Rancher Puts Allan Savory Principles into Action

By Tracy Frisch
This article also appears in the 2019 September issue of Acres U.S.A.

Gene Goven is a dryland farmer in the center of North Dakota. He has owned and managed 1,500 acres of shortgrass prairie and cropland for the past 51 years. In 1986, the ideas of Allan Savory changed his life.

When I reached out to him about visiting, he informed me of his deceptively simple mission: “To manage diversity for soil health enhancement.” Toward that end, he promotes biodiversity at every level and aims to capture rainwater and to deepen roots. As we will see, he has succeeded by a variety of measures.

For Goven, the quest for a better way to farm has been a journey toward greater understanding. Learning occurs in steps rather than as a continual uphill climb. “All of a sudden another light comes on,” he said.

“No one big thing made the difference,” he said of the evolution of his farm “It was many different little things. Nothing stands alone. If you change one thing, you change everything.”

Bringing along fellow farmers and other people that interface with land management has been an important complement to Goven’s own learning. He has made presentations in 22 states and 3 foreign countries, and he continues to take pleasure in the positive changes he has witnessed among farmers in his immediate neighborhood and far beyond.

People have to be shaken up a bit in order to rethink their belief system, he’s learned.

“If the edges of someone’s paradigm aren’t ruffled, why would anyone want to change?” he asked. “Eighty percent of people are followers. Twenty percent are adapters. Less than a half of one percent are innovators.”

Goven falls into the latter category. He just thinks differently about creating agricultural systems. And he isn’t the only one.

Goven observed that more than half of the mentors in the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition are left-handed. He also has dyslexia. For many years, he considered it a disability, but over time he has come to see it as a gift.

“There’s a little contrarian in me,” he said.

western wheatgrass
Gene Goven holds western wheatgrass, grazed and ungrazed. Western wheatgrass is another important native cool-season rhizomatous grass.


Goven credits his decision to cross-fence his paddocks with putting him on his lifelong path. He installed his first cross-fencing in 1980. Within a few years of starting to cross-fence his land, he had increased the stocking rate by 20 percent. And that was just the beginning. Subdividing his rangeland allowed him to more intensively manage cattle grazing, which boosted forage production.

But cross-fencing wasn’t enough of a change to resolve his grazing issues. “I still couldn’t get the animals to eat uniformly,” he said. He continued to look for solutions.

Goven found what he was looking for in November 1986 when he took his first Holistic Management class. Taught by founder Allan Savory, the course cost $1,500 and took Goven away from the ranch for five-and-a-half days. He questioned whether it would be worth it.

“But I never looked back. I started thinking and not just acting,” he said.

The biggest revelation came from Savory’s Holistic Planned Grazing concept, through which Goven was able to steadily increase forage production on native prairie. It taught him the importance of giving land an adequate rest following grazing. He began to understand that “we need to feed the soil first” and that livestock come second.

Before 1980, with set stocking and no cross-fencing, an acre of Goven’s native prairie would only produce 450 pounds of dry matter in a good year. Now, even in a drought year, Goven says he counts on each acre yielding 2,000 pounds.

For years now, Goven has managed his cattle so that they only harvest a fraction of his increased forage production.

“I used to be puzzled by the concept of take half, leave half in rangeland management. Then it dawned on me that the severity of leaf removal means the plant has to start again,” Goven explained.

If cattle are left in a paddock for too much time, they will munch on the regrowth of plants that they’ve already taken bites from. “I’ve kept livestock in a paddock too long. I’ve thought there’s enough forage for another day,” he said. That mistake can devastate a paddock for the next two or three years.

Goven considers weather (moisture and temperature) and the rate of plant growth, as well as the quantity of standing forage, when determining how frequently to move the cattle. When plants are lush and growing fast, he doesn’t let the cattle stay in a given paddock for more than three consecutive days. But in dry weather, when plants are barely growing, he may leave cattle in the same paddock for 7 to 10 days, or even 14 days, depending upon the paddock size.

Gene Govern monitors soil health
Gene Goven monitors soil health. Although he’s semi-retired, Goven still never stops learning new things about his land in North Dakota.


Goven cautions graziers to be conservative when grazing forages in the fall, after they green up following summer brown. Taking off too much grass can effect the next year’s production by as much as 50 percent, he warns.

Around a decade ago, Goven added an interesting twist to his planned-grazing sequence. He fittingly named it “managing for chaos.” Every year he changes the approximate date of grazing in each paddock. If he grazed a particular paddock around June 1 one year, he won’t graze it again in early June for another 10 years.

This approach has enriched the species diversity of his native prairie. While 50 or 60 percent of the local farmers have native prairie on their ranches, continuous grazing and other non-optimal practices simplify the species composition of these grasslands.


Changes in his grazing management have boosted the carrying capacity of Goven’s land. “Prior to 1980, we’d be able to run 55 to 60 cow-calf pairs on a good year,” he said. Back then a drought would force him to drastically reduce the herd to 35 or 40 cow-calf pairs or “there’d be nothing to eat.” In the 1980s, after he started putting up cross-fencing, he increased his herd size to 72 cow-calf pairs. By 2000 he was up to about 105 pairs. These days he often grazes 150 to 180 pairs, though it varies by year.

Besides native prairie and hay, Goven’s farm provided other sources of feed for the herd. After cash crops were harvested, his cattle would graze the crop aftermath. Cover crops also provided forage for later grazing.


On rangeland, two opposite management scenarios produce equally negative outcomes. A study by the Agricultural Research Service at Mandan, North Dakota, found that under continuous grazing and in the absence of grazing, native prairie grasses have very shallow roots — just 3 to 5 inches in depth. Under a planned rotational grazing regime, the roots of these grasses extended 6 to 10 times deeper and were much fuller, with obvious implications for withstanding drought.

This research supports the notion that idle rest brings harmful consequences. The Conservation Reserve Program rested land for 20 years. However when standing grass or grain stubble is left alone over the winter, it loses up to 20 percent of its weight through oxidation.

The quality of standing vegetation and the health of the soil reach their peaks within five to eight years, before declining, Goven said.


Grazing converts forage into something that’s more readily marketed in the form of livestock. For Goven, the value of cattle also lies in its ability to enhance soil health. Grazing animals fertilize grasslands with urine and manure and feed the soil-food web.

Animal hooves also can produce a positive impact on soil. Animal impact, when managed appropriately, causes carbon to be slowly released into the soil. Trampling vegetation puts plant residues in contact with the soil, where the soil-food web can break them down and recycle them.

Soil microbes have a very low browse line,” Goven explained.


More than 20 years ago, Goven stopped keeping cattle as property. Instead he custom-grazes other people’s bovines. He likes using someone else’s equity to market forage. Like other custom graziers, he charges by the head per day, adjusted by the size and type of animal.

Taking in disparate groups of animals managed under different regimes can present serious handling challenges. That hasn’t been a problem for Goven. Rather than herding or chasing the cattle, he trains them to follow him.

In his slow process of retiring, Goven has been gradually cutting back on his farming obligations. He currently rents cropland to two brothers. In the lease, he put in some stipulations about stewardship. He cautioned the farmers not to use any fungicides because of their impact on microorganisms in the soil-food web, like mycorrhizal fungi. They use herbicides at a drastically reduced rate — in line with Goven’s practice — and they hire Goven to plant cover crops on his own land.


A Natural Resources Conservation Service study site in South Dakota compared soil properties of pasture under two management regimes: continuous, season-long grazing versus rotational grazing. With rotational grazing, the top 12 inches of soil gained an additional 1 percent organic matter. One percent of soil organic matter equates to about 20,000 pounds per acre.

The soil in the rotationally grazed pasture infiltrated water almost 10 times faster than continuously grazed pasture. It took 12 minutes for an inch to infiltrate under the rotational grazing treatment instead of 109 minutes on the continuously grazed land.

