Building Soil With “Wasted” Grass
By Greg Judy
This year by concentrating on combining our cow herds into one large herd we have built a very nice recovery period into our Holistic Planned Grazing. Now we are starting to see the huge dividends from this management decision. We are presently on a 150-day recovery period from the previous grazing. I will admit that I had nightmares about several issues before taking the plunge, such as:
1. What about those awful seedheads?
2. How would I ever get the cows to eat the rank over mature forage?
3. Wouldn’t the pinkeye problems be rampant with all those tall rank plants with seed heads?
4. What about maintaining good animal performance on rank over mature forage?
Well our actual real life grazing results have been an eye opening experience for us. Before I discuss each nightmare result listed above I want to cover the type of cattle that we are using.
Our mob is made up of June calving and fall calving South Poll owned cows. The South Poll is a red hided animal that was developed by Teddy Gentry of Fort Payne, Alabama. It is very hardy on grass only grazing systems. These cows have done nothing but excel in Missouri heat and humidity plus handle our winters very well. They are a four-way cross consisting of Red Angus, Senepol, Barzona and Hereford. They are very slick hided, which makes them excel in heat, but they do grow a nice winter hair coat for Missouri winters.
Our goal is to get everything calving in June because we can get our cows in a body condition score of 6.5 by the time they calve. This is critical for a quick high percentage breed back after calving. Dick Diven has done a lot of research showing the importance of cows calving with a 6.5 body condition score and a tremendous breed back is the result. In central Missouri it is tough to put a lot of weight on a pregnant cow coming out of winter with April grass. The grass in this time period is so high in protein that the cows have a hard time keeping on weight, let alone putting on weight. The May grass is a different story: the weight just piles on them.
Let’s get back to my nightmares! Since switching to Holistic High Density Planned Grazing several years ago our rest periods have tripled over our previous grazing system. By moving the mob 1-2 times per day depending on the growing season and moisture conditions we are always keeping the cows in fresh recovered pasture strips. We are 100% focused on animal performance mode, getting as much quality grass through our cows daily as possible. Our cows do eat some of the seed heads, but most of them get trampled as the cows are ripping off the long succulent leaves down in the dense canopy.
As far as getting them to eat rank forage, we do not have to force our cows to do that. Our recovered pastures now have so many different plant species growing that there is always something tender and growing down in the mature grass sward. As the cows seek out these tender palatable plants they trample the ranker forage on the ground. The pinkeye issue has not been an issue at all this year, knock on wood. We have not had one case of pinkeye in the entire mob. This is probably the most amazing statistic for me. We always in the past have had some pinkeye in a few calves.
The biggest reason we have not had any pinkeye this year I believe is because we have been focusing more this year on high animal performance, thanks to Ian Mitchell Innes’s constant comments on the importance of focusing on animal performance. We watch at 60 days before calving up until the time we take out our bulls after our cows are bred. Ian has convinced me that any health issue that shows up in an animal is a symptom of stress that the animal was subjected to 60 days or more prior to the event. After zero health problem issues, I am sold on the importance of animal performance. 70% of the unborn calf is developed inside the cow in the last 60 days. That trumps the importance of animal performance during this time period. So if a calf gets scours, pinkeye, or any health issue it is probably because you shorted the cow on quality forage during that time period. If a cow does not get everything that she needs everyday, how can she pass on the priceless antibodies in her milk to her calf? She cannot, so the calf may have health issues.
With the help of the free solar energy and a long recovery period we are building soil like never before. Our pastures have tons of litter trampled on them daily with the mob movement. It still amazes me the amount of forage they can trample in 12 hours. We had a farm tour the 13th of June on our farms where we had about 85 Midwestern cattleman show up. One of our farms that we toured that afternoon had not been grazed since March. When I told the group that this farm had never been limed or fertilized in the last 75 years, I had some looks of doubt on some of their faces.
The history of this 160-acre farm was that it had been continuously grazed and hayed. The whole farm had 12 cows and a bull on it right before I leased it. You could hit a golf ball at any point on the farm and have no problem finding it. A lot of the hills had moss, broomsedge and cedars covering them. We cut the cedars and started increasing our animal density with long recovery periods. The comment that I heard from several of our tour group attendees was that “This grass is too good to graze: you should be cutting it for hay!” I about choked. I quickly recovered from my choking condition and proceeded to tell them that this farm would never see a baler on it as long as I was alive!
I purposely took the tour group out into the middle of the field so that they could see first hand how thick, diverse and lush the forage was. Several people were sweating and gasping for breath when I finally stopped in the middle of the field. The grass/legume pasture was so thick that people were having trouble walking through it, myself included! This farm had seen two years of high density grazing with recovery periods that allowed the plants to fully mature before being grazed again. No seeding was done, yet there were all sorts of grasses and legumes growing profusely.
