The cold weather has kept the stream temperatures down so my trout fishing hasn’t been very good. Not one to waste any time though, I’m trying to cut and split some firewood to get ahead of the curve. Working out by my pasture, I get to see the slow changes in the green up of the vegetation. I see the brown dormant grasses slowly turning green, and young clover plants coming to life. As a grazing specialist, this gets me psyched up! I see the leaves of the grass plant reaching out and grabbing all that sunlight; photosynthesis underway.
For grazing farmers who raise beef and dairy cows, it’s a good sign. Soon grazing season will be here and the cows will be going out to pasture! The cows are happy. They get out of the barn and out on green grass. The farmer is even happier. The animals get to go outside, barn chores are reduced, manure is getting spread by the cows instead of the spreader and feed is not being hauled into the barn; freedom of a sort. Now it’s time for field chores!
Over the last 25 years grazing management has taken hold in this area. Numerous dairy and beef operations have discovered rotational grazing management as a way to raise their animals. Rotational grazing is not just opening the barn door and letting the cows run rampant on a large pasture field and selecting what they want and leaving the rest. Rotational grazing is an organized system where animals are moved to a new small pasture, called a paddock on a daily basis.
Grasses are grazed when they reach a height of about 8 inches and grazed down to about 4 inches in height. The 4 inches that are fed are of a high quality, and the remaining 4 inches of leaf, are long enough to allow the solar collecting leaves to capture the sun’s energy and turn it into chemical energy. This allows the plant to grow and thrive, in addition to storing energy in the roots. If the plant is grazed too low, the leaf is very small, and photosynthesis takes much longer. The growing point for the plant must start from the base of the plant and energy is taken from the roots robbing the plant of energy and increasing the time it takes to get the leaf growth back to 8 inches. The species of grasses growing in the pasture can actually be manipulated by grazing management. When you graze close to the ground, tight like horses do, this leads to more bluegrass, and less pasture tonnage production per acre. If you allow more time between grazing cycles and maintain a proper grazing height of 4 inches or more, you can have clover and orchard grass, and other species, which favor a longer rest period. With intensive management, overall pasture tonnage is increased meaning less pasture acres are needed. This means there could be more acreage available for other crops, like hay, annual crops such as corn or even grains. I would recommend having additional hay acres available. The finicky way the weather is acting now days, you may need the additional hay acres for grazing when things get dry, or to feed out to supplement the dry pasture times. Worst case would be that you have additional hay acres and that has never been a problem for a farmer. Having surplus hay for sale is always good!
By moving dairy cows daily, the bovines get fresh actively growing grass and clovers in their diet. The high protein feed from pasture along with hay and grain fed in the barn makes a balanced ration that helps keep milk production costs down. Beef operations depending on the level of management intensity, may move the cows every day or up to every 2 or 3 days. The overall goal of rotational grazing management is to get quality feed to help the young growing animals gain about 2 lbs. per day if the pasture is managed properly.
Quality feed gets quality animals, and animal products such as milk and meat.
Other benefits to the farmer include:
• Nutrient rich manure is spread directly on actively growing grass by the best possible means; direct deposit! This reduces labor costs.
• Fuel costs associated with manure spreading and barn cleaning are reduced.
• Electricity costs associated with barn and gutter cleaning are lessened.
In many cases milk production increases depending on the quality of stored feed. In other cases milk production may drop, but overall profitability increases, depending on management.
For the average Joe or Jane trying to make a living, there are numerous benefits. Some of these include reduced nutrient runoff and less soil erosion. The soil is protected by a permanent sod cover, and the stream banks get fenced out protecting aquatic areas. Wildlife habitat is also created and/or improved.
Overall soil quality improves and carbon is stored due to the increasing organic matter buildup in the soils. The infiltration rate of the soil, due to improved soil structure is increased. So during a rainstorm there tends to be less runoff and more infiltration and water storage in the organic matter.
The consumer benefits too! Grazing beef farms along with Community Supported Agriculture enterprises (CSA’s) are increasing in our area. This means the consumer has a choice of purchasing grass-fed beef and locally grown vegetables, fruits, jams, and other farm fresh, locally grown products. All of these products are available to you from a farm stand owned by a family farm in our community.
As citizens and consumers, we should be encouraging our schools to buy local agricultural products so our kids get quality, locally grown foods. We need to teach our children about local agriculture and its importance in our area. Milk doesn’t just come from the store, and meat is from a beef cow, not the deli department.
So the next time you are driving down the road and see some dairy cows on pasture grazing, remember they are Girls on Grass! They are making milk from quality feed gathered from the nutrients of the soil and the energy of the sun.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.