Goven’s farm also reveals this contrast, though in time rather than space. Decades ago, monitoring by agencies such as NRCS (then known as the Soil Conservation Service), North Dakota State University Extension and the Agricultural Research Service showed that his farm infiltrated water slowly, at the rate of around 0.8 to 1.2 inches per hour. Over time, as a result of dramatic changes in grazing and cropping practices, water infiltration improved greatly. “Now my poorest rate is 6.5 inches per hour. The best is 12 inches per hour,” he said.

He referred to the example offered by his late friend Neil Denis of Saskatchewan, who converted his cropland to perennial forages. “The mob grazier king of the world” was also an early adopter of Holistic Management. His soils infiltrated at the rate of 15 inches an hour, while his neighbor’s cropland clocked in at a mere half inch per hour.


Goven grew up with his family growing cover crops and doing companion planting.

“In the middle 1930s my grandfather, Ed Goven, was paid to plant sweet clover in with his grain crops,” he said.

One year of his crop rotation had to include clover as a companion crop. But then overproduction emerged as a problem that threatened to destabilize the economy. The federal government responded by penalizing practices such as cover cropping. Farmers were directed to leave a certain amount of acreage fallow. By taking land out of production, the government hoped to prop up farm gate prices. After World War II, agrochemicals came along, further pushing cover crops and intercropping out of favor.

Goven remembers his dad and granddad using cereal rye “to clean up the fields,” making use of its allelopathic properties. They would harvest some of this rye for hay and turn under other fields of rye.


Long ago Goven started experimenting with bi-cultures and polycultures on his own farm. For example, he might interseed lentils with a cash crop of sunflowers. Planted at the rate of 10 to 12 pounds per acre, the lentils serve as “the fertility program” for the sunflowers. Field peas play that same role with oats. And instead of broadcasting commercial fertilizer, Goven became accustomed to interseeding lentils and turnips into winter wheat at spring green up.

Dr. Jill Clapperton of Hamilton, Montana, has studied the synergy between legumes and grasses and how it affects plant behavior. Legumes will share up to 70 percent of the nitrogen they fix with a grass-type crop. When lentils and/or field peas were planted together with a grass, they nodulated within 5 days of emergence. At just an inch tall, lentils already had pink nodules on their root to fix nitrogen. In monoculture plantings, it took up to 30 days for lentils to nodulate. Grown with ample nitrogen fertilizer or in the absence of a hungry grain crop, the legume has no need to fix nitrogen. “The legume is lazy” is how Goven put it.

Researchers at North Dakota State University and the Agricultural Research Service looked at the rooting depth of oats and inoculated field peas grown together and separately. They found that in intercropped plantings they rooted four times deeper than either species did when grown alone. That’s more good evidence for growing legumes and grains in combination.


Influencing fellow farmers to improve the environment has long been central to Goven’s mission. He quotes Allan Savory’s instructions to him: “Work with your neighbors. Don’t antagonize them.” Goven has taken this counsel to heart. He wants to help guide his immediate community and takes great pains not to insult or alienate any of his neighbors. Several times during our conversations, he reminded me, “You won’t catch me doing boundary line comparisons!”

His efforts have borne fruit. Most of his neighbors who work smaller farms practice no-till and use cover crops. Goven has been instrumental in bringing about this shift.

Goven encourages fellow farmers to not let the cost of seed get in the way of adopting cover crops. He tells them to start with whatever is at hand. “What do you have left over in your grain bin – corn, oats, sunflowers?” he asks. He recommends buying individual species separately and making your own cover crop seed mixes.

He also custom-seeds cover crops for other farmers. They contract with him to plant no-till cover crops following the combine. “I’ve even had requests to seed cover crops from 50 and 70 miles away,” he said.

He also has made it easier for his neighbors to adopt no-till practices. “I’m willing to lend out my no-till drill to neighbors. I lent it to one neighbor. A year ago they bought their own,” he said.


Goven is pleased to have been able to influence people outside of agriculture that are in a position to support better approaches to farming. Kent Linney first visited Goven’s farm as a high school student. He later became a plumber and a leader in Ducks Unlimited. Today he promotes livestock as a component of the organization’s program for habitat enhancement. “Seeing my farm must have really impressed him,” Goven quipped.

He went on to list other individuals who have come to recognize the value of regenerative agriculture for its ecosystem and public health benefits. A North Dakota big game biologist told him, “Because of you, I have the career I have, using livestock as a habitat management tool for wildlife enhancement.” And Greg Sandness, the state’s water-quality specialist in Bismarck, told Goven, “If everyone was doing what these guys are doing, I wouldn’t have a job!” That’s because farms like Goven’s so dramatically reduce runoff and leaching.


Goven rejects the notion that water quality starts at the edge of a lake or stream. He holds a more expansive view of what it takes to protect water resources.

“For me, riparian management starts at the top of the hill and extends over to the next hill,” he said.

As he sees it, protecting water quality must address water infiltration, through-flow and re-flow. Goven’s views are relevant because his farm is bisected by Crooked Lake, a beautiful water body that is used for recreation. The farm contains almost four miles of shoreline.

Some years ago, the presence of Goven’s cattle near the lakeshore sparked complaints from several “cabin people” on the lake. An extension water-quality specialist stopped by to investigate. When Goven took her around, she could not find any visible evidence of erosion. That evening, she called her husband and told him to start cross-fencing.


Goven composed a bold goal for rain on his land: “Every raindrop shall infiltrate where it falls, no matter steep the hill is.” After he intensified his grazing management, he noticed welcome changes in the behavior of water on his farm. Water infiltration kept improving, resulting in less risk of run-off, erosion, flooding and drought.

The ranch sits in the middle of the Prairie Pothole region, the waterfowl nesting and breeding capital of North America. The region stretches northwest from Iowa through large portions of the Dakotas and into three Canadian provinces.

Three decades ago, Goven began noticing an odd phenomenon. His potholes would stay empty while his neighbors’ potholes were brimming full of water. This confounded him.

A breakthrough in understanding came in 1990. Following two years of drought, four inches of rain fell in less than an hour on the evening of July 3. There was immediate flash flooding, and fences were torn out. But not on Goven’s farm. “All the slews and potholes filled with water on my neighbors’ land. I didn’t have any standing water and my potholes stayed empty,” he recalled.

Seven days later, water started showing up in the ranch’s potholes and wetlands. Goven had captured every raindrop.

“My wetlands and potholes hold water longer and better than they used to, but they also don’t fill up as much,” Goven said.

This periodic drying up of prairie potholes is beneficial. When potholes constantly hold water, they go anaerobic. As a result they smell like a sewer. But if their water levels go up and down, when they do dry up, they re-vegetate. And when it next rains and the potholes take up water, that vegetation provides food for invertebrates and they in turn feed migratory waterfowl.


Goven is proud of his work in helping U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recognize the use of livestock as a management tool for achieving its mission of habitat enhancement. The agency’s wildlife refuges in North Dakota aim to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

During the serious drought years of the mid and late 1980s Goven was looking for a way to avoid having to liquidate his cattle herd for lack of sufficient forage. He came up with the idea of grazing wildlife refuges, one of which is only 15 miles from his ranch. When he and a neighbor rancher went looking for duck nests on that refuge, they couldn’t find any. “Initially the only place we found nests was outside the refuge,” he said.

Goven proposed using cattle grazing as a land management tool to improve habitat on the refuge. The agency’s regional director flew to North Dakota from Denver and gave him the go-ahead to “prove” that his idea would work. Goven and his neighbor did the pilot project, sharing labor and resources. They ran their cattle together in the refuge using temporary electric fencing powered by battery-operated fence chargers.

Using livestock brought refuge lands back to health by enhancing nutrient cycling, energy cycling and water cycling, Goven said. “In three years we turned it from a biological desert into a preferred nesting area,” he reported. As a result of this success, “all refuge managers in North Dakota were required to attend sessions with me on prescribed grazing in the WPA Waterfowl Production Area,” he said. As a cooperator with U.S. Fish & Wildlife, Goven received the extra grazing land he needed, thus solving his feed problem.

