One of the best educational conferences, Missouri Livestock Symposium, in the state of Missouri, with an outstanding lineup of speakers every year is free to attend and a free lunch sweetens the pot. But all that aside, it is an excellent opportunity for farmers/ranchers/beekeepers/horse owners/stock dog enthusiasts to learn, not only from ‘experts’ but mostly from each other. Like most industry, farmers learning and networking with other farmers often results in more improvement.
Of the many takeaways from the symposium was a brochure that hubby, Allen, picked up from the ATTRA-NCAT booth on “Building Healthy Pasture Soils.” While the bullet points they make have been known for millennia, it doesn’t hurt to revisit them to see if a return to the old ways will be profitable and regenerative for today’s farming. The answer is already a resounding ‘yes’ for the hand’s on land owner, but is debatable (short term anyway) for the renter or absentee land owner. As my son’s fiance pointed out, it takes at least 4 years of regenerative farming practices to turn that soil health around. Renters will not want to invest in a long term fertility strategy; absentee landowners are typically only interested in immediate returns in the form of annual cash rent.
Excerpt from article:
Strategies for Building Healthy Soils
Let’s consider the agricultural practices that help build healthy soil. In essence, we want to increase aggregation, contribute soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance. Sounds like a lot, right?
Well, not really, if we break them down into six basic principles. Let’s take a quick look at the principles that will define our soil management practices:
Minimizing tillage preserves soil structure, encourages aggregation, and keeps soil carbon in the soil profile where it belongs. Tillage brings a flush of oxygen into the soil that spurs microbes into a feeding frenzy on carbon molecules, resulting in CO2 release. We reduce tillage through the use of perennial pasture and minimum or no-till of cover crops.
Maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible feeds soil microorganisms all year.
Also, by maintaining living roots and leaving grazing residual, we are covering the soil all year, forming an “armor” to protect it from loss of moisture and nutrients.
Maintaining species diversity is achieved with cover crop mixes and the use of diverse perennial-pasture mixes. Try to incorporate warm- season and cool-season plants, both grasses and broadleaf plants, in the same fields.
Managing grazing is accomplished by planning for an appropriate grazing-recovery period on your paddocks, keeping in mind that plants need various recovery periods depending on the species, the time of year, and the soil moisture content. Overgrazing (not allowing adequate recovery) reduces root mass, photosynthesis, and the amount of carbon sequestered into the soil, decreasing soil life. Proper grazing builds soil.
Finally, utilizing animal impact and grazing impact provides nutrient cycling in pastures, and contributes to soil organic matter. Additionally, the grazing action on forage plants encourages root growth and root exudation of plant sugars that feed soil microorganisms.
For livestock producers, this boils down to a combination of perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation on annual fields, and good grazing management. These simple concepts are described by ranchers Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, and Neil Dennis in a short video on how grazing management and cover crops can regenerate soils. View the video Soil Carbon Cowboys to get their take on soil health practices.
Managing means planning AND implementing. All the planning in the world will not enact change or improvement; action and motivation drives profitability and regeneration. If you are not motivated, not able to get things done in a timely manner, then get someone to come alongside you and map out a plan – yet YOU are the one to ‘git ‘er done. Too many times, i see people with excellent plans stymied by their inability to get out of the chair and off the paper – i call that analysis paralysis. Don’t be a victim!
This week’s Classic by NatGLC is from Jim Gerrish. Jim will be speaking about Grazing Lands Economics at the National Grazing Lands Conference in Reno in December, so we thought you’d like to have an idea of what he might cover. Jim is one of over over 50 producers who will be part of the conference talking about innovative grazing management. We hope you’ll join us! Register before October 16 to get the reduced rate of $395, and bring a friend or spouse with you for just $175 more.
Hay feeding still ranks as one of the top costs of being in the cow-calf business in the U.S. The good news is we do see more and more livestock producers ‘Kicking the Hay Habit’ with each passing year. There is much more to kicking the habit than just deciding one day that you’re not going to feed any more hay. It usually takes several management changes to get there.
Here are what I am seeing as the top five moves for getting out of the hay feeding rut.
1. Have a plan for year-around grazing.
This doesn’t mean just hoping you have some grass left over in the fall to use during winter. It means making a critical evaluation of all of your forage resources and mapping out when they can be used most optimally. Develop a calendar of when your stock are going to have their highest and lowest demands. As an industry we have given a lot of lip service to matching forage and animal resources, but the majority of ranchers still do a pretty poor job of implementing a sound plan.
