlier this year.  I don’t know how we got along now without it!  Very convenient time saver.

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I’m sitting in the pickup watching Dallas load 7 bales on the 36 foot hay trailer.  My first couple loads on such rough and narrow roads with a trailer that is 12 feet longer than i’m used to, i tended to be pretty cautious.  After that, seeing how the trailer is reliable and able to handle the conditions (and i got used to how differently the longer trailer took corners and handled), it was business as usual – roll on!

 

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When loading and hauling by yourself, you’ll need to cut a length of 2×4 to hold down the foot brake; the parking brake will not hold when the tractor is shoving the bales on from behind.
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With the board holding down the brake, I can jump out and snap a photo of Dallas loading the last bale.  It takes Dallas 6 minutes to load this trailer with 7 count 1400 lb bales.
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Upon arrival at the dump site, I cut off the net wrap because i’m going to put this straight out for cattle to eat.  Slice through the net wrap on the side opposite of the dump mechanism.
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Once cut, then go to the other side and pull the net wrap over and down from the bale.
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Remove the red safety bar, then it’s ready to dump the bales.  We purchased the hydraulic mechanism.  Yeah, it’s a bit more money- just get it.  I took Dallas on this trip so i could take photos.

 

 

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Remove the net wrap and ball it up on the pickup.   Never leave nylon strings or net wrap out in the pasture.  Here the cradle is reset and red safety bar back in place.

Everything Cover Crops

Love or hate Facebook – depends on your perspective – maybe both.  But there is real opportunity for farmers to share and learn from one another about cropping and ranching methods they’ve tried – what has been successful and what was a colossal failure.

I coped a young farmer’s (from central Iowa) method here, so i can come back to it as a reference for what i may try in the future.  This is copied and pasted from a Facebook page by the same name, so it reads clunky out of context of responses, but i wanted his words.

Drilled a 4 way mix of oats, annual rye grass, rape seed and soybeans about a month ago (late August/early September) following rye harvest. Very pleased with the amount of forage and soil structure that we have gained. Planning to let cows out later this week if the weather cooperates. Located in north central Iowa.

30 lbs (annual) ryegrass  (10# is enough, but farmer was using up what he had on hand)
20 lbs oats
8 lbs rape seed
Roughly 20 lbs of soybeans ( some seed was 2 years old)

we hauled cattle manure then chisel plowed and field cultivated to work it in before we drilled it.  I agree that tillage will break down some of the soil structure but I sleep better at night when I can work the manure in. I also don’t have access to a no till drill.

I chose annual rye grass over cereal rye so it would winter kill and everything else I planted will winter kill and I am planning to plant corn in that field next spring. If I was going to plant soybeans I would have used winter rye.

the winter rye that was growing previously we combined for seed. The four way mix that is growing now will be grazed and the corn that we plant next year will be combined.

Old, Stupid, and Lazy?!

I know I promote Dave Pratt and his Ranching for Profit video blogs a lot and, even though i don’t agree with him on many points, there are a lot of good points he eloquently describes which are applicable to any business – not only ranching.

I’ve ’bout got my hobby farm to the ‘old, stupid, and lazy’ stage, but gracious, how could i attract anyone to cover for me if they thought i was needing someone old, stupid, and lazy ?  😀

Here’s another great one!

Cheapest Ranch to Buy Part 2

The second part of Jim Gerrish‘s excellent article and how to not only make your farm or ranch more profitable, but also improve soil, grazing, water, and wildlife.Building electric fence in rough countryJim Gerrish

In most locations, single-wire electric fence and water facilities are the main costs for improved grazing management.

What is the cheapest ranch you will ever buy? Part II

For a fraction of the cost of purchase, most ranches can make improvements that sometimes double their carrying capacity.

Jim Gerrish 1 | Aug 12, 2019

In Part 1 of this series, I made two fundamental assertions: The first was that time management of grazing period and recovery time is the primary determinant of pasture productivity. The second is that we should be assessing ranch output and profitability on a per-acre basis not on the per-animal basis commonly used in the ranching industry.

