Ranching Like an Economist: It’s All About the Soil

Scott River Ranch specializes in grass-fed, holistically managed cattle.


Dawn creeps over hills overlooking the alpine pasture of the Marble Mountain Wilderness in California’s far north. Gareth Plank reins his horse alongside a mooing herd of red and black angus, their snorts and chuffing breath hang in the frigid air as a silent, gentle snowfall coats the hillside.

On the same morning three thousand miles away in New York City, the Twin Towers — where Gareth had served at a top-level firm as a financial securities analyst — lay crumbled. Only three years before September 11, 2001, Gareth had left the financial sector to live out the dream he’d held since he was ten years old: to buy a ranch and raise cattle with his family.

Tucked on the edge of the Klamath National Forest in California’s far North, Scott River Ranch occupies six square miles of verdant, lush pasture where Gareth and Millie Plank raise grass-fed, holistically managed cattle. “There’s no place better on the planet to raise cattle than Scott Valley,” Gareth Plank says. The climatic shifts and harsh winters in this area west of Yreka tends to produce more hardiness and vigor in grasses and animals. “There’s better TDN and crude protein in our grasses because of the contrasts in climate, we tend to have less pests because of our winters,” he says. In a state known for water conflict and scarcity, 740,000 acre feet of water flow through Scott Valley each year. Plank says, “Farmers and ranchers use about 5% of it, about 40,000 acre feet. Where on the planet can you find that?” Livestock and hay make up the primary agricultural operations in this valley. “We can’t grow melons here: it’s a 120 day growing season, but we can grow great grass.”

Plank has owned and operated Scott River Ranch for twenty two years. “When I first started out I was growing cattle, and then thought I was growing grass. Now I believe I am growing soil. The soil is really what creates the dynamic complexity of flavor.”

Rather than seeing the individual components of his operation as siloed elements, Plank takes an integrated view: producing delicious, well-marbled meat at Scott River Ranch happens to the benefit of the local ecosystem and the Plank family, rather than at their expense. 

Before purchasing the ranch, Plank absorbed the writings of Allan Savory and the Holistic Management approach. Known for its instructions on biological monitoring and planned grazing, many readers might not know that Holistic Management encompasses more than just grass management. Longtime friend of the Planks, agricultural educator and co-founder of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, Spencer Smith, points out that an integrative mindset like Plank’s is really what Holistic Management is all about. “The grazing aspect is the part of holistic management that gets the most attention because it’s so different and it does provide such profound ecological results, but if you don’t pace that within your financial realities it won’t work. We need to bring financial realities, social equities and ecological benefits up together in order to be in business for the long term. Gareth is really conscious of that and the work that he does is proof that you can improve all things simultaneously.”

Gareth Plank owns and operates Scott River Ranch.

Dirt Roads via Wall Street

“From my earliest memory, I knew I wanted to be a rancher.” Plank says. In his early years Plank worked for ranchers around his community in the San Joaquin Valley who became much more than employers, having a profound impact on him — not only as a future career choice but also as the kind of person he wanted to become. “I’ve met a couple of presidents and dined with senators, but the people who’ve left me the most inspired were always farmers and ranchers.”

Plank committed to spending his early life working in another field to save up for a ranch. “I was resolute from an early age that by the time I turned 40 I wanted to be ranching.” Plank says. “The happiest I’ve always been is playing in the dirt.”

Before acquiring the beautiful acreage in Scott Valley that would become Scott River Ranch in 1998, he built a successful career in the financial sector as a senior securities analyst. His experiences on Wall Street consulting on investments for foreign governments, Fortune 500 companies and the United States Government offered Plank a big-picture approach and long-term pragmatism that drew him towards the principles of regenerative agriculture. “There’s a certain amount of sobriety that comes from being an analyst. My experience with markets and government policy reminds me to keep painfully alert and stay sober: I know I’m not going to change the world instantly.” Plank’s analytical skill set also helps him unpack both the business, science and visionary aspects that make small family farms successful. “My profession as a financial analyst made me pretty nerdy: getting excited about numbers and trends is part of my DNA.”