2. Change your calving season to a less demanding time of year.
It is much easier to graze a dry, pregnant cow through the winter than a lactating mama. For many of today’s moderate to high milk producing beef cows, daily forage demand at peak lactation is 50-80% higher than when she is at dry, pregnant maintenance. Late spring or early summer calving seasons work well in a lot of ranch country once you change your mind about a few things. I’ve met very few ranchers who switched to later calving who ever went back to winter calving.
3. Make sure your cattle match your environment and climatic conditions.
You really want your cattle to survive and thrive on the native resources of your ranch. The more petroleum and iron you put between the sun’s solar energy and your cow’s belly, the less profitable you are likely to be. Cattle should be able to earn their own living. You shouldn’t have to earn it for them. Consider every head of cattle on your place to be a ranch employee. Your primary job as manager is to create a working environment for your employees to do their job.
4. Manage all of your pasture and rangeland more intensively.
This does not mean graze it more intensively, this means manage it more intensively. If you do, you will get more forage production and greater carrying capacity from your land. Simply rationing out what you are already growing is one of the easiest places to pick up more grazing days from every acre. One of the strongest arguments I can make for Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) in the summertime is to create more winter pasture opportunities.
5. Change range use from summer grazing to winter grazing.
In most environments with degraded rangeland, switching to predominantly winter use is a great strategy for improving range condition. Many public lands offices are very willing to work with ranchers on this kind of positive change. We do see some agency offices and employees who drag their feet on making any kind of change, but most are willing to work with you if you have a grazing plan that will help them meet their conservation goals.
You may not need to make all these changes in your operation. It depends on where you are right now and where you want to end up being. While some operations go cold turkey and try to make the entire shift in a single year, it may be easier to make the transition over 3 or 4 years. You will take some learning and adjustments to get comfortable with the new approach. Your livestock will also need to adapt to the new management regime.
Most beef herds in the US and Canada are made up of cows that are too big and have too much milking ability to live within the resource capability of the land base. Winter grazing is a lot easier with the proper type of cow on your place. Making the switch in calving season might be as easy as just holding the bulls out for a couple extra months. Changing cow type to a more moderate framed and lower milk producing animal will take quite a bit longer.
The key point is to have a plan for making the transition with a clear target of where you want to go.
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible.
Jim Gerrish is the author of “Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming” and “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing” and is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. His company, American GrazingLands Services LLC is dedicated to improving the health and sustainable productivity of grazing lands around the world through the use of Management-intensive Grazing practices. They work with small farms, large ranches, government agencies and NGO’s to promote economically and environmentally sustainable grazing operations and believe healthy farms and ranches are the basis of healthy communities and healthy consumers. Visit their website to find out more about their consulting services and grazing management tools, including electric fencing, stock water systems, forage seed, and other management tools.
Enonkishu Conservancy, (Maa for ‘place of healthy cattle’) located in southwestern Kenya, is one of the newest Savory Hubs. Designed to demonstrate the attributes of managed grazing in a challenging environment and to encourage local community involvement. The young couple who have pulled this endeavor together to qualify as a Savory Hub and move forward with implementation have indeed set a challenging yet heartfelt mission before them.
Their stated mission:
Enonkishu Conservancy is committed to sustainable rangeland management that allows space and resources for all people, cattle, and wildlife. To achieve this it seeks a balance between conservation of the ecosystem and appropriate enterprise for the resident Maasai communities. Enonkishu is adopting a unique approach to conserving land by creating a viable livestock enterprise through a Holistic Management (HM) Approach. Through HM, Enonkishu intends to improve productivity of the livestock in the region, improve livelihoods and maintain heritage.”
The desire to improve the land, livestock, and wildlife is admirable, but no more so than the commitment to lift up the lives of the local people by finding ways for more children to seek formal education and to put more dollars in the pockets of families.
‘Regenerative’ is the new buzzword and thinking to replace ‘sustainable.’ I think it’s a good change. Why sustain something that is in decline or degraded? Regeneration of poor soils is tantamount to improved lives. From the dust of the earth was man created -Genesis 2:7.
