Farm Horizons, May 2000

Rotational grazing makes better use of pasture land

By Andrea Vargo

Move those cows around, said Terry Schaefer of Cokato. Schaefer's business, Grassland Solutions, assists farmers in making decisions whether to graze animals or raise crops for them off the same ground.

Schaefer, who was raised on a conventional farm, has been involved in rotational grazing for eight years.

He has 143 acres of pasture and rents more in the Wright/Meeker County area. He runs beef cattle and sheep, and contracts to raise Holstein heifers for dairy farmers.

Rotational grazing provides the farmer with a 10 to 20 percent boost over regular pasture use.

"We check pastures and animals regularly, ship them in the fall, and have less work to do," he said.

With conventional methods, Schaefer would have to cut and bale hay, haul it home, feed and bed animals, and haul manure.

In addition to the labor required, more equipment is needed with conventional methods of feeding animals hay.

Cokato farmer Tom Schut agrees with Schaefer. Schut is fencing his 80-acre farm to graze his dairy cattle.

Economically, Schut said whatever the animals can harvest themselves is good for him.

Mechanical harvesting costs money. Fifty percent off the cost of running a silo unloader or hauling a manure spreader is significant, he said.

Disease is higher in a confined herd, maybe three times higher, according to Schaefer.

Dealing with some frustrations in animal health was one of the reasons Schut decided to try rotational grazing.

It wasn't a real problem before, but now that Schut's dairy cattle are on grass, he said his vet bill is one quarter of what it used to be.

Perhaps more exercise for the cattle makes for easier calving. At least, Schut said, his wife Ardis thinks so.

Pastures

Whatever size the pastures are, they are always the wrong size for some reason, Schaefer said.

At different times of the year, the pasture grows differently. Spring growth is faster than hot season growth, and, of course, everything depends on rain, he said.

Schaefer, who designs and puts up the fence systems, said he takes into consideration what the farmer wants to accomplish and the terrain of the farm.

He designed a system for Schut that uses a series of small, two-acre pastures that open off a center lane.

Here, the lane between the pastures is on good, high ground, so the animals are not reluctant to travel it, Shaefer said.

If the lane is muddy, the animals will not go willingly, and this means more work and hassle for the farmer.

Tom's wife and his children can move the cattle down the lane by just walking behind them and shutting the gate to the proper pasture.

It took about a month or so before the confinement-raised cattle were moving in and out pretty well, Schut explained.

Cattle come and go from a pasture in particular ways, and it is Schaefer's business to know what those are and design the system accordingly.

Schut's is a system that flows, said Schaefer.

Schut said Schaefer taught him how to fence well.

"I like to be able to sleep nights and not worry about where my cattle are," Schut stated.

In addition to good fences, the types of plants in the pastures are important, Schut said.

Grassy plants that form a dense sod help keep the ground from becoming muddy in wet weather, whereas the alfalfa plants in his current pastures are destroyed easily, Schut explained.

"I expected to be able to go to one of the other producers and have him tell me which plants to use," he said.

But that was not the case. Each pasture has its unique soils and conditions, and different grasses perform differently.

Several experimental pasture mixes are planned to determine the best option, said Schut.

Schaefer figures farmers can make more money per acre pasturing animals than planting corn.

For farmers who rent pastures far from their farm, there is additional work moving animals to those pastures.

People don't like transporting cattle for some reason, Schaefer said.

They look at it as hard, but it is much harder to feed twice a day and haul the manure, he said.

For Schut, it is easier and more efficient to run higher numbers of cattle using rotational grazing.

This type of work fits his young family's lifestyle. According to Schut, rotational grazing also lends itself to going organic with his dairy, eventually.

Part of all of this is the sustainability of the method, he said.

Production agriculture hasn't worked all that well, said Schut. Government subsidies do help.

"But sustainable agriculture is something we can live with. Not saying anyone is wrong to get every pound of milk from their dairy cow, but do it naturally, without the chemicals," Schut said.

Schut believes people should operate within their God-given talents.

"I enjoy animal husbandry, even on the bad days," Schut said.

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