A national outcry (“Cattle-Free by 1993”) calling for the removal of all livestock from public lands had no effect on Fish & Wildlife practice in the U.S., as the benefits of the grazing program were so well-established. The program has had one big limiting factor however; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can’t find enough cooperators willing to bring livestock in.


For 25 years, Goven hasn’t used pesticides of any kind to control insects and parasites on his cattle or pasturelands, including insecticidal ear tags. He doesn’t worm his cattle or use products like Ivermectin. He stopped using these biocides to avoid collateral damage to non-target species. If he were to turn to insecticides, he estimated that 80 beneficial insect species would be destroyed for every cattle pest insect he killed.

He strives for rapid nutrient cycling on his farm, and giving up these biocides is consistent with this aim. At the Goven ranch, dung beetles, other insects and earthworms begin colonizing and breaking down cow patties within three days. In the absence of these small manure-loving animals, fresh cow paddies become dried up cow “Frisbees.” Nutrients remain tied up in them for months or years. Nitrogen in this desiccated manure is readily lost through volatization into the atmosphere, however.

“For fly control, I’ll skip a paddock so there’s a quarter mile gap,” he said. This “leapfrog” approach creates a big enough distance between cow patties to limit fly populations.

Similarly, moving cattle frequently to new paddocks can be an effective means of interrupting the life cycle of internal parasites. Cattle excrete internal parasite eggs in their manure. Newly hatched larvae climb up stems, waiting to be ingested by a host animal. Young calves are most vulnerable to the effects of parasites.

The key to managing these parasites with grazing involves not returning animals to a paddock when the worms are in their infective stage. New Zealand data show that graziers can attain up to 90 percent parasite control with planned rotational grazing, Goven said.


If you’re trying to enhance biodiversity, pesticides of any kind can pose a threat.

Over the course of his farming career, Goven said, “I got more and more disturbed by the increasing use of chemicals. It seemed like the landscape was going dead.”

He’s been particularly dismayed by the use of herbicides, most commonly glyphosate off-label, as desiccants to dry-down crops shortly before harvest.

Sixteen years ago, Goven’s ranch experienced herbicide spray drift damage. An aerial applicator, hired to kill weeds in a wheat crop on neighboring croplands, neglected to shut off his booms while circling out beyond to go back to the field he was spraying. The spray mixture contained Roundup and other herbicides used off-label.

“I’m still suffering from chemical residual,” he said.


Some ranchers attempt to improve the productivity of native prairie rangelands by no-tilling in purchased forage seed. Goven has never seen a need for such intervention. Rather, he works to retain and enhance the diversity of prairie species. “For every grass-type species, I want to have at least five forb species because they have deeper rooting systems, some down to 15 feet deep,” he said.

Goven has identified some 200 different native plants growing in his shortgrass prairie. Years ago, he created a slide show of these plants and their historic uses. He especially enjoyed taking this program to senior citizens, including Alzheimer’s groups, because many elderly people would come alive seeing the plants of their childhoods.

One June around 25 years ago, the National Audubon Fish and Wildlife Refuge held part of its annual field day on Goven’s ranch. That day, when bird watchers did a noon bird count on a quarter mile stretch at the ranch, they counted an astonishing 112 different bird species in one hour. The varied habitats on that site included brushy ground, lakeshore and prairie potholes.

“I was told that there are very few places in the world with that concentration of species,” Goven said.

Pasture Management: Benefits of Biodiverse Forage

Pasture management for livestock far too often falls to using artificial stimulants, and not by selecting the right plants and managing the soil. But the latter is by far the better way.

The resurrection of interest among graziers in medicinal plants seems to parallel the burgeoning movement of livestock operators in organic (and ecological) meat, milk and egg production, rotational managed grazing, and the stockman’s increasing interest in reducing dependence on pharmaceutical drugs — due to their costs, side effects and concerns over residues in meat, milk and egg products. There are numerous books available on the medicinal properties of various plants, many of which are considered weeds in pastures and meadows on farms.

Sadly, the trend in crop management, even on organic farms, is oriented toward high-yielding, domesticated grasses and legumes. This is due to the ability of these forages to efficiently and economically contribute to yields of milk and/or gain of bodyweight.

Evidence points to the profitability of managing warm and cool season cultivars in one’s meadow or paddock, but it is very important to recognize that indigenous herbs, many of which are deep-rooted perennials, provide a number of other attributes, including medicinal properties, nutrient density (i.e. forage quality), drought resistance, palatability, perennial persistence, soil conditioning characteristics, and abilities to accumulate minerals — they are also valuable indicators of soil conditions. Many agricultural authors have made strong cases for incorporating various herbs and other plants in paddock seed mixtures and hedgerows.

Cows and calves in the pasture.

Newman Turner, who in Fertility Farming discusses the importance of subsoiling every seven or eight years, goes on to state, “once deep-rooted herbal leys have been all round the farm, and are continued in the rotation, even subsoiling should not be necessary. There is no better means of aerating the subsoil than by roots of herbs like chicory, burnet, lucerne, and dandelion, all of which penetrate to a depth of 3 or 4 feet and more in as many years.” He continues, “I have seen my Jersey cattle going around patches of nettles, or docks, eating off the flowering tops and relishing something that they have been unable to obtain from the simple shallow-rooting ley mixture. So the thing we must do is to get back into our dairy pastures as many herbs as possible to assist the health of the cattle grazing the leys and to benefit the topsoil in a way any amount of chemical dressing can never do. All my leys contain a high proportion of these weeds deliberately sown — burnet, chicory, plantain, wild vetch, sheep’s parsley, dandelion, sweet clover, chickweed — and when the leys have been down four years and developed roots to a depth of several feet they are then most relished by cattle. The cattle did anything to get from the younger shallower-rooting leys, when I still had some, to those herbal leys that had penetrated the valuable untapped resources of the deeper subsoil.” He adds that “bloat has become a thing of the past since such leys were used, whereas before I lost cattle every year when I practiced the method of sowing leys with three or four ingredients only.”

Turner stresses that adequate organic matter and calcium are prerequisites in order for this mixture to become adequately established and emphasizes that “a mixture containing deep-rooting herbs is essential to soil, crop and animal health, assisting in the aeration of the topsoil of important minerals and trace elements.”

Turner adds, “Hedgerows should contain comfrey, garlic, raspberry, hazelnut, docks and cleavers, etc.”

He was amazed that soil samples taken from fields that hadn’t received lime for 10 years indicated no need for supplemental lime. “It is now evident that organic methods, which include subsoiling and deep-rooting herbs over a period of years, maintain a correct soil balance even on farms which are sending away large quantities of milk.” He adds, “subsoiling will be unnecessary once deep-rooting herbs have been included in a ley on each field.”

In his subsequent book, Fertility Pastures, Turner reports on a test to determine which forages were most and least preferred by his Jersey cattle. In 1952, Turner planted 35 individual plots, each sown with a single ingredient of the herbal ley, using a half-pound of seed of each of the herbs, clovers or grasses. Plots most relished were single stands of sheep’s parsley, plantain and chicory (in that order); least preferred were rye grasses, meadow fescue and hard fescue. Next in preference were burnet, kidney vetch, sainfoin and alsike. Interestingly, Lucerne (alfalfa) and American sweet clover went untouched in the presence of other options. The grasses most preferred were short rotation ryegrass and meadow fescue; all other grasses appeared to be desired equally, except hard fescue, which was not grazed at all.

Turner points out a significant issue: “It would be interesting to know whether soil conditions . . . deficiencies and varying availability of the different minerals and trace elements, organic content and moisture, and even breed of cow had any bearing on the choice for the cow. The only way that this information could be provided, and I think it is vital that it should be, would be for my experiment to be repeated on all classes of soil in different parts of the country and with different breeds of cattle.”