However, offering and encouraging education in holistic management or any other ideology must be introduced with gentleness and respect into a culture and society which may push back with decades of ingrained practices and customs. Even in our rural county in Missouri, USA with one of the premier managed-grazing schools at our fingertips, there is little adoption of the regenerative practices. To form a cooperative of producers willing to allow their comingled cow herds to be managed as one mob by someone else on comingled land would not even be considered. Yet this is the simplified explanation of one component of what is happening with Enonkishu Conservancy and the Mara Training Centre. With any new organisation, family or business, there are growing and learning pains. Rookie mistakes, which should be avoided by heeding advice from those who have already made them, creep into any undertaking. One of the key elements of Allan Savory’s management courses is defining goals and testing objectives. Good, basic advice for anyone at any point in their lives.
Admittedly, i’m glad i don’t have to manage the massive number of mega wildlife that Lippa and Tarquin do – no worries about lions, leopards, elephants, zebras here in north Missouri. Wow!
We learnt so much on this wonderful expedition – not only did we meet great travel mates, hosts, servers, and leaders, but we enjoyed safari and game drives, superb meals prepared by Chef Purity and graciously served by Godfrey, guides who surely have no equal, and opportunities to enjoy local life. More on all that in future entries.
Across our expansive lawn, Dallas relaxes on one of the swinging beds overlooking the Mara River, which was often visited by trumpeting hippos!
Two hours on that sort of gravel road was the last of our five hour drive from Nairobi to House In the Wild. I’ll not complain about gravel roads in Jackson Township, Linn County, Missouri, USA again!
Even though the soil is much better covered on the Enonkishu Conservancy, despite the massive amounts of wildlife (which continues to increase because of better forage), there is much work to be done. My observations are that the cows are the forward grazers and receive the more mature grasses. This, of course, challenges them to maintain body condition. I don’t know what the conception rates are. I asked about how the wildlife are managed and the comments was that oddly, the wildlife seems to follow the cattle. This is no mystery as to why they do this! The wildlife are getting that coveted second bite, the one that shouldn’t be taken until the grass has had adequate rest. This is one point that many graziers differ with Allan Savory’s grazing management. He says that the amount of time grazing is the most important, whereas many of us believe the amount of time rested is most important. The key is to move the stock before the blades can be grazed too short- often this is one bite, then move on. However, time grazing and time resting will vary with seasons and weather conditions. For example, in my operation in a typical fast growing cool season forages spring, the cows will be in a paddock no more than three days, then that paddock should rest at least 30 days. However, if the rains don’t come, this rest period could easily extend to 60 or 90 days. This would require longer stays in paddocks and possible herd reduction.
Anyway, my point is that the wildlife on Enonkishu are fat grazing the creme of the grass crop and quite likely slowing down the regenerative process. However, tourism is a huge part of the income and goals, so this must be taken into consideration and balance.
The boma is a mainstay amongst cattlemen and shepherds in conservancies of southwestern Kenya. Stock must be corralled each night for protection from serious predators like lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and other wildlife which like beef as much as we do. Bomas are designed to be easily set up and taken down and the overnight dunging by mobbed stock can improve soil structure and productivity very quickly IF the area is allowed to rest for along time after use.
The Enonkishu Conservancy as a new Savory Hub is doing a smart, yet difficult thing. Mistakes in management have been made and I hope that leaders will continue learning and talking to people who are not only ‘experts’ but also producers, those of us who put these ideas to practice. We’ve already made the mistakes and most are glad to share our failures and successes.
Today’s (June 19) chores were frustrating and exhausting – hopefully, i won’t vent too much, but instead methodically record what happened and what decisions to make based on the mishaps. However, the first of the morning was spent walking in 3 Angus heifers to attach Estrotect patches in preparation for AI (artificial insemination) over the next weeks followed by spraying off 30 gallons of Surmount chemical mix on woody brush at my farm. Started about 5:30 am.
This late spring I started letting my cows graze the new seeding implemented last fall. It’s been super, super dry (until today! already 8/10s of an inch and still gently raining), so using a back fence was not important since the grass wasn’t trying to grow back after grazing because of the heat and dry.
Nevertheless, I’ve been stripping off sections of about 2 days grazing each – no where near what could be considered mob grazing, but i’ve already decided that is a practice which simply won’t work for me. I had already set up 2 temporary fences of polybraid of about 1/4 mile each. Anyone who has done this realizes that that 1/4 mile of walking turns into at least a mile by the time the poly is unrolled, then walk back to get posts, then set up posts along the poly and hook the handle into a hot (electrified) lead.