Plank carried with him the lens of an economist as he approached his second career in ranching. “Gareth is good at assessing capital improvements for reaping long-term financial benefits,” Smith says, “Like his irrigation system, which wasn’t cheap to put in; however, it’s creating irrigation efficiencies in wet years and dry years that will increase the amount of forage production on the farm that with time and good grazing can increase the amount of livestock and cash crops that can come off the ranch. That all together is part of a healthy business model.”

Plank sees a lot of parallels between investment mistakes in the recent market crashes and the increasing instability of practices in industrial agriculture. “Going back to my experience on Wall Street: I observed extremely smart people doing very stupid things because we are creatures of habit.” But he says we shouldn’t demonize the people following these farming trends, it’s just human nature to want to streamline farming and automate our way out of the daily problem-solving that filled our agrarian ancestors’ daily hours. “On the farm it’s natural to do anything we can to avoid extra work. [The brain is] a super big, expensive organ, so we want to find ways not to use those calories — that’s just evolutionary biology.”

Rather than ranching with formulaic, one-size-fits-all approaches that have characterized the short-cut taking of modern agriculture, Plank has seen better outcomes on his farm through hands-on observation: picking through the dirt to find insect species, sitting out by the riparian zone watching for incoming wildlife, running a hand over the glossy coat of a steer. “If you’re relying too much on apps and tests, you stop observing with your eyes. You go out and look at the coat of your animal — you can tell if it’s stressed and you can learn to observe what it needs.”

Both an extensive knowledge of the Holistic Management strategy and an intimate connection with his own land have been critical for creating the mental grid with which Plank measures the data he’s observing every day. “The first thing I want to do is get out of the way of Mother Nature. That’s hard because we’re control freaks.”

Converting to Organic

While still exploring the principles of Holistic Management, Scott River Ranch wasn’t certified organic until 2003. The turning point came when Mad Cow was discovered in Washington shortly after the ranch had sent a group of cattle to be sold. “When 50% of your income comes in one check and the market is off because of an event, you know you’re doing something wrong! Usually people don’t change until the rug is pulled out from under them.” Plank says participating in the commodity market is a matter of personal preference. “There are people doing a wonderful job, making nice livings. But for myself I recognized that I wasn’t smart enough to work with [agribusiness,] they have far too many resources.” 

Plank not only looked to the organic market for more stability, but also for the social wellbeing of his family on the farm. “I increasingly recognized that [my previous methods] we unsustainable. I observed my small children running around barefoot in the fields and playing by the creek, then I looked at the label of what I was spraying.” While the EPA designates certain herbicides and pesticides as safe after a 48-hour period, Plank felt uncomfortable putting these synthetic chemicals where his children were playing. “If it’s not good enough for my children, I don’t want it for my livestock or land either. The truth is petrochemical industry is not our friend.” Plank believes that the extensive litigation in the mid ‘90s over the tobacco industry’s false claims will be completely eclipsed by a future reckoning with the petrochemical industry’s longstanding minimization of its negative impacts. “We are biochemical beings that live on hormones, so what is the cost of being continuously exposed to a hormones and nerve agents?”

While convinced of the health and ecological benefits of following organic principles, Plank cautions farmers considering the switch to think economically while phasing in organic. “For example, when we converted to organic we had planted wheat, and we lost approximately a hundred thousand dollars on that crop because we could not spray it. So it cost us about a hundred thousand dollars to convert that field to organic to get a 2-3% premium. That’s expensive. In retrospect I should have kept that wheat field conventional and then later converted it into pasture and not taken a loss that year on the wheat harvest.” Over a process of five years, Plank certified Scott River Ranch in sections via Oregon Tilth. “I’m sure you’ve read Don Quixote, you know, Cervantes?” Plank says, “It feels like chasing windmills sometimes: organic should not be labelled, the other food should be labelled.”

Despite the high costs for a marginal premium, Plank believes organic principles have greatly benefitted Scott River Ranch. “We’re raising more cattle here on an organic basis than we were on a conventional basis. We’re running 100 fat steers, 200 moms and another 100 yearlings out there. We used to run 60-80 head here. There were absolutely short term losses, but now we’re running more cattle, producing more feed.”

Calving Naturally to Minimize Losses

“We calve when the deer have their fawns,” Plank says. “Why would you want to fight with Mother Nature? There’s a reason why the elk and the deer are born now: we’re told to calve during what’s known as ‘spring calving’ which for us is during the January blizzard and February blizzard, but that’s to have a calf available when the market is higher.”