Looking at yields was another matter, except in the case of chicory, which produced the heaviest bulk, followed by lucerne and American sweet clover. Research conducted in the late 1890s and early 1900s and reported by Robert Elliot in his classic The Clifton Park System of Farming features the remarkable properties of chicory, as well as other unconventional forages. During a severe drought in 1895 in Scotland, Elliot noted that chicory, burnet, kidney vetch and yarrow survived almost completely intact. Apparently, chicory was first introduced and cultivated in England in 1787 by Arthur Young, who brought it from Italy, where it was ubiquitous forage. The English farmers found that chicory was much more prolific than lucerne, producing 11 tons of hay per acre (compared to lucerne at 4.5 tons), with six cuttings yielding 30 green tons in northern Scotland in 1788. Elliot had actually observed the roots of chicory traveling 22 inches in five months and 30 inches in 15 months.

It didn’t take Thomas Jefferson long to hear of this remarkable plant that grew in a wide range of soils and provided unrivaled nutrient density for cattle, sheep, horses and hogs. It was the basis of an American political scandal, as Jefferson was attempting to import hickory into America when British-American relations were strained. Based upon bulk yield as the sole criteria, Newman Turner proposes a mixture, in order of preference (without suggesting proportions), of the following: chicory, lucerne, New Zealand ryegrass, cocksfoot, timothy, meadow fescue, perennial ryegrass, late-flowering red clover, S.100 white clover, sheep’s parsley, yarrow, tall fescue.

Turner’s field and grazing experiments resulted in his various formulas for “herbal ley mixtures,” which include:

  • Early Grazing Herbal Ley Mixture, which circumvents “forcing” growth with nitrogen fertilizers and their attendant impact of reducing energy and increasing non-protein nitrogen.
  • Midsummer Grazing Herbal Ley, to withstand drought damage.
  • Herbal Ley Mixture for Autumn & Winter Grazing, chosen from herbs and grasses growing later into autumn and winter.
  • Herbal Ley Mixture for Very Thin, Dry Soils, consisting of species predominantly of the deepest-rooting varieties.
  • All-Purpose Herbal Ley Mixture, providing maximum grazing yield for most of the year.
  • Herbal Hedgerow Mixture, to supplement existing pastures, particularly for goats, and to be sown in or near the hedgerows.

There are also mixtures for light land and heavy land, both direct seed and under-sown with a nurse crop, and pig and poultry leys, with a large emphasis on chicory, plantain and a lesser amount of burnet, sheep’s parsley, yarrow and kidney vetch.

Turner credits much of his inspiration of herbal ley mixtures to Robert Elliot’s The Clifton Park System of Farming.

Elliot conducted a trial that lasted four to five years and compared two fields of similar soils but seeded to different mixtures. Field #1 used a simple mixture consisting of cocksfoot, perennial ryegrass, late flowering red clover, S.100 white clover and one pound per acre of chicory, a total of 25 pounds of seed being sown per acre. Field #2 contained the same legumes and grasses as Field #1, but with the following additions: three pounds per acre of chicory, four pounds burnet, two pounds sheep’s parsley, two pounds kidney vetch, one pound yarrow, two pounds lucerne, and two pounds American sweet clover, for a total of 45 pounds of seed per acre.

Both fields achieved equal establishment, yet despite the variation of growth, which was deliberately varied for test purposes, whenever cows were led from Field #1 to Field #2 (the herbal ley) milk yields always increased. This was so even when cattle were removed from Field #1 (with ample grazing available) and moved to Field #2 where grazing might even been less than adequate.

These results make the case that there is more to nutrition than the usual parameters surrounding protein, energy, total digestible nutrients (TDN), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), acid detergent fiber (ADF) and so on. Perhaps the diversity of such a mixture in a paddock provides critical trace elements or various plant hormones, enzymes, aromatic oils, tannins, amino acids, fatty acids, alkaloids, pigments, vitamins and their co-factors, unidentified rumen flora stimulants, etc. The point is that there is no substitute for diversity; there is no way to quantify all the possible and synergistic interactions among both identifiable and unidentifiable components.

bulls fighting
Bulls fight for new territory.

Livestock producers must have faith (and many professionals in animal husbandry do not) that animals are the best judges of their diet (when not in confinement), that such livestock are able to make dietary choices that reflect the fertility of the soil, and that livestock health is a primary, not secondary, consideration with regard to farm profitability. Only then will the attributes of diversity be more closely investigated and researched to determine how it can contribute in so many ways to a stockman’s bottom line.

The foremost concerns or questions in stockmanship in regards to the grazing of unconventional forages are probably their palatability and toxicity. In cooperation with Utah State University, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Grazing Lands Technology Institute, and Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, researcher Fred Provenza, Ph.D., has compiled a vast amount of data on this topic, which is available in a publication entitled Forage Behavior: Managing to Survive in a World of Change.

Provenza suggests that livestock develop a “nutritional wisdom” as a result of interactions between flavors, nutrients and toxins. Decreases in palatability occur with foods containing excessive levels of either nutrients or toxins, and with foods causing nutrient imbalances and deficits. Animals are able to discriminate between foods based on sensory feedback from nutrients, including protein, energy and mineral levels. Grazing animals typically eat a variety of plants because no single food contains all the necessary nutrients, and all plants contain various amounts of toxins. Livestock thus “learn” that eating a variety of plants not only helps them obtain their nutrient requirements and regulate their intake of toxins, but also provides compounds that can either neutralize toxins or activate metabolic pathways to eliminate them. This is a healthier model than constraining livestock to a single food, even if that food is nutritionally “balanced.”

Since animals prefer familiar foods to novel ones, rotational grazing methods that incorporate low stock densities may have actually detrimentally modified the behavior of generations of livestock to “eat the best and leave the rest,” thus accelerating a decline in biodiversity. According to Provenza, heavy stocking for short periods encourages diet mixing. Mothers then “teach” their young — beginning as early as in the womb and later through the mother’s milk as well as grazing examples — which plants are suitable and desirable to consume.

Recognizing the fact that rhizospheres of plants are actual eco-systems in and of themselves, it’s agronomically critical to take into consideration that a diverse number of species — perennial deep-rooted herbs, legumes, perennial grasses, annual grasses, biennial legumes and herbs — provide an indescribable substrate upon which a very complex food web can be established. The food web includes multiple species of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, and so on. This diversity in the soil creates the same opportunities for the higher life forms that are dependent upon the “plankton of the earth,” whether these ecosystems are grasslands, rain forest, coral reef, bayou or the savannah.

Life begets life continually because predation, digestion and recycling occur effectively when there is this diversity. One example that explodes the monoculture myth is a tale of two plots on the same field on a farm in Ohio. Plot A consisted of only perennial ryegrass seeded to glyphosate-treated soils. The soils were generously fortified with lime, phosphate, potash, boron, gypsum (for sulfur) and of course, nitrogen. Plot B consisted of the same soil fertility program (without nitrogen), but Alice clover, festulolium, red clover and orchard grass were included in the seeding.

The ryegrass-only plot took off running and clearly was in the lead for producing more dry matter per acre. But by mid-summer, and during hot and humid conditions, the ryegrass-only plot exploded with a devastating outbreak of rust. The diverse plot next to it was completely unscathed. Clearly, the only difference in these two plots was forage diversity, and just as clearly, the results made a strong case for diversity creating plant immunity against disease. Who can specifically determine what mode of action was at work in this protection? How many identifiable, as well as unidentifiable variables, were involved in this phenomenon?

Back to Elliot’s observations in The Clifton Park System of the late 1800s: “A grass mixture should consist of the seeds of plants, some of which are of deep-rooting and drought-resisting character, so as at once to draw support from the lower strata of the soil . . . when other plants should, besides, be of a kind especially calculated to promote the health of the stock, and also act as a preventive against disease.”