When i arrived this morning, the cows had blasted through both of them!! I was not a happy camper to say the least. Thankfully, i had brought along another 1/4 mile roll of poly braid and I pushed the cows sort of back where they belong and i unrolled this tape. The grass and weeds were tall, so it just sort of laid on top and looked like a fence the cows didn’t want to bother. Testing the lead, i found that there was no electricity. Ah ha! all the polybraids were ‘dead’ and with baby calves running around, it didn’t take long for them to run through with mommas right behind.
But why was the fence dead?
I had spent some time at that very spot repairing some wire and gate just 24 hours before. Why did the tree not fall while i was there? Only by the grace of God. Not only that, but my spinning jenny was unharmed and the end post was still in place! Only one gate handle and the top hi-tensile wire was busted. Easily repaired that. Plus, the tree fell in such fashion that i didn’t even have to move it or cut it up. (thank goodness because i didn’t have my chainsaw on this trip). I simply repaired around it. It will have to be removed when i have time.
But this also is a prime illustration as to why forests, timbers, draws, need managing! Treehuggers take me to task for removing mature and junk trees. But without management, trees can become diseased, can’t compete for sunlight and nutrients so they can die and are a major hazard.
Anyway, back to my morning winding up. Once all was said and done, i’d walked at least 5 miles in tall forage, scratched through dense brush, and crawled in and out of deep ditches to retrieve all my temporary fencing and posts, finishing the morning installing a new rain gauge, checking my replacement heifers, and resetting an end post.
Dragging back to the seed plant, refueling the JD Gator and using forced air spraying out the seed heads from the grill (this must be done to keep the Gator from overheating), unloading the reels of polybraid and a bunch of posts. I forgot to take water with me and by noon (got home), i had lost 4.2 lbs. Goodness, that is 1/2 gallon of water sweated out!
This was another reminder of why mob grazing with multiple shifts per day will not fit with my schedule and quality of lifestyle. It’s just too stinking much work – i sold off the sheep to get away from so much exhausting work. With tall grass (not complaining), deep ditches, long stretches of temporary fencing, dense brush, and baby calves not trained to electric braid, there are simply too many bugaboos to make this a happy time. The mob currently has about 20 acres to relax and graze. It is what it is – i do the best i can.
Another super helpful article with great ideas from On Pasture. My ongoing logging activity has yielded far greater returns than expected since my logger has found buyers for specialty logs which resulted in more money for both of us! Plus helped the specialty buyers keep their mills going. Although my logger can remove and use some of the trees for firewood, there is still a massive amount of firewood type logs which will be burned up if i can’t find someone who needs firewood to come in and cut it up and haul it off. Seems like a waste, but there is not much use for firewood quality logs anymore. (and these are already safely on the ground!)
One of the things that really impressed me (Kathy) on my April visit to Greg Judy’s place in Missouri is the thoughtful way he turns forested areas into silvopastures. In addition to creating great pasture, he turns trees into money by selling it as timber, and uses left over limbs to grow another enterprise – shitake mushrooms. I think other On Pasture readers could do the same. So with this week’s Classic by NatGLC, here is Brett Chedzoy with suggestions for getting started at your place.
Throughout most humid regions of the US, the landscape is dotted with old farm fields and pastures that today grow trees and shrubs. In some cases, there are obvious reasons why land was left to revert back to its natural state – too wet, stony or steep. But many of these old field sites also grew back because the farmer no longer had the means or needs to keep the land open. Regardless of the underlying reasons, many of these what now appear to be woodlots (or brushlots, if that’s the image that comes to mind) present ripe opportunity for productive and profitable grazing system expansion – especially when adjacent to existing pasture land, or available in large enough blocks to support a viable grazing operation.
There are many variables to consider when evaluating the potential of bringing idle land back into production for grazing. For starters, the land must be accessible and “fenceable”, have a developable source of water, and be potentially productive enough to offset the necessary investments. If you can’t check “yes” to these questions and there isn’t a reasonable fix, then look elsewhere for the time being. The next step is to come up with a (simple) plan for what will be done, who will do it, and when. Making sure there’s a good “why” is also a recommended part of this planning. In other words, will it pencil out and contribute to your objectives?