Plank points out that calving based on market preferences means higher mortality in the harsh January and February conditions. “Getting up in the morning the first thing I want to do is check for catastrophe, you know: make sure all the animals are standing, but then I want to slow down, observe and get out the way of what the mothers are doing for their calves.”

Plank’s strategy for natural, gentler calving is to purchase bulls that had a low birthweight: this is a trait they will pass on to their offspring. In his experience, the need for intervention is more of a signal that management isn’t going right. “It’s considered unmanly not to pull calves: you’re supposed to be out there in the rain, the snow, the blizzard. Why? About 5 years ago we got a bad bull and had to pull a lot of calves, but in 10 years, outside of that one bad year, have pulled maybe two calves. The calves we have now are between 55-60lbs at birth instead of the typical 110-120lbs but their wean weight is the same.” 

Large birth weights have often been correlated with favorable market weights, but Plank says that this just isn’t true. Additionally, a 120lb calf could paralyze a mother cow or the calf, traumatized from a difficult birth, might lay on the ground for hours and become too weak to access colostrum during the critical window for the calf’s survival. Inversely, a calf genetically predisposed to be born at 55lbs will be born quickly and can suckle immediately, fortifying its chances of survival. Plank has had consistent success in getting calves of this birth-size to grow out. “There’s no relationship between birth weight and adult weight: low birth weight is a genetic trait.”

Grazing Economics

The typical practice of grazing down to four inches isn’t a norm at Scott River Ranch. “I want 60% of my dry matter left in the pasture when the cattle move to the next paddock. Your water retention plummets when you graze down to four inches. We found that in conventional haying, if you give a butch haircut the top 5-6 inches of soil are immediately dry, hot: where do your earthworms go? Where do your dung beetles go? They’re either dead or disappear.” 

Using electronet fencing, the cattle move every day at Scott River Ranch both to limit animal impact and to break down the life cycle of the fly. The watering systems are carefully configured around the ranch to accommodate an ever-changing sequence of paddocks.

Diversity is a critical element of Plank’s philosophy. “When I went to Nepal in the ’80s I had never seen so many different kinds of potatoes, all different kinds of textures and uses —and when a blight would come through and wipe out one potato crop, there were 50 other varieties that weren’t affected.” The pastures at Scott River Ranch have dozens of naturally occurring varieties of forage to offer his cattle. “When it comes to forage we’d like to see 15-20 different species out there and the reason for that is different climates, different rain environments, different species do better depending on the year.” Plank says. This also helps manage invasive and inedible species with the power of diversity. “Each year is a weed du jour!” He also points out that it’s more helpful nutritionally to plant a diverse offering for his cattle. “You need dozens of different species out there for metabolic health. If you don’t have a good smoragsboard out there, they’re probably not going to be as healthy.

Part of the grazing strategy for building up a beef’s frame and musculature involves being strategic about the composition of carbs and proteins in the forage species of any given pastures. “We finish the animals on the highest legume concentration for putting on more intramuscular fat.” The fact that Plank runs a terminal ranch, rather than selling 6-month-old steers on the commodity market, means he is invested in having not only the steer’s weight at market perfection but also the flavor, marbling characteristics and texture. “The industry is working against itself: the cattleman at the front end wants a big body, the butcher at the other end wants good marbling, but they’re fighting each other. When you’re a terminal rancher you don’t want high live weight, you want high dead weight.” 

Plank is interested in pasture cropping, but still prefers to allow the ecosystem of the ranch to call its own shots. “What I really want are the native grasses that reside in the soil that this landscape has evolved for.” During a drought one year, 70% of the ranch’s lushest pasture on Horn Lane died out and yet without reseeding, chiseling or disking the pasture was able to restore itself naturally. “We’re watching our diversity explode without our interceding: we’re getting our timothys, or different types of brome, plantain out there —things that we didn’t even plant are emerging because of the Holistic Management methods.” 

Preserving the Land is Preserving Ranching

While the economic interests of ranching and ecological interest of the land may seem disparate in some circles, Scott River Ranch offers an exemplary approach, not only for maintaining the beautiful wilderness habitat of a diverse riparian and forest zone, but also in creating economic value in these conservation efforts. 