I ended that article with the observation that increasing pasture or range production by 40% would be more profitable than trying to increase individual animal productivity by 40%.

My 40% is not a magic number. It is simply the example I am using. I do that partly because of the commonly held idea that producing a 700-pound calf must be more profitable than raising a 500-pound calf. The other reason I am using 40% is because that is also a common level of increase in pasture productivity we see when ranchers implement management-intensive grazing (MiG).

MiG is the term I use to describe an approach to grazing management that is more intensive than the set-stocking or slow rotations common in the ranching industry. Our objective is to shorten the period of time any piece of pasture or rangeland is exposed to grazing animals. If we do this, the potential recovery period is always significantly extended. This is the key component of time management I have been referring to.

When we build subdivision fencing across the landscape of the ranch, we are not only subdividing space, we are also subdividing time.  Each time we make a smaller pasture increment, we reduce the amount of time the stock will be on that increment. That has a tremendous, and for some ranchers, an almost unbelievable change in the vigor and productivity of the pasture. With shortened grazing periods, we can more tightly control every aspect of the soil-plant-animal relationship. That is the component missing from almost all of the grazing management research of the last 100 years.

What is this management of time worth down on the ranch?

As mentioned above, the average increase in carrying capacity we see among our ranching clients adopting MiG and making investments in stock water development and subdivision fencing is about 40%. We have numerous clients who have doubled their carrying capacity. We have a few who have gotten less than 40%. All of this is the product of more effectively managing the period of time cattle are allowed to be in a particular area. On rangeland we usually work toward having that time period no more than 7-10 days. On productive pasture, we keep the length of the grazing period to no more than 3-4 days.

What does it cost to install all that fence, pipelines and tanks?

Every ranch is different, so of course the answer is that it depends! For example, is there already a good well on the property or do we need to drill a well? Is there already a pipeline network on the property that we can spur off of? Are there existing fences that are in reasonable locations that can be used in the new management scheme? These are the components that can make a difference. Here are examples from a couple of recent projects we have designed and which the ranchers implemented.

Jim GerrishA dozer pulling in water line.

Livestock water typically is the most limiting resource for managed grazing, but it is far cheaper than land.

Twice the ranch

On an 8,000-acre ranch in the Nebraska Sand Hills, we started a ranch that had 15-20 existing pastures with low-output windmills that allowed them to only carry 20-60 cows in each pasture. With a 7.5-mile pipeline project, 20 new stock tanks, and more than 20 miles of two-wire electrified high-tensile fencing, the ranch was split into about 60 permanent pastures with a stock-water supply system that allows 600-800 cows to be run in a single herd. The project cost was about $400,000 when we include the rancher’s labor contribution to the construction project. That is a big chunk of money, but on a per-acre basis it is only $50 per acre. In three years’ time, this ranch doubled its carrying capacity and the infrastructure investment was paid off in the third year.

That means they essentially bought another ranch for $50 per acre, while the cost to go out and actually purchase another ranch would have been $1,000 per acre, plus closing costs and added taxes.

Might double

Another recent project on a 30,000-acre ranch racked up an infrastructure development cost of about $1.1 million. That is a per-acre cost of about $36. Projecting a 40% increase in carrying capacity has the project paid off in year four. With a 40% increase in carrying capacity, the equivalent per acre purchase price is $90 per acre. I am confident this ranch will also experience a doubling of carrying capacity in 3-5 years, so the payoff rate should be accelerated. Why do I expect this ranch to double carrying capacity? Because the ranch is presently very under-supplied with stock water and much of the ranch is rarely even being grazed.

Remember the title on the article: “What is the cheapest ranch you will ever buy?”

It is the one you acquire by more effectively managing grazing and recovery time on the ranch you already own.

Read part one of this story here. Gerrish is internationally known grazier, grazing consultant and consultant. Find him at http://www.americangrazinglands.com.