The following are some of the important considerations for reclaiming former farmland:
Are there trees and shrubs worth leaving?
If so, then developing into a silvopasture (openly-wooded) pasture may be the best option because quality trees can cultivated as a future cash crop while at the same time provide shade, browse, watershed protection and many other benefits. And if grazing is the objective, why spend money clearing trees today that will yield profits tomorrow?
How many trees should be left?
Silvopastures, like many things in life, are all about balance. From a forestry perspective, favor trees of good value, vigor and quality that will continue to significantly appreciate in value. Trees that are of firewood quality today – and will only probably become larger firewood trees in the future would be good candidates for culling, unless there is some other justification for leaving them. Some examples would be unusual species, or trees with special wildlife value like a nesting cavity or den. Silvopastures vs. woodlots can be thought of as a choice between growing the best trees on a given location together with either forage (in the case of silvopastures) or firewood (in the case of woodlots). For silvopastures, the firewood-quality trees are removed to reapportion sunlight to the ground level to grow quality forage plants. Getting enough sunlight on the ground is a critical step in silvopasture development, so avoid leaving too many “good trees”. Consulting foresters can provide invaluable expertise when contemplating an extensive woodlot thinning.
What about all that other green stuff?
Trees intercept some of the precious sunlight needed to grow forages in the silvopasture understory – but so do all of the other plants and shrubs already growing there. Some of these plants and shrubs may be quality food sources or enhance the silvopasture in other ways. Others, however, may detract from the silvopasture because they are unpalatable, potentially harmful, or too aggressive in their growth habit such as the so-called “forest invasive plants” like multiflora rose (although there are also many native plants that can be problematic like some species of ferns). The “low shade” from the shrub & herbaceous layer is often more of an impediment to growing quality forages than the “high shade” of the main canopy trees. And unlike the culled trees that can often be utilized for things like firewood or sawtimber, these smaller plants are usually costly to control. Mechanical, chemical and organic methods such as burning, shading (solarization) and livestock impacts (trampling, girdling, defoliating and rooting) are all options to consider for removing the lower interfering vegetation. Usually, a combination of these methods will give the best results.
Heavy livestock can be baited into persistent patches of undesirable brush to damage and weaken the targeted plants over time, as well as to stimulate the growth of forage plants in the decomposed waste hay. In the examples below, a round bale was fed in a clump of multiflora rose, leaving the canes heavily damaged afterwards. Mineral feeders and supplement tubs can also work to lure animals into brushy and weedy areas.
So, I got enough sunlight on the ground – now what?
Daylighting the ground is the starting, not the ending point towards establishing quality silvopastures. The next two steps are to create favorable conditions for desirable plants to germinate, and then manage in a way that promotes their growth – while discouraging the growth of the undesirables. Germination requires a seed source and good seed-soil contact. Wooded areas surrounded by fields and pastures – or where there is still a remnant of forage plants – usually have a sufficient seed bank to spare the expense of supplemental seeding. Once a variety of herbaceous and woody plants start to grow in the increased sunlight levels, skilled management will be necessary to shift the composition to primarily desirable species. When open pastures become too weedy, they can be mowed, sprayed or even reseeded. Silvopastures, on the other hand, have lots of obstacles in the way that limit these options – so intensively-managed livestock impact is about the only practical tool to manage vegetation. Desirable impact with livestock can be achieved in different ways. Some examples are: rooting by pigs; bark girdling and defoliation with small ruminants, or trampling and crushing with heavy livestock that are grazed at very high densities or which are baited into brushy areas during winter feeding. Each of these has its pros and cons, but managed correctly could be an effective way to increasingly improve understory vegetation composition – without unduly compromising animal performance, welfare, tree health and other resources.
There’s a learning curve involved with developing idle land into successful silvopasture systems, so start small and experiment when possible. Resources and advice from fellow practitioners is available at Cornell’s silvopasture forum: www.silvopasture.ning.com
Brett Chedzoy is a regional extension forester for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schuyler County, and in his spare time manages his family’s 450-acre grazing operation, Angus Glen Farms, LLC in Watkins Glen, NY.
Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible.
The 7th National Grazing Lands Conference is coming up in December and it’s one of On Pasture’s favorites. One of the things that makes it so great is that folks just like you are the speakers, sharing their great experiences. Learn more about the event here. On Pasture will be there. Come see us!