Last week (Wednesday) I drove across Illinois and into my father’s home state of Indiana to attend the Southern Indiana Grazing Conference. My oldest (eldest?) son and I left home at 4:00 in the morning and arrived at 9:30 Indiana time. We were late. I missed the first speaker.
For my more casual readers, this is going to be a boring post. No pictures, just farm geek soil management detail. Rather than bore the reader with the entirety of the notes I took let me introduce the speakers I saw and offer a summary of their main points.
My friend Darby said the first speaker talked about moving commodity beef through an operation. Low profit, volume sales. Buy them young, castrate them early and sell them when you can make a profit.
The next speaker was David Hall of Ozark Hills Genetics. David Hall was worth the trip all by himself. I was late for the first portion of his talk but his second portion discussed selecting for cattle that perform well on fescue as fescue is the dominant grass in the region and it naturally defends itself from overgrazing. From The Fescue Endophyte Story:
Studies with animals consuming endophyte-infected fescue have shown the following responses in comparison to animals grazing non-infected fescue: (1) lower feed intake; (2) lower weight gains; (3) lower milk production; (4) higher respiration rates; (5) higher body temperatures; (6) rough hair coats; (7) more time spent in water; (8) more time spent in the shade; (9) less time spent grazing; (10) excessive salvation; (11) reduced blood serum prolactin levels; and (12) reduced reproductive performance. Some or all of these responses have been observed in numerous studies in dairy cattle, beef cattle, and sheep consuming endophyte-infected pasture, green chop, hay and/or seed.
Hall reinforced the lessons I gleaned from various books on selection traits for building a herd. In short, select cows that breed back within a defined window. You may leave the bull in for more than 45 days to see that all cows are bred but sell cows that don’t calve in the first 45 days of your breeding window. Those cows that breed back early and often are able to perform on fescue. He also had a slide suggesting that cows don’t show a profit until the 3rd or 4th calf. Optimal economic return is in years 8-11 for commercial cow/calf operations. Finally, he suggested you keep heifer calves that wean a little light. Calves in the 450-500 pound range tend to be long-lasting cows. Calves that wean above that have trouble breeding back, according to his records.
Someone in the audience asked, “Why don’t you just rip out the fescue and plant more palatable annual grasses?” He responded saying his neighbors (primary customer base) have fescue. If he is selecting for high performance on a poor forage base he’ll be providing bulls that perform well anywhere.
The next speaker was Jay Fuhrer on Integrating Livestock to Work Within Your System. In short, he was rotating livestock into crop ground to build soil. He offered lists of cover crops they use in North Dakota to provide a winter forage base for the cattle. They keep the cows on pasture during 48″ snowfalls (since the snow mostly blows into big drifts). A few cows bulldoze through snow to find feed, others come behind and eat what was uncovered. Most of their water is sourced from the snow but once or twice each week the cows walk a mile to the barn for water. Amazing. Beyond the normal turnip, radish and pea crops he adds sunflower. More on cover crops in the next presentation.
Because they suggest a large diversity of cover crops, the ranch he works with frequently, Black Leg Ranch, has a variety of income sources including hunting and agrotourism. The ranch owners apparently had many children interested in coming back home. Mom and dad told the kids to figure out how to run their own enterprise on farm. Jay had a slide of all the things they are doing to generate income together. Pretty cool. The bullet point I found most interesting was custom grazing 2,000 yearling calves stocked at 12 head/acre, moving every 2-3 days. That’s covering some ground.
Jay was followed by Gabe Brown. Gabe was also from North Dakota and focused on annual cover crop production. I’m sorry to say I have few notes of Gabe’s presentation. I was too fascinated by his operation to stop and write things down. What I remember was his efforts to escape chemical agriculture, no-till crops in and maintain companion plantings in wide variety to keep soil covered with biomass…always leaving 3-5″ of covering material on the soil. He showed slides of long lists of seeds he puts into his drill and simply says to set the drill to feed the largest seed and let ‘er rip, being sure to include flowering plants to attract beneficial insects. His grazing operation was pretty slick, complete with photos of Batt-Latch in action. Again, he was focused on plant diversity, soil biology and constant cover of the soil.
At this point we were pretty tired. Early morning, long drive, lots of carbs at lunch…tired. But Walt Davis took the stage and he was the main reason we came. He drove home the importance of ranching for profit instead of for production and do so by leveraging your biological capital. Provide unlimited forage. Provide a mix of forages (cows can eat enough alfalfa but when mixed with other species they will tend to eat more). Handle animals so as to prevent stress (stress lessens gains). Don’t graze based on a calendar, graze based on recovery. Watch your animals. They should spend as much time ruminating as grazing. Check their manure to see if they are getting the right quality for their age and use animals of lower nutritional requirements to condition pasture for high-demand animals.
That leaves us with the final speaker, Ed Ballard, on extending the grazing season. Ed is a numbers man. Numbers after 3 in a dark room when I’m tired are a difficult subject. He presented charts showing the benefits of allowing the animals to graze their own feed as opposed to making feed for them. He was suggesting it costs $2.50-$4.00 per day to feed hay to cows as opposed to $0.25 to $0.35 cents per day of grazing. Even if you can’t graze, you are better off buying in hay (purchased in summer) instead of making your own hay as making hay is expensive. Ed just point blank stated that if you’re not frost-seeding clover in your pastures right now you’re making a mistake.
All of the speakers added to my overall cattle management education. Ed gave me immediately actionable items. I need to seed clover. I need to stockpile forage.