More than 25 years ago I was involved in the effort to promote grazing management. During the early years, grassland management for feeding beef or dairy cows was not promoted by the agricultural universities, or most of the conservation agencies at the federal, state or local levels.
Pasture was old style farming and the Ag. Professors were pushing the new and improved model of farming. Universities utilized grant money from chemical and fertilizer companies to do studies, so they towed the company mantra of bigger is better, get big or get out, keep the cows in the barn, and use our latest new and improved product to improve your bottom line, which was really the salesman’s and the company’s bottom line. The times haven’t changed for many products!
The times have changed for pasture though. Here it is, 25 years later and grazing management has been accepted by many farmers to improve their bottom line. Grazing grass reduces manure handling costs and energy costs, improves soil health and herd health by getting the cows out of the barn and on grass pastures where nature intended them to be in the first place.
I recently attended two grazing meetings, one in Essex County, NY and the other in Wells, Vermont. At both meetings, grassland production was based on quality soils and the benefit of having abundant organic matter to supply nutrients and energy to growing plants.
Grazing consultants, including myself, have a variety of options on how to graze.
For reseeding and establishing clover, there are times when nubbing the grass down to the dirt and drilling or spreading clover or perennial ryegrass seed works. Letting the cows push the seed and organic matter into the soil with their hoofs gets the job done. Drilling into sod works also, BUT, it must be done when the grasses are nubbed down, and there is plenty of moisture to allow the young plants to get established. If the grasses get too high, they will shade out the clovers that are trying to grow.
Traditional grass management is to graze when the grass was about 9 inches high and down to 4 or 5 inches to get the fresh growing high protein feed. Basically it was a take half, leave half approach. This allowed the high protein grasses to be grazed, and enough leaf left for photosynthesis.
High grass grazing is now being looked at as another option. High grass grazing is letting the grass get even higher, to maybe 20 inches and just taking the top third of the plant. The actual height will depend on the species of plant growing. REGROWTH TIME is critical to allow the leaves to grow as high as possible without the plant going to seed head stage, and to allow the roots to grow deeper and build organic matter. By grazing the top 1.3 of the plant, the cow gets the “cream” off the top. The remaining plant is left or trampled until the next time the cows rotate through the paddock. The benefits are that some organic matter is pushed into the ground by the cows hooves slowly building up the soil, the leaves that are left are longer so the plant grows faster due to increase photosynthesis of the plant leaf and the cows get the high energy or cream off the top of the plant for their use. The long grass residue left protects the soil from drying out and keeps the soil microbes happy so they do their thing breaking down organic matter and releasing nutrients to the grass plants.
For beef operations, I feel the high grass grazing approach is fine, but I am not sold 100 percent yet on how dairy cow milk production would be on higher grazed grasses. The farmer would have to do a comparison and see what happens in the bulk tank to know the truth. That would be an easy test to perform on the farm.
Another added benefit that is a marketing plus for grassland agriculture in general is that organic matter stores carbon. By building up your soils, you are storing carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It was said that if agriculture went with more perennial species like grass there would be a great reduction in atmospheric carbon.
It will be the farmers who will save the world, not the politicians!
Agriculture is booming in our area. Grass fed beef is making great strides lately as a better and healthier food for the consumer. The growth of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, grass fed beef and vegetable operations; many driven by some of today’s younger generation are pushing the envelope on new and different products for the consumer. High tunnels, irrigation and specialty crops are growing throughout the nation.
There are about 14 of us grazing people out there that are involved in a Holistic Grazing Management program where we are constantly learning about grassland management for wildlife, beef and dairy cow grazing, organic matter buildup and carbon sequestration.
It’s all about the ecology of grasslands and cattle. You must learn to look at the whole thing and understand how it works; not just looking at a piece of the ecology pie! I will try to keep you all informed as we all learn.
We all must keep learning until the day we die. We will probably learn something then, when we step across that threshold! But I am in no hurry!
I would like to thank Ed Schillawski of the Seedway Company for their donation. A special thank you to both the Lincoln and Larson families for taking the time out of their busy day to share their farm experiences with all of the tour folks. Thank You to Ian Mitchell Innes from South Africa for a great presentation on mob stocking and to Jenn Colby of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.