More than 100 area farmers braved soaring summer temperatures on Wednesday to learn more about new grazing techniques being used at the McIntire Cattle Company farm on Tilthammer Mill Road near Millwood, Virginia. Farm owner Andy McIntire told the farmers that with ever increasing equipment, fuel, and labor costs now is the time to shift the burden of hay harvesting from the farmer to the cow.
“Every bite of grass that a cow takes will always be cheaper than a bite of the cheapest hay” McIntire told the farmers.
McIntire’s solution? Stop using hay.
McIntire, along with cattle farmer Robert Shoemaker, Natural Resources Conservation Service Forage Specialist J.B. Daniels, NRCS Forage Specialist and Virginia Cooperative Extension economics specialist Gordon Groover explained how the use of modern grazing practices not only will put more money into each farmer’s pocket by reducing the need for hay, but can also pay significant environmental dividends as well.
To drive home the concept of environmentally friendly pasture management, J.B. Daniels showed off his home-made rainfall simulator, an oscillating sprinkler head designed to mimic the effects of a summer thunderstorm downpour on different types of managed pasture. The scripted cloudburst provided farmers with a first-hand look at how good pasture management can improve soil moisture, fertility and production.
“Rain and availability of soil moisture are the two most important factors in managing your pastures and livestock” Daniels told the group as it gathered around his rain simulator. “Rain retention is based on how well you manage your pastures.”
“The result of good pasture management is explosive grass growth that can eliminate the costly and time consuming chore of making hay and delivering it to the cows to eat” Daniels said . “The result is that the cows end up taking a large load off of the farmer by essentially making their own hay.”
“Every of drop of rain that you can collect in your soil is a free resource that you can then use however you would like” Daniels said.
Daniels’s demonstration table, which presented several small soil boxes to the oscillating sprinkler ranging from overly grazed soil with little vegetation to a lush section of native warm season switch grass, delivered predictable yet convincing results. As presumed, the poorly managed soil showed large amounts of runoff and soil erosion. However, the extremely small amount of rainwater runoff and virtually no soil loss from the switchback grass area prompted several farmers to exchange glances of astonishment.
“Smaller pastures, higher stocking densities (livestock) per acre and regular rotation of animals to protect the tender regrowth layer of your pastures are the key for improving your land and your profitability” Daniels told the farmers.
Daniels description summarizes a recommended best farming practice now being recommended for pasture grazing. The approach, known as “mob grazing”, rejects the vision of the bucolic farm scene where cattle leisurely wander over wide areas of pasture grazing at-will on whatever catches their fancy. Rather, the mob grazing approach now being used by McIntire and Shoemaker on their respective farms is more like a choreographed commuter routine for cows where herds are restricted to small pasture areas and moved between fields every 12 to 24 hours.
To non-farmers the approach may seem counter-intuitive. After all, how can enclosing the suggested stocking rates of 50,000 pounds per acre (each cow weighs about one thousand pounds which works out to 50 cows according to McIntire) possibly be good for the soil?
But abundant pasture grass regrowth combined with healthier cattle prove the McIntire’s point.
“Nature believes in this approach and I believe in this approach” McIntire said. “When you think about how the buffalo grazed naturally, we’re doing the same thing here.”
McIntire’s said that the key to the mob grazing philosophy is carefully monitoring exactly how much foliage the cows are allowed to consume in a given pasture area before the cattle are moved. McIntire says that he uses a combination of permanent and moveable fencing to make sure that the cows only graze exactly where he places them and for only as long as he wants them there.
The result is that the critical top two-inches of tender regrowth soil area is never destroyed but instead is covered with an even layer of cow manure and urine.
McIntire says that the results are phenomenal.
McIntire said that he has been farming his current property for three years and every year he has experienced drought conditions. Even so, McIntire said that he has been able to double the carrying capacity of his pastures without the use of hay or fertilizer.
“After four years of using this technique our pastures just explode with grass within only a week after the cows are moved.” McIntire also confirmed that he has not observed an increase in parasites or a decrease in breeding rates as a result of mob grazing techniques.
Cattleman Robert Shoemaker has achieved similar results and now only needs to feed hay to his herds for 45 days in the winter.
McIntire said that there is also strong economic incentive for grazing over hay production given the “Three F’s” of farming – “feed”, “fuel” and “fertilizer” costs – but elimination of hay-making doesn’t mean any additional leisure time for the mob grazing farmer.
“The amount of time that you save in making hay you probably spend in rotating the herds between pastures” McIntire told the audience of farmers.
Clarke County Supervisor David Weiss, who farms approximately 2500 acres and 450 cattle northwest of Berryville, said that he attended the event as a way of keeping current on best farming practices.
“I think that the lesson here is that if you try and do just a little better job with grazing you can get a lot better result” Weiss said.
The event was sponsored by the Virginia Conservation Network which represents more than 100 nonprofits and community groups working together for conservation and quality of life. VCN actively supports conservation in Virginia through public policy research, advocacy, education, and capacity building for its member organizations.
McIntire said that even with the positive results from intensive grazing, so far it’s still not possible to avoid using hay altogether despite the cost savings and environmental benefits.
“We’ll never be able to altogether get away from feeding some hay in this area, but there’s nothing wrong with that” McIntire said. “We’re just trying to reduce the amount that we need.”
For more information on mob grazing and other best farming practices please visit the Virginia Conservation Network at http://www.vcnva.org or download information distributed at the seminar here: July_2011_Farm_Notes