Pasture Management: The Miracle of Roots

Elliot conducted a remarkable experiment aimed at breaking up hardpan on a “deep, strong soil on a low-lying alluvial flat.” He explains: “The following mixture, on the 25th April 1895, was sown with a thin seeding of oats: 5 lb. each of cocksfoot, meadow foxtail, and tall fescue; 7 lb. of meadow fescue; 4 lb. of timothy and 1 lb. each of wood meadow grass and rough-stalked meadow grass; 2 lb. each of white clover, alsike, and perennial red clover, kidney vetch, and lucerne; 3 lb. chicory, 8 lb. burnet, 1 lb. of sheep’s parley, and one-half lb. of yarrow. The field of fifteen acres was in 1896, cut for hay, which amounted to 36 tons, 14 cwt., or nearly 2½ tons per acre, and the aftermath grazed with lambs, was an excellent crop. Two trenches were cut in the field to a depth of about three feet, and on 11th September 1896. … I carefully inspected the land in order to estimate the depth to which some of the plants had penetrated. The results were particularly interesting as regards chicory, which seemed to have a profound contempt for the very hard pan, which we found at about 14 inches below the surface, and which was about 10 inches to a foot in thickness and was so hard that a powerful man with a sharp spade had to use great force to break it open when we were tracing the descent of the chicory roots, which had passed straight downwards without any deflections. . . . In passing through the pan, the strong roots of these plants, notably the chicory, had succeeded in disintegrating the apparently impenetrable pan. This pan was composed of very small particles of soil washed down from the soil above. This pan evidently was not formed solely from ploughs and horses, but owed much of its hardness and compactness to the smallness of the washed-down particles, which may be so small as to arrest capillary attraction. Altogether, we estimated that the roots had gone down about 30 inches. The burnet and vetch roots had gone down about 20 inches, and the lucerne from 8 to 10 inches. . . . Altogether we came to the conclusion that the roots of these plants are capable of doing all the work of a subsoiler.” All this occurred in only one year!

It’s interesting to see that Lucerne (alfalfa) only penetrated this soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Elliot pointedly states, “Of all the cultivating agencies, then, roots stand by far at the head, and it is by applying this principle to our arable lands that we shall at once manure, aerate, and cultivate them in the cheapest manner.”

Hugh Corley’s British classic Organic Small Farming, first published in 1957, gives praise to the same deep-rooting champions as his other English compatriots and stockman did. He points out that “it is necessary to sow deep-rooting and tap-rooting plants, so that the greatest possible depth of soil is permeated by their roots. And it is sensible to sow a variety of herbs to ensure the health of the grazing animals, and the palatability of the herbage. These herbs probably benefit the soil, too, toning up the soil organisms and making better humus when ploughed in. Bacteriological work by the Soil Association at Haughley suggests that phosphate-dissolving bacteria thrive best in compost made from a big variety of different wastes. Similarly, the humus made from a mixture of herbs and grasses may well be much more beneficial than that made from one grass and one clover.”

The Soil Connection

It is my responsibility to alert the reader that this discussion does not address forage quality and pasturing success as it pertains to sound pasture management. This of course includes managed intensive rotational grazing, with adequate rest periods for recovery, etc. Nor does this discussion fully address soil fertility and agronomic practices necessary for optimum forage quality. There are soil fertility parameters that have a direct correlation to the nutrient density of forages, which in turn are necessary for livestock to be productive and healthy. On soils that tend to be imbalanced and/or in poor fertility, species diversity — including deep rooted herbs — can assist in bringing up fertility from below and hastening the decay process in order to recycle nutrient residues associated with urine, manure and forage, both foliage and roots. This can be especially helpful when the soils in question are natively deficient or depleted from abuse or neglect, and the economics of purchasing fertility from off-farm sources becomes a prohibitive option.

Starting with soil fertility, the model developed by William Albrecht, Ph.D., has a long history of success, utilized on hundreds of thousands of acres with a wide range of crops. Using a method that incorporated what is known as base (cation) saturation, the goal is to provide a saturation of the soil colloid comprising: calcium, 65-75 percent; magnesium, 12-15 percent; potassium, 3-5 percent; sodium, less than 3 percent; phosphate levels (P2O5) should be in the range of 250-500 pounds/acre; sulfur, 50-100 pounds/acre; boron, 4-5 pounds/acre; copper, 4-10 pounds/acre; zinc, 10-20 pounds/acre; manganese, 50-80 pounds/ acre; and iron, 100-150 pounds/acre. These numbers of course are ranges dependent upon a Mellick III Extraction Method and certainly allow for some flexibility.

This information is provided to note the relevance of forage quality and is hardly meant to be a synopsis on the concerns of productive soils. Most nutritionists used a wide range of lab determinants to gauge quality. My first inclination is to look at the mineral levels to see if I’m “on target,” i.e., certain mineral levels and mineral ratios give clues as to the quality of protein, the presence of energy, the ability of that forage to supplement an animal’s needs for immunity and reproduction, and so forth. If the minerals are absent, I am suspicious as to whether this forage can supply the necessary essentials for productivity and health, regardless of the crude protein or relative feed values.

Of course, the “proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and ultimately livestock will prove the quality of their forage based upon production, reproduction, immunity to disease, healthy offspring, milk and meat quality, including flavor, keeping and cooking characteristics, and so forth. Keep in mind that typical soil and forage analyses often do not test for all the critical trace elements required by livestock, including selenium, chromium, cobalt, iodine, silica, vanadium, etc. This fact makes a strong case for diversity, especially of deep-rooted plants, which lessens the vulnerability inherent in forage that includes only a few species that, although efficient in accumulating certain minerals, would be inefficient in accumulating others.

Mineral Content

For domesticated forages, having calcium levels approaching 2 percent provides a superior quality of protein than that of forages with less than 1.5 percent. Additionally, high calcium levels indicate forages rich in energy, synthesized as calcium pectate. Although crude protein levels are preferred in the 20-22 percent range (or 3.3-3.5 percent nitrogen), sulfur levels should be at least 10 percent of the nitrogen. That is because a 10:1 or lower nitrogen-to-sulfur ratio indicates that there is less non-protein nitrogen (NPN), and therefore the protein content has a more complete amino acid profile. Sulfur is also a vital component of the essential amino acid methionine, as well as cysteine, precursors to glutathione, a tripeptide antioxidant that also happens to be a building block of glutathione S-transferase, an important liver detoxifier, and glutathione peroxidase, a critical immune activator. Phosphorous is a necessary element of ATP and ADP, energy molecules associated with the Krebs Cycle. Magnesium is associated with over 300 enzymatic reactions, including energy production in animals.

Trace element deficiencies, quite common in today’s conventionally grown crops, are associated with soil depletion, soil erosion and hybridization. Volumes have been written on their multiple catalytic properties, so necessary for immunity, reproduction, growth and performance. Zinc, for example, is associated with at least 200 enzyme processes in the body; copper is a component of healthy red blood cells; manganese is absolutely necessary for conception; boron is associated with the parathyroid gland. These comments address just a few of the many elements necessary for optimum health and production, and we’ve barely begun to list their numerous functions and benefits as they relate to profitable livestock production.


Incorporating plant biodiversity on a livestock farm increases the diversity of animal-required nutrients, including soil minerals, vitamins, pigments, enzymes, amino acids, fatty acids, sugars and other carbohydrates, sterols, hormones and the numerous phytochemicals that are able to provide countless medicinal and metabolic properties. Increasing the farm’s plant biodiversity provides weatherproofing from heat, drought, frost and excessive moisture. It minimizes the vulnerability that monocultures face through the vagaries of weather, because different plants have different strengths and weaknesses with regard to climatic influences.

