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Intensive Grazing

This article was taken from "The New Farm", May/June 1991

Quadruple Your Stocking Rate

By David McIver
Farwell, MN – Fences have changed the face of our farm. Before we started subdividing our pastures 10 years ago, our herd ran about 90 cows. Now we carry 160 cows on the same land. If you increase your carrying capacity like that, you’re bound to keep more profit for yourself!

Salers Grazing
Salers pairs grazing...

We’ve found that high-tensile fencing is much less expensive to build and easier to maintain than barbed wire. It’s helped us take charge of our pastures and manage them the way we want to. As a result, our pasture forages are more productive, our stocking rates are higher and our farm stays greener during drought. Our bank account stays greener too.

Before subdividing, our stocking rate was about 1.5 to 1.75 acres per cow. Now, in some of our top pastures, we stock at about 0.4 acres per cow. Those improved pastures produce 700 to 800 pounds of beef per acre in an average season. And we wean some of our Salers x Hereford cross bulls at more than 800 pounds in 205 to 225 days on nothing but pasture.

If it weren’t for rotational grazing our farm would have looked like a desert during the ’88 drought. That year we had one 3-year-old, 11-acre alfalfa/fescue pasture near the house. From June to October it carried 18 yearling heifers, three 2-year-olds with their calves and a bull. All we did was use portable fencing so they grazed the pasture in 1-acre strips, moving the front and back fence every two or three days.

But beyond higher profits and stocking rates, high-tensile fencing has given us a whole new outlook on livestock. Not only has it made managing cattle easier, but fencing has actually gotten to be fun. I used to dread building and keeping up fences. Now it’s a pleasure to put half a mile of fence in. Sure, we spend more time moving cattle. But in the spring all we have to do is tighten up the fences with the ratchet tightener in the middle of each span and we’re in business. I don’t even carry pliers on my belt anymore.

You Control Stock

Cow Pasture
Cows on Pasture...

I farm about 530 acres in western Minnesota with my wife Maryln, and my son Scott. About 400 acres are considered tillable. But most years we only have a little more than 200 acres in annual crops – corn and oats. They’re in rotation with 120 or so acres of hay. We used to raise soybeans but with the dry cycle we’ve been in, we stopped growing them so we’d have more acres devoted to feed. Now we try to market everything we grow through the cattle.

All together we have about 180 acres of pasture. About 100 acres has always been permanent pasture. The other 80 acres we restored from cropland. Our pastures are mostly brome, fescue, orchard grass, bluegrass, redtop grass and canary grass, mixed with alfalfa and clovers. Sometimes we rent some small pastures from our neighbors, particularly if the weather is dry. Our 160-cow herd is mostly registered Herefords but we’ve started some crossbreeding with Salers. Salers are natural foragers and easy calvers that were originally bred to survive the rough, rocky terrain of central France. We sell both feeder cattle and breeding stock.

My grandfather started raising registered Shorthorns here in 1918. For about 60 years we rotated cattle between three large pastures. But by the late ‘70s our fences had really deteriorated. Our cattle were becoming outlaws and I realized a major overhaul was in order.

When I went to the co-op to pick up the barbed wire I had ordered I found out the price had jumped from $25 per roll to $45. I told them they could keep it. Luckily I discovered a high-tensile fence dealer nearby. When I found out that I could build high-tensile fence for half, or less, of the cost of barbed wire, I was sold.

We built our first new fences with fiberglass posts and three or four wires. But the fiberglass posts didn’t hold up as long as we liked. Now we use 5-foot-long, 2- by 2-inch eucalyptus posts imported from Australia. They cost about $3 to $4 each. The wood is so dense the posts sink in water and they’re supposed to last indefinitely. We never use four wires anymore. Three is plenty for cattle. You might want four wires if you are also running sheep, which we were doing when we started building new fences.

We grew into it a little at a time, subdividing a little more each year. Now we have 20 permanent paddocks and we subdivide those as needed with polywire and step-in posts. We also use portable fencing to control grazing on hayfields and cropland.

Controlling where livestock graze is especially important for us. With our registered cattle we can’t just let them all run together. During the breeding season we have as many as eight different groups to manage. This kind of fencing lets you control the stock. Three wires is enough to keep the bulls where you want them.

Rotational grazing management isn’t all that complicated. You need to depend on your own observations and use some common sense. We don’t like to leave cattle on the same grass any more than six days because they’ll start grazing regrowth. They’re never any trouble to move because they quickly learn that you’re going to take them where they’ll get something even better to eat. Then adequate pasture rest is the key. You can’t move them back on to that grass until it’s had time to recover.

We stock our improved pastures heavier and rotate them faster than our rougher pastures. That’s because it takes bluegrass and the other forages growing on the rougher ground longer to regrow, especially in summer. To help pastures bounce back faster we apply about two gallons of Grower’s 10-20-10 hydroponic mix per acre with a mist sprayer after we move the cattle off. We do the same thing to our hayfields after each cutting.