Placing smooth wire on the bottom of his fences allows wildlife to move freely from the uplands to the riparian zone. “That’s been part of our integrative pest management.” Plank says. “It harbors beneficial insects, raptors and allows the deer and elk to have more cover.”

With the ranch’s fish ladder system for Salmon and Steelhead, Plank was able to benefit fish populations while securing his access to a critical water source and getting paid by conservation resources for providing a service. Smith explains the triple-bottom-line approach that helps farmers and ranchers reframe ecological considerations the way Plank does. “The Scott River is a sensitive watershed with a high conservation value when it comes to fish, and many ranchers might see that as an obstacle. Or you can look at that obstacle as an opportunity to create ecosystem services that will have financial dividends as well as ecological benefits.” 

When considering how Gareth Plank’s mindset has inspired him, Spencer Smith says “he’s one of those early adopters: a forward thinking person who creates opportunities for others within Scott Valley, increasing economical and social dividends while improving biological results.” For all his skills at analysis and integrative systems management, Plank’s motivation for running Scott River Ranch is pretty simple: “This is the best beef you’ll ever eat.” Producing a delicious end-product for his family and customers is both an intricately impactful act and a simple joy.

Livestock Grazing: The Organic Farmer’s Dilemma

By Gary Zimmer

Livestock grazing organically is one of the hardest things to do, and a dilemma for most organic farmers. Why do most farmers farm the way they do? Because it’s easy — easy to spray, easy to buy technology, easy to plant with a no-till machine.

But it’s not always easy to make money, provide quality food, or be sustainable.

And about the way farmers care for their livestock? Locking them in a small box, calculating the “perfect ration,” and keeping it “simple”? When problems do show up, grab a drug — that’s easy! It’s a routine that can be taught. It’s certainly easy to get production and volume, but what about the well-being of that animal? And if we are what we eat, we have a problem.

And then there is organic farming. Is it easy? Well, the “not doing things” part is easy. If I just stopped all the negative practices and things went great, then organic would be easy, too. But is that a sustainable system for feeding the world and producing quality food? Organic can produce crops that yield as much as any other production system, but in more sustainable, environmentally friendly ways, providing better quality food while using less energy.

To be successful is not easy. It requires intensive management. There are certain principles you can’t violate in the healthy, mineralized, biological farming system. It takes knowledge, it takes an investment, it takes doing as many things successfully as you can with the tools you have.

angus calf
An Angus calf grazes.

Being successful requires managing chemical, physical and biological properties. Managing chemistry means keeping an active supply of a balance of minerals in an exchangeable form in the soil. To do this takes soil biology, a diverse population of living creatures that are well fed and managed and are being fed a balanced, diverse diet. It also takes a well-aerated soil with lots of active carbon providing that soil life with an ideal home and the food they need. This system is more complex, and one size doesn’t fit everyone; there’s no box to put it into, no simple routine.

When this complete biological system works, for the most part we don’t need the drugs or the plant protective materials to grow that healthy mineralized crop.

And what about livestock? What principles can’t you violate there?

Cattle need minerals, in adequate amounts and in a balance, just as the soil does. If minerals are in short supply in the feeds (dairy nutrition starts in the soil), you will certainly need to add supplements to the diet. Ration balancing comprises knowing what the animal needs, what it’s eating, and then adding what’s short and diluting what’s in excess.

The problem with this simplistic system is that there are variations in mineral sources and availability. Are all mineral sources the same? Is there a difference between the nutrition coming from a healthy, mineral-rich, highly digestible plant versus that from stones taken out of the ground versus synthetic sources? Do we balance our rations as if all sources are the same? We all try to achieve the same numbers to balance the diet. Yet farmers can have success even when it seems like they are not following the numbers, but instead using other sources and amounts, by accident or by design.

For us on Otter Creek Organic Farm, mineral management starts with a soil test. Where cows graze, many farms have excess manure from the cattle and they don’t need to add more N, P or K. But there is a need for other nutrients — calcium, sulfur, magnesium and the trace elements — all are a part of the cow’s nutrition. She needs minerals and while you can buy them, the best place for a cow to get this is from the forages she eats.

On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag

Visit Gary Zimmer’s farm and learn about soil health in person this summer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – taking place July 19-20, 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. 

Learn more here!