Complex plant polycultures also create numerous microclimates, which are able to buffer the extremes of temperature and moisture. Shade from trees and hedgerows can offset production losses associated with heat and humidity impacting live weight gain and milk production. Windbreaks can reduce winter feed requirements by effectively reducing, even eliminating, the “wind-chill” quotient.

An extended food supply can be more readily realized with a biodiverse livestock operation, starting with early growing grasses, legumes and herbs, then later arriving leaves, and finally berries, fruits and nuts late in the season. Woody plants have the advantage of actually having a year-round growing season, thus proving more efficient than grasses and certainly row crops in producing biomass. Winter browse on terminal buds provides exceptional medicinal components and a high level of nutrient density.

Plant diversity also increases the diversity and number of other wildlife, including songbirds and bats, which consume insect pests affecting plants and animals.

These in turn attract raptors, which then prey upon rodents. Pollinators and predatory insects are able to find habitats and in turn help increase yields of crops bearing seeds, fruits and nuts. The soil food web, or soil ecosystem, is enhanced due to a permanent polyculture of plants growing on undisturbed soils. This means more efficient nutrient recycling and healthier root systems for all plants, again contributing to farm productivity. A healthy polyculture also means improved water percolation and purification, translating into cleaner groundwater and surface water, devoid of silt and excessive nutrients, and this situation ultimately benefits the ecosystems of invertebrates and fish in streams and lakes.

Plant diversity with livestock can readily provide the opportunity of two or three income streams for the farm, while also improving the farm’s health. Animal products such as livestock, meat, eggs and dairy products; the use of timber as lumber or fence posts; fruits, nuts and berries to offset purchased feed and/or sold directly to the human marketplace — all offer multiple economic rewards that don’t necessitate additional (net) human labor investments. This is especially true when factoring in the reduction or elimination of conventional agricultural practices and/or equipment.

This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Acres U.S.A

Grass-Fed Beef: 10 Keys to Getting Started

By Will Winter

There are few agricultural activities more exciting these days than being able to make and sell your very own gourmet 100 percent grass-fed beef.

Likewise, there are few agricultural activities that can be as frustrating to learn. Mistakes with animals on this scale can be large and devastating so it’s not only important to plan ahead, but perhaps even more important to avoid the mistakes others have made.

Demand for grass-fed beef continues to rise, whereas the feedlot beef industry is stagnant. When you attend a conference these days, the packed classrooms are the ones explaining grass-fed beef production.

Getting off on the right foot is important. It’s a common mistake to assume that one can merely throw some mediocre sale barn cattle onto old worn-out row crop land and come back in a year or two to find glistening happy cattle that are fully fattened and ready to go to town. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, just that it’s not very likely to work that way. For one thing, most modern cattle are no longer structured in a manner to achieve this, nor is the quality of our grass what it once was. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean there is anything in it.

Good old grass, that is nutrient-dense, high-Brix and abundant, has become hard to find anywhere, but particularly in the land formerly known as the Great Plains. Take Iowa for example (please). This land, before we got here, was 70-80 percent polyculture perennial prairie loaded with millions of bison. The stocking density was incredible, and the annual “harvest” by the ruminants just made it better. Now the prairie has been reduced to less than 0.01 percent of its original size. The few remaining bison are mostly nourished, fattened anyway, from silage and grain, just like the cattle, hogs and poultry.

Southpoll cow
A Southpoll cow, bred specifically to perform well on grass in warm climates.

A few years ago, in Ankeny, Iowa, just outside Des Moines, I gave a lecture to an audience of organic farmers and ranchers about how one could become a producer for Thousand Hills Cattle Co. (Then, as now, THCC is actively recruiting new producers.)

After going through several hours of financial and nutritional data derived from producers, I asked if there were any questions. An organic corn producer raised his hand and stated, in all seriousness, “I still don’t understand why I would want to take my land out of production …” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that comment, given that I had just shown figures explaining how the top producers who finish

100 percent grass-fed cattle were pocketing $500 or more profit per acre per year. It’s even more interesting given the fact that I had shown how this is possible with virtually no heavy farm implements (or bank loans) at all, and with the assurance that the price one can receive for properly-raised beef will not have the extreme price fluctuations seen with commodity beef — or, for that matter, like prices fluctuate with commodity grains. Grass-fed beef producers could be “price-makers” not “price-takers.”

I’m kind of picking on Iowa in particular these days — not because it’s unique, in fact, most of the states in the Midwest have lost their fertility and prairie to the lure of corn, beans and factory farms — but because there is so much potential for change there.

Iowa was a state that once held 8-10 feet of deep black topsoil, one that still has adequate rainfall, as well as a wonderful growing season and climate.

But sadly, this former Garden of Eden is now a place that imports over 90 percent of the food to feed its residents.

I work a lot in Iowa. I was there recently during a sudden downpour that turned into a torrential storm. Driving the back roads, I saw almost instant flooding, the kind that occurs when the soil has virtually no ability to absorb rainwater (called infiltration when it occurs), and virtually no cover crops to protect from soil loss in runoff.

British White cow
British White cattle work well on grass as they have not been modified for the feedlot.

The streams during and following this torrent of rain were heartbreakingly filled with a chocolate mocha-like mixture of soil, and the water itself was headed south in the flooded rivers and streams: farmland fertility headed to the Gulf of Mexico. Several days after a multi-inch rain this kind of land is back to being in a drought!

The good news is that I am watching start-up ranchers and even old-time ranchers reverse the process. All the information one needs to restore the land is available and for some who are willing to be aggressive about it, progress can be made in as little as one year. In fact, just restoring natural grazing can bring back fertility itself, and by “natural” I mean some form of rotational grazing, mimicking the grazing habits and patterns of bison and other large ruminants, which were a critical part of the development of the rich topsoil and organic matter of grasslands everywhere. The even better news is that by using advanced techniques and technology, change can be accelerated greatly.

So, what if the only thing a person can start with is rental land? No problem!

Many of the best techniques for increasing production are so cost-effective that rental ground can become an excellent money-maker. Sure, we are “fixing up” someone else’s land, but at the end of the day, it’s all good.

Here are my top 10 methods to quickly transform worn-out row crop land, rental ground, returning CRP land, or the typical overgrazed, eroded, weed-infested and abused pasture back into profitable and sustainable production:

1. Start With a Plan

Expert consultants can help new producers decide the major factors that practically determine what your farm wants to be. It varies with your own particular geography, topography, meteorology, geology, sociology, biology and psychology. This could include which species, say sheep, goats, pigs, or cattle, or, ideally some of each. Biodiversity is the heart and soul of regenerative agriculture. Will you attempt to certify for organic, biodynamic or other designations?

Scottish Highland cattle
Scottish Highland cattle can adapt very well to fattening on grass in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

Not every farm or ranch can finish gourmet grass-fed beef; they might, however, be excellent for a cow-calf operation. Almost any grassland will work for keeping mama cows fat and happy, but the best grass fertility and nutrient density is required for the final finishing. Many small producers begin with cow-calf and then evolve into finishing.

2. Hire a Good Consultant

This is something most of us have a hard time doing. But yet, the older I get, the more I realize that I don’t know everything. It’s nothing to be ashamed of! Good advice can shorten the path to success by many years.

Good advice will almost always prevent bankruptcy and failure. Good advice is also very easy to find these days. An ideal place to start is right here within the pages of Acres U.S.A. magazine. These specialists have been honed by the editors over many decades, so the odds of success in this gene pool are very high. The main variable is to find the one(s) that are aligned with your particular style and preferences.

3. Read & Study

You have a great magazine in your hands right now! There are many. I consider the internet an invaluable resource these days. In fact, every day I can see the terrible handicaps of those who cannot access the net, and those individuals are even more implicitly urged to expand their library.

Joel Salatin told us once that the first thing he does when visiting a farm is to check out their library of books. I know for a fact that there is a book, or usually many books, that give explicit details of each of these 10 steps, and they can be found right at the largest eco-agriculture bookstore in the world, Acres U.S.A.