There was one grass variety that formed a clump of rich dark green blades that no one in the group had ever seen before, including me! This farm still had 21 days before it would see our mob, which would give it a 125 days since it was grazed last. Several people in the tour group asked me, “Well aren’t the cattle going to waste a lot of this forage if you try and graze it first”. First I responded that nothing in high density grazing is wasted if it is trampled on the ground by ruminating animals. We are feeding our soil microbes, earthworms, laying down ground surface litter, building soil, increasing organic matter, preventing erosion, holding water where it falls and providing bird nesting habitat! Do any of those items that I just mentioned sound like waste to you?
I bent down on my knees in front of the group and pulled back the 2 foot tall forest of grass and exposed the ground surface. All you could see was a chopped up layer of dead plants covering the soil surface. One fellow took out his pocketknife and cut a wedge out of the moist soil surface. There were 2 worms in the tiny 4” wedge of soil. A lot of people walked out of that field in disbelief as to what they had seen. No fertilizer and no inputs other than good management with high density and long recovery periods between grazing.
On July 4th, we walked the mob two miles down public roads to this farm. I still could not tell any difference visually in the quality of the grass since June 13th. The sward was only taller, thicker, with much more mass. The cattle were grazed on 12-hour moves at 75,000 to 150,000 lbs per acre depending on the slope and terrain. I could not believe what was happening with the mob. They were absolutely doing exactly what I hoped they would do. They were eating the very best and in the process they were trampling about 70 percent of it. Man were they “wasting” forage and I was so proud of them. Good job cows. The cows were all fat and happy, the field looked like you had taken an asphalt roller to it. You could count the few lucky weeds on one hand that survived getting knocked over.
Folks this was not at ½ million pounds stocking density, 75,000 lbs was what we were using where the grass was the thickest. They still trampled all the grass on the ground, covered with a slurry of manure over the top of it. We had another farm tour two weeks after giving this area the mob treatment. The whole field looked like you had covered it with dry grass/legume hay. You could reach down and pull up the dead decaying grass layer and the ground was just perfect underneath the trampled sward. There were visual sighting of earthworms everywhere feeding on the manure slurry trampled dead grass. The legumes were exploding up through the “wasted” dead grass with only two weeks rest.
Strong new plants with multiple leaves were everywhere you looked. The tour group could not believe that I had removed the cows from each daily strip with so much quality forage trampled on the ground. Most of their comments were “Heck I would have left those cows on those daily strips an extra day and made them clean it up better, rather than letting it go to waste on the ground.” There is that “waste” word again describing grass trampled on the ground.
People have a real hang-up seeing lot’s of grass trampled on the ground. This is our no-cost fertilizer program for our pastures that allows us to grow more forage each year than the previous year. I’ve never seen a pasture grow back any faster than that one did, where we let the cows “waste” the grass! After four weeks of rest, we went back out to the same paddock with a video camera to shoot some film of the area.
The grass was up 12 inches high with clovers evenly dispersed in the canopy. The individual leaves of the plants were the darkest lush green that I had ever seen. The thick litter was neatly placed between the plants holding in moisture and feeding the soil microbes. I bent down and pulled back the dead moist 2” layer of litter on the ground. Immediately I noticed earthworms, centipedes, big black beetles, grubs, monster ant looking things with wings, caterpillars, several different species of hard shelled worms, and much more wildlife that I can describe.
There were earthworm castings everywhere on the surface of the ground, resembling a worm bed farm! It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. This was the middle of August. You normally do not see earthworms on the surface of the ground in Missouri during this time period. The soil surface had holes of all different diameters going down into the soil everywhere. It looked like a freeway of bugs had been using this area for sometime. It did not matter where I walked in the huge field, there was the same wildlife activity taking place on the soil surface.
I cut a wedge of soil out of the ground surface with my pocket knife and held it to my nose. It had a very rich earthly smell that went on forever! I literally could have spent the whole evening on that one field just walking around pulling back the blanket of dead moist litter and watching the magnificent soil builders work: what a pleasure it was. Folks, we don’t have another grazing planning system on the face of the earth that can build so much soil with no purchased inputs. With all farm purchased inputs skyrocketing out of control it sure is a nice position to be in, having all this free forage grown with “wasted” grass! It sure gives you a feeling of being in control of your financial grazing future.
Since switching to Holistic High Density Planned Grazing we have reduced our work load by 2/3rds. We have increased our recovery periods by 300% and increased our animal impact by 300%. We actually took a two week vacation this year out to Utah during the spring rush of grass. Our cattle did fine with our hired part-time high school boy managing our operation while we were gone. We realized how important it is to get away and folks we really need to do it!
We came back so rejuvenated and fresh, that we started looking at things differently as well. We have decided to help our 17 year old hired boy get started in the ownership of cattle and let him run his cows with ours. We do not want him to feel like an employee, but a partner in our business. He is so excited about owning his own cattle that he can hardly contain himself! This kid is very eager in wanting to learn everything he can about Holistic Grazing practices. We are more than happy to have someone that wants to learn sustainable grazing practices that will help them in building their future as well. It is a wonderful feeling to have someone that we can trust to manage our operation. You cannot put a price on peace of mind, not worrying about things while you are gone from your operation. Thanks to Holistic Management our daily lives just keep getting better and more enjoyable each day.