Ryegrass Secrets

Annual Ryegrass

In the fall we graze hayfields we’re going to tear up for crops the next spring. We also fall-graze tetraploid annual ryegrass that we seed with our oats. I think this practice is one of the best-kept secrets around. In ’89 we grazed 70 cow-calf pairs for five weeks on a 25-acre field seeded this way. We used polywire to ration it out to them a third at a time and let them graze it down to nothing.

We mix 15 to 20 pounds of annual ryegrass per acre right in the drill with about 3 bushels of oats per acre – our normal seeding rate. We spread some manure before planting and apply 2 to 3 gallons of the 10-20-10. In late July we harvest the oats for grain, mostly because we need some straw for calving. Because we’re busy with corn silage harvest we usually don’t get around to grazing the ryegrass until the end of September when it’s about eight to 10 inches tall. But you could probably start grazing it when it’s six inches tall and then graze the regrowth. Here in western Minnesota annual ryegrass stays green into early winter, then winterkills. But its residue and fibrous root system protect the soil quite well.

We also use annual ryegrass to repair weak spots in pastures and hayfields where alfalfa has winterkilled. We use an eight-foot-wide John Deere power-till seeder that we bought after the ’76 drought. It cuts right through the sod and gives good seed-to-soil contact. We’ll knock in about 15 pounds of annual ryegrass per acre and sometimes eight pounds of red clover and a little orchard grass. If we get it done in early spring and get some rain we’re back in business in six to eight weeks.

Labor-Saving Tips

We try to grow quality crops for winter feed and preserve that quality so that it’s comparable to the cattle grazing year-round. We used to put up our forage with stackers but we felt we were wasting a lot of feed that way. Now we use a Silopress bagger to fill “sausage bags” with silage and haylage. In addition to higher quality and less waste it helps us beat the weather because we can put up haylage at 65 percent moisture.

We let our calves, yearling heifers and first-calf heifers balance their own rations during the winter. We keep two sausage bags in their pen. One is filled with the high-energy corn silage. The other has high-protein alfalfa haylage or oat/pea haylage. We put up a high-tensile wire around the bag and move the strand at the open end of the bag back a little every day so they can reach under it and get to the feed. The cows don’t need to eat as well so we mix their ration and put it in feeders made from inside-out rear tractor tires. Scott likes the sausage-bag setup because it only takes him two hours a day to do all the winter feeding chores.

We’re always on the lookout for other ways to save on labor. Our success with high-tensile fence convinced me to become a dealer. One of the side benefits of being in the fence business has been the many grazing experts from New Zealand who have come to visit our farm and give us advice. They’ve got a lot more experience with pasture management down there and their fresh perspective has really helped us. For example, they point out that you don’t have to make all your fence corners square and all your pastures rectangular, just because that’s the way it’s always been done. They suggest you fence your pastures to follow the lay of the land and make your management easier.

One of the best tips we’ve picked up from the New Zealanders is a simple way of building fence corners. Following their advice we use just a single corner post now instead of the usual double-post “H” brace. To brace the single post we weld an old plowshare to a 9-foot piece of 1¼-inch well pipe. Scrap angle-iron from old windmills works well, too. We make a notch in the post with a chainsaw to hold the end of the pipe or angle iron and pound the plowshare end into the ground. This kind of corner is easier to build, uses fewer posts and less wire and it’s very close to being as strong as an “H” brace.

Ponds Beat Pipe

A creek runs right through the middle of our permanent pastures. So, getting water to our cattle was never a problem until we got into the current dry cycle. We can’t depend on the creek now. Before the ’88 drought we had three stock ponds. But it really messed up our pasture system making sure the cattle could get to them when the creek was dry.

To remedy the situation we excavated two additional stock ponds. I’d much rather build ponds than lay pipe. After SCS cost-share they only cost about $500 each. They’re fed by melt-water and springs and so far have been very reliable. We string a polywire over the pond to keep the cattle from wading out too far. And to make sure they don’t foul the water we lined the shallow area with fist-sized rocks. The rocks make their feet uncomfortable so they get in and out in a hurry.

You might have guessed by now that we’re very happy with our grazing system. We’re also glad that Scott likes the system. He went to school to study carpentry and worked for some builders back East for a couple of years. But now he’s back working on the farm and owns some of the cattle and equipment. He still gets a chance to put those carpentry skills to work, though. Last summer he built a 60- by 80-foot calving barn. Our other son, Tom, is a teacher who owns some of the cattle, too, and helps out when he can.

I really can’t understand why more people don’t rely on pasture. You drive around here and see a lot of ground that shouldn’t be cropped. And you see lots of calves cooped up in old buildings with all the flies and manure. You know they’d be better off if they were on pasture. And their owners would be better off, too.

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