4. Soil Testing

Get some good soil tests done at the very beginning. It is of utmost importance to find out what elements are missing, what elements are strong and the overall picture of soil health.

You will also want to have a waypoint on your growth map showing where you began. My advice is to eschew common labs that focus on NPK fertility and what might be called “modern soil chemistry.” Most extension services are like this, but go with the labs that offer deep analysis of the soil. I send most of my soil tests to Texas Plant and Soil Lab, not only because they give me the most valuable information, but because they help landowners chart a course toward sustainable restoration. I like them because they also do not sell anything, so they are less likely to recommend expensive soil amendments. There are many other great labs. We are basically talking about finding a lab that will help access adequate information about the three basic soil principles of chemistry, structure and biology — the latter being extremely important.

5. Mapping the Land

One of the best tools for this process utilizes the most modern technology, which falls under the rubric of pasture mapping. In fact, the company

I recommend is called PastureMap. In addition to the use of satellite and drone photography, they will quickly help determine the most efficient and accurate paddock division, where to put fences and determine the best place to run water lines and lanes. If one continues with their services, they assist in helping determine stocking density, grazing patterns and moves as well as ongoing livestock management.

6. Pasture/Field Remediation

Dung beetle in hand
Dung beetles are essential for the health of the soil, plants and grass-fed cattle.

If old GMO row cropland is to be used, it’s important to find tools that can mitigate and speed up the destruction of residual pesticides and chemicals that reside in the soil. In addition to the use of homemade or purchased compost tea preparations, I use biological products from several cutting-edge companies, but primarily I use the foliar sprays from Nature’s Best LLC out of Inwood, Iowa. For as little as $7-$10 per acre, I use these sprays to begin the organic destruction of glyphosate and other nasty chemicals.

They also begin the process of restoring biology to the soil itself. This soil biology, in my opinion, is the most important critical aspect of creating a fertile, nutrient-dense, non-toxic and productive farm. After establishing a policy of no poisons ever, then adding new biology, we will create a protective bio-film that covers every square inch of the property, healing the land, and protecting everyone and everything against deadly pathogens.

7. Bringing In Fertility

Now this topic will create controversy, and I’m bound to step on some toes. However, some things must be said. Having mentioned that I spend a lot of time in Iowa, I can attest to being witness to one of the most irritating and wasteful sins of agriculture, the spreading of massive quantities of feedlot or lagoon pit manure on the land. From the eye, nose and throat irritation that rural Iowans are forced to suffer, to the enormous loss of pure nitrogen (usually in the form of ammonia) going up into the air and atmosphere as well as the tremendous leaching of even more nitrogen and especially phosphorus into the aquifers and streams. Downstream pollution of nitrogen is toxic to humans and animals, and the accrual of excess phosphorus runoff causes toxic algae blooms and dead zones.

My number one choice of brought-in fertility is to purchase the absolute best composted manure available.

As one example, in Iowa I have been working with Bar K Ranch and their supply of composted manure. Their 100,000 feedlot cattle create over 100,000 tons of compost annually, and it is the cheapest form of imported fertility you will ever find. You get more than 100 percent of your expenditure back just in NPK additions alone, then the bonus is all the biology and good humus within. At a rate of 4 tons per acre per year, it’s an incredible method of accelerating fertility, organic matter, tilth, sward thickness and stocking density. Obviously, the other option is to import chemical fertility itself, such as lime, dolomite and other chemicals; however, the largest drawback is cost. Chemical fertility correction can total more than the cost of the land so it’s usually out of the question for rented land.

8. Fencing & Improvements for Livestock

Oh, yes, this will be essential. This category also tends to include gates, loading/handling facilities, water tanks, mineral feeders, shade and shelter from wind and weather.

It also goes back to our earlier steps of planning and mapping. A strong perimeter fence is a given. Double that statement for bison, sheep, or especially goats. This expenditure becomes most glaring for rental land. Greg Judy has written extensively about the methods he uses for covering the costs of the essential basics for bringing in livestock to land owned by others. Typically, row cropland will come unfenced or poorly fenced, so that must be taken into consideration.

Perimeter fencing, from scratch, begins at about $1 per running foot, on up. Once the perimeter fence is up and strong, it’s much easier to work with the dividing fences that control grazing patterns and allow for rotational or mob-and-move styles of grazing. One can safely say that electric fencing has made rotational grazing possible.

9. Stored Forages for Winter

The necessity of feeding hay may also include other periods of the year, depending upon the climate and latitude. The late Allan Nation, publisher of The Stockman Grass Farmer, said he traveled our continent from Canada to Mexico and found that basically everyone utilizes hay or other stored forages for approximately four months a year no matter where they live. In response, it prompted agronomist Jim Gerrish to write the book, Kick the Hay Habit.

Modern improvements in thinking regarding stockpiled forages, cover-cropping and in the creation of robust genetics for bovine foraging have lessened the dependence on hay. However, bringing in hay or other forages is an incredible boost toward the fertility of a farm or ranch. Todd Churchill, founder of Thousand Hills Cattle Co., estimates that there are over $90 worth of minerals in every ton of hay! This way one feeds not only the livestock but also the soil and forages.

10. Easy-Keeping Cows & Grass Genetics

Much ink has been spent on this category, and fortunes have been made and lost with good and bad decisions over genetics. One can safely say that tremendous damage has been done in the last century to dumb-down animal physiology to make them work in the feedlot. These are the animals you will most likely find, unless you know where to look and what to look for.

If the livestock originally imported by the immigrants and settlers, for example the old Aberdeen Angus, were to be used in a feedlot, they would be too good. They would quickly develop a massive layer of undesirable and excess back fat. Equally bad for the feedlot industry, they would fatten too quickly due to the fact that the basic reason we have feedlots is to find the most inefficient method of getting rid of our mountains of excess government-subsidized grain.

Grass-genetics bovine geneticist Steve Campbell says that when it comes to being easy-keepers on grass, the demographics of most herds in the United States resemble a bell-shaped curve with the best 5-10 percent being extremely desirable with the majority, which make up the hump at the top of the bell, being average to mediocre, and then another 5-10 percent or so at the bottom being the extremely undesirable slab-sided, rangy, bony ones that don’t work well on grass. He offers long- and short-term plans for the culling and selection techniques such that any herd can be shaped so as to get to the eventual goal of having the bulk of the animals be the ones that are the money-makers on grass.

Call it a blueprint for the future or just call it your grass-fed beef ranching plan, but what you have just read is not an experiment or a theory. It adds up to a time-tested plan that will work for anyone who is serious about making the leap to grass-fed animals. The fact is that the evolution from grain-fed ruminants going back to their roots as God-designed grass-munchers is as certain as the ongoing ecological switch from burning coal for energy to converting to a future fueled by alternative fuels — and someone will need to be there to produce what more and more consumers want to eat. No matter how you get there, there is gold at the end of this rainbow. Getting there as quickly and efficiently as possible only makes sense; likewise, there is no value in making the mistakes others have made if it can be avoided. As they say, experience is the best teacher, to which I would add, preferably somebody else’s! The rest is up to you.

This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Acres U.S.Amagazine.

Will Winter is a holistic herd health consultant and livestock nutritionist as well as a traveling teacher focusing on sustainable livestock production and traditional nutrition. Reach him at willwinterdvm@gmail.com or Grass Farmer Supply.

Watering Tips for Cattle Herds

By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.

When summer has arrived with lots of hot and humid days, let’s remember our cows while we are out in the fields. Thinking about water for our animals is always smart.

Here are some tips regarding water quality and animal health:

1. Provide clean, fresh water—the most important nutrient!

  • Cows can drink up to thirty gallons of water each day (depending on production, size, season)
  • If not provided, cows will search for water in ditches, puddles, and streams.
  • Monitor quality: nitrates, coliforms. If needed, use peroxide, sand filters, UV light, etc.
  • Monitor quantity: get a water meter if needed
  • Your cows are your income; they deserve lots of good, clean water to keep making lots of milk.
  • Cows never get used to bad water.

