Starting in the spring of 2009 we made the decision to grass finish our coming two year old steers in our cow mob. Before I go forward discussing the results I want to give the history of our beef herd. We started with 22 cow/calf South Poll pairs in 2003. South Poll breed is a four way cross consisting of Red Angus, Hereford, Barzona and Senepol. They are extremely grass efficient, heat tolerant, docile, red hided and fertile. We have built the herd to around 300 head.
From the very start we have been focused on culling any animal that could not thrive on grass alone. We calve in May and winter the calves on the cows. The best heifers are kept and put in the cow herd, the steers are finished on grass. Our past management practice with finishing the coming two year old steers has been to take them out of the herd right when the spring flush started. This was done April 1st at the age of 22 months. They would usually be finished and ready to butcher by 24 to 30 months old.
We would give the steers large paddocks that were mixed with a diversity of grass and clover. The steers never grazed anything but the top portion of the plants. They grazed the very best and we moved them. They gained very well with this practice, but it did require extra management. It gave us two herds to manage. The cow herd and the finishing herd. Two water tanks to check, two mineral feeders to move, two herds to move, two herds to walk down the road to the next set of farms .
The most troubling item was that we were grazing two different pastures on our operation at the same time. We typically followed the finishing herd with the cow mob. In 2008 Ian Mitchell Innes made the comment at our fall mob grazing school that we should be finishing the beeves in the mob. I immediately commented that this would never work. The steers would be too limited on selection and their weight gain would suffer. His reply was that if we focused on the animal performance of the steers as the highest nutrient requirement animal in the mob that they would finish fine.
I basically let Ian’s comments go in one ear and out the other. He commented that in nature the yearling animals do not go graze as a separate herd , they would get eaten by predators. It all comes down to focusing on selection for the highest nutrient requirement animal. Ian went on to say that in South Africa he was finishing his beeves in the mob and had been for years. He also said that our herd density would be increased with the extra grass finishers in the mob. We would not have them eating at two separate spots on our farm at the same time.
Now he was getting to me and I will be honest, it bothered the heck out of me having two herds. Ian commented that our forages were now good enough that we should have no problem doing the same as he was in South Africa. Well over the winter it kept eating at me what he said about finishing them in the mob. So in the spring of 2009 we left the grass finishers in the cow mob. We had yearlings, coming two year old grass finishers, cow/calf pairs all in one mob.
At our 2009 June South Poll field day that we hosted at Judy farms I made the announcement that we were finishing our beeves in the mob. Allen Williams was in the crowd that day and later that summer he told me he thought we would have a wreck when he heard me make that announcement. In August, Allen came up with a group of Holistic Mexican ranchers for a farm tour of our operations. These ranchers were some of the best cattleman I have ever met. They were very well educated in Holistic Management and all aspects of ranching.
At one of the stopping points of the farm tour, we walked out to the mob to give them their twice daily move. The mob moved into the fresh paddock and started grazing the lush freshly recovered sward of forage. As we started walking through the cattle, Allen’s jaw dropped opened and he exclaimed, “I cannot believe my eyes, you are finishing those beeves in the mob and man they look good.”
The tail head on the steers had fat forming. There were baby calves grazing next to their mothers, yearlings mixed in and the grass finishers. The two year old steers were fat and gaining very well. We had been concentrating on making sure they got maximum selection with every mob move, focusing on animal performance.
One thing that Allen pointed out that I had taken for granted was that every baby calf had gotten up from the shade trees and went with their mothers to graze. The mob had moved into the new paddock as one unit, nothing was left in the shade of the trees. In the mob environment, it seems that the cows teach their baby calves how to graze at a very young age. Not an animal was bawling, all you could hear was forage being ripped off by their tongues. No better music in the world than that sound.
Allan further commented that this was a major breakthrough to be able to finish cattle in the mob. No annuals, no tillage, no machinery, no seed, no bare soil ripped open, just mother nature at her best! Folks it doesn’t get any better than that, good grazing management trumps all inputs. Allen Williams coined a new phrase that morning, he commented that we were “Beyond Sustainable”.
We use no annuals simply because we have no desire to own a fossil fuel eating tractor. Our animals are finishing with no outside inputs. Nothing has been seeded onto the pastures for five years. The plant seeds were waiting in the soil seed bank for the right conditions to express themselves.
This fall, Kirk Gadzia made a visit to our farm. Kirk is a Holistic Certified Educator that I took my initial Holistic training course from. Kirk is very knowledgeable in Holistic Management. He identified two new species of grasses that we were unaware of. What a pleasant surprise by allowing mother nature to express herself. By grazing the paddocks with high density, the ground received a lot of animal impact. Litter was trampled on the ground mixed with manure and urine, followed by a full recovery period.
We are actually building new top soil every day and not using anything but livestock and sunlight. We are now growing more nutritious grass for free. Every day we leave a smorgasbord of litter for the worms and microbes to turn into new soil. Our pastures are now 100% covered with earthworm castings. The Mexican ranchers, Allen and myself pulled back the previously grazed pasture litter that was grazed 20 days earlier. Their eyes about fell out of their head.
There were earthworms crawling all over the surface of the ground in August. I dug my fingers down into the moist top soil and pulled up a whole handful of worms. The Mexican ranchers all dropped to their knees to get a closer look. They were so excited that they stopped speaking English and started speaking Spanish! There were dozens of different species of life crawling around on the ground surface. It was nature at work and man was she doing a good job of it. I am 100% convinced that if you make a home for these soil animals they will come.
Conclusions: Do not attempt to grass finish your beeves in the mob until you have used high density grazing for a minimum of three years. I believe it takes this period of time to get the microbial activity at a peak. The more carbon that you can place on the ground surface and trampled by the mob, the quicker your soils will respond. Every time you move your mob, get down on your knees and examine the soil surface for signs of life. Look at the previously grazed area and the new area that you just moved the mob onto.
We have more moles now than I can ever remember, they have been drawn in by the increased food in the soil (worms, etc). I do not mind moles at all, they are just aerating the soil. If you want to hold every drop of water on your farm where it falls, mole activity will definitely do that. Just look at moles as giant dung beetles, they are trapping water for you!
The one thing we can control on our farms is our input costs. If we focus on working with nature and letting her work, your pocketbook will be hard to stick in your back pocket! I believe the day is coming that we will look back in our rear view mirror and pray for $150 dollar per barrel of oil again. Fossil fuel is going higher, it is only a matter of time. We must learn to raise beef with minimal fossil fuel to prosper on our farms. Thanks to Ian Mitchell Innes and Kirk Gadzia we are on track for the future. Folks we can do it!