2. Standing Water Can Harbor Diseases

  • Puddles in barnyards contain manure and urine.
  • Salmonella, coliforms, and lepto thrive in puddles and saturated manure.
  • Clinical signs include diarrhea, fever, mastitis, and abortions.
  • Saturated manure and moist bedding in pens or stalls are hotbeds for disease.
  • Stressed animals (just fresh or high-producing cows) are at increased risk.

3. Slow-Moving Water Carries Diseases with It

  • Cows standing in streams are exposed to the problems happening upstream.
  • Cows urinating and dropping manure into streams create problems for your neighbors downstream, and we are all, in a sense, “downstream.”

4. Warm, Wet Conditions Can Hurt Hooves/Start Mastitis

  • Muck and puddles will soften hooves to such an extent that bacteria can enter and gravel can easily puncture the soles, causing abscesses, footrot, and/or strawberry/hairy heel.
  • Leaky, heavy producers will have environmental germs (coliforms, strep, and staph) enter the teat canal. This is usually caused by moist bedding in the stall or lying as a group under a tree. The result will be high somatic cell count or actual mastitis.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

Total-Mixed-Ration & Individuality in Feeding Animals

By Hugh J. Karreman, V.M.D.

As I look at the calendar on my wall, I see a picture of a boy walking in front of a long line of about a hundred cows eating a total mixed ration (TMR) at a feed bunk. While it can be easy to simply see the long line of cows as identical to each other in terms of a production unit, it is just as easy to see each and every animal as unique and individual from each other. Seeing the individuality of animals allows us to think beyond the simplistic view of group averages to realizing that each animal has specific nutritional needs.

This concept is true whether we are looking at a herd of cows, a herd of goats or pigs, a flock of sheep, a band of horses, a pride of lions, or even a school of fish. Each animal will respond differently to the feed it is fed or finds because of different individual metabolic needs. Metabolic needs will differ upon each animal’s genetic make-up as well as the stage of life.

A TMR is designed to perfectly feed only the perfectly av­erage cow in the herd. While TMRs can provide a herd with a desirable forage-to-grain ratio, the minerals delivered will not be accurate to the needs for most cows. It isn’t rocket science to realize that there is a quite a range of animals in a herd, varying in body size to different stages of lactation and preg­nancy and growth. So if you have a herd of eighty cows with sixty-five Holsteins and fifteen Jerseys, it is rather obvious that each of their needs will be different. Add to this that some of each will be early lactation and climbing in milk production while others are past peak and some will have been recently bred while others are long bred, and it becomes very obvious that their mineral needs will vary greatly, yet the TMR deliv­ers the same exact homogeneous mix of food and minerals to them all.

cattle feeding
Considering each animal’s individual dietary needs is not easy, but knowing every animal has a different metabolism is important.

Some animals may need relatively more of one mineral than another. This would hold true for any mineral element. For instance, fresh cows need lots more daily calcium than cows ready to dry off. Calcium is tightly regulated in the blood­stream via the parathyroid gland, and we know that Jerseys have more problems keeping calcium in balance than other breeds. Zinc, needed for good hoof health, may be needed in different amounts for Holsteins with their white hooves than for Brown Swiss with their black hooves. Each animal will need different proportions of minerals in her diet than the next animal, yet the TMR delivers the same proportion day after day after day.


What am I trying to get at? Well, it seems to me that re­gardless of how smart (or not) you may consider cows, sim­ply realizing that individuals will need and uniquely respond to what is in front of them makes sense. And, additionally, it has been proven that cows can select what they need by vari­ous internal bio-feedback mechanisms. It is well known that foraging animals will seek out what they need, sometimes in depraved ways: cows eating rabbits to get phosphorus they desperately crave, animals eating dirt to take in minerals that are lacking in the diet fed out to them, pre-weaned calves eat­ing their bedding to get fiber because they are being denied hay until weaning, etc. It is also known that animals will select plant species that would seem to play no real part of their diet: calves eating burdock leaves, horses eating willow leaves, monkeys eating bitter, tannin-containing leaves, etc. In these cases they are self-medicating. How they sense what to eat is still a big mystery, but it is clear that they are drawn to certain things to satisfy deep urges. Call it intuition, call it instinct, call it whatever you will, but they are trying to tell us some­thing: as individuals they can and do select what they want in their diet.

Therefore, maybe we should provide only the basics of the ration in a TMR so that the baseline of the animals is covered, but then rely more heavily on them to self-select what else they need, especially in terms of minerals. In practical terms, this would mean providing sources of free-choice minerals such as kelp, bioavailable sources of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, bicarb, clay, and trace mineralized salt. Be prepared to watch some of the minerals disappear quickly. Be happy, for you have then allowed your animals to balance their own ration — and to tell you what your base ration may be lacking.

This same concept holds for pasture: try to have a biodiverse pasture. Having only one or two plant species (like white clover and perennial rye grass) in a pasture will not lead to a very balanced intake, whereas a pasture full of variety (and yes, “weeds”) will allow animals to pick and choose to their heart’s content. If you’re worried about “weeds” being refused, please know that animals eating “weeds” should tell you something, for the “weeds” usually have quite a good mineral profile as many are somewhat deeply rooted or at least provide variety to the one or two plant species purposely planted for pasture intake. The only time I can see a monoculture being grown would be with a warm season annual like sorghum-sudan to germinate quickly and give vigorous growth during the heat when the native cool season plants aren’t growing.

Providing diversity, both in plants and minerals, in the diet is a good thing, for it parallels both the diversity of individuals in a herd as well as allowing them to choose what they spe­cifically want to eat. Diversity is the opposite of homogeniza­tion. Too many things in life seem to be “homogenized” these days. Isn’t it ironic that individuality is both highly prized in our general society but also made bland by everyone buying the same stuff at the same chain stores? Being unique is certainly good, right? Likewise, each animal is unique, an individual with individual needs— whether it is one of a line of a hundred cows at a feed bunk or individually named animals in a small, tie-stall herd. Each and every one of them has individual needs that can best be met by careful attention to correct feeding. Allowing animals themselves to select pasture plants and freely choose various minerals provided allow them to satisfy their own unique set of dietary needs.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care

Grazing Tips for Hot Weather

By Hugh J. Karreman, V.M.D.

If you are already committed to grazing in general, here are a few tips to keep in mind for the summer. During the hottest time of the year, regular cool-season grasses go dormant, more or less. One way to help them “jump” when a rain does come is to not let pastures be grazed down too short.

By keeping the grass and pasture height no less than three inches, there will be enough plant mass available for rapid regrowth when moisture comes along during the hot spell.

As crop insurance (nongovernmental kind), plant sorghum sudan grass for July and August heat. Sorghum sudan grass is a warm-season grass that loves the heat. For a forty- to fifty-cow herd, three to four acres is all that is needed. Plant it during the last two weeks of May, but not much past the first week of June (in southeastern Pennsylvania).

Cattle resting in the shade to keep cool.

The soil needs to be about 60ºF, and you should drill it in no deeper than half an inch deep. If the soil is too cold or the grass is planted too deep, it won’t start out well. Try to “stagger” its planting: two acres one week and two acres in another ten days. Since it normally comes up so fast and lush, this will help to not let it get ahead of you and the cows. Generally no herbicide is needed if planted correctly because of its fast growth. It does not do well being planted into an existing crop. A seed­bed needs to be properly prepared and the sorghum-sudan planted into it. Graze it when it is about eighteen inches or higher to avoid any possibility of prussic acid (though that seems to have been bred out of this plant).

Sorghum-sudan can also be cut and ensiled and, if cut at the right time and ensiled properly, is at least equivalent corn silage in terms of energy content. It is also more digestible with more effective fiber than corn silage.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care