What we supplement in the barn is what’s missing or out of balance in the forage/pasture. We need the right tools plus the knowledge of how much, when and how to use them. How do you recognize if the ration is out of balance and violating the principles of the cow? Production and health suffer. Cows get thin and won’t breed back because they are milking beyond your capability as a farmer and grazier. (Or conversely, you could downgrade your genetics to match your management.)

Feeding cows on pasture, and proudly surveying your herd out in the field, looks great and sounds easy. After all, cows get to be cows. But doing this successfully while maintaining milk quality and quantity takes time and the right situation, dedication and knowledge. Providing what the consumer wants is what makes farming fun and a challenge.

Key Livestock Grazing Issues

Identifying the two most common problem areas concerning fertilizers and the soil is easy: nitrogen and potassium. These are also the most commonly used fertilizer materials. They are highly soluble and get into plants easily, which means there are often problems with excesses.

MUN (milk urea nitrogen) levels, blood nitrogen levels, excess dietary protein, free nitrogen from too much N, combined with a lack of sulfur, are major issues for the cow. Soils low in active organic matter lack buffering capability and make problems worse, but no matter what, excess nitrogen is a problem. I don’t know very many graziers who don’t face these issues at least some part of the year.

You as a farmer are always dealing with carbon and nitrogen in the soil and achieving the proper balance is challenging. Cows are the same. We want to see highly digestible forages, which are also usually high in protein (N). But then the forage would be short of carbon, or energy, which means the cows will have health problems and get thin. (And I’m not sure how good the milk is with those high MUNs — that nitrogen can’t be good for us humans, either.)

Finding this balance is the primary job on grazing farms, and it’s not easy. It’s especially difficult in early spring when the pressure is on to get cows grazing as soon as possible, even though forages are young and high in nitrogen. We can add molasses, feed more grain, or supplement extra carbon, such as charcoal, which helps by holding and balancing the free nitrogen.

Adding dry hay to the diet is another good idea as cows need effective fiber. We want hay that the cows will eat and that they can produce on, but neither too good (too high in protein), nor too coarse, too old nor too rank, and certainly not moldy. For this reason, at at our own farm we like hay with grass in it and 15-17 percent protein. We use mostly balage (baled sileage), selecting feed that is drier (with 35 percent moisture) and saving it for early spring feeding. If this is not possible, then we’ll actually add straw to the ration — good, clean straw at a pound or so per cow. Some farmers like barley straw, but regardless of the kind, it should be good, clean straw. It provides the cow with the effective fiber she needs for cud chewing and is also a very low-protein, complex carbon source.

So now you have some ideas on the first problem, nitrogen, and some ways to deal with it. Remember, you cannot violate the principles of the cow – and for a grazier this is not easy.

The second issue, potassium, is again a problem of excess, especially for those close-to-the-barn grazing paddocks. Manure is dropped where the cow grazes, usually in limited areas around where the cows eat. Beef cattle which are spread out on large ranches probably don’t have this problem. What do you do about these excess nutrients, especially potassium, which interfere with the mineral balance? High potassium can lead to low energy and mineral imbalances in the feed; one symptom is grass tetany early in the spring. To compensate, cows will need extra magnesium. And always remember, such a high potassium pasture is not a good place to keep a dry cow — you’d better buy some low-potassium hay to counterbalance such feed. Dealing with potassium is not easy, but it’s a must if you want high-production, healthy cows that get pregnant and give top quality milk.

The Organic Grazing Standards

I’ve talked about two of the problems with grazing, but what do these two issues have to do with the new grazing standards for certified organic production? One word … success. If you don’t both understand these issues and have a plan to deal with them — now that you are being forced to graze — you have a problem.

My belief is that if you are going to graze (and in some cases, if you are being forced to graze), then you must become skilled at it. It’s not as simple as opening the gate and chasing the cows out into the field.

On our 200-cow organic farm, meeting the NOP grazing standard is not a problem. For years we’ve been doing all we can to graze as much as possible, starting early in the season with cereal rye and ending with stockpiled feeds and fall crops such as oats and brassicas. We have been learning, slowly at first, how to deal with grazing, growing crops for grazing and rotation management. It’s an art with some science thrown in and a lot of common sense, which unfortunately highly uncommon on farms where there’s no desire to graze or learn about grazing. This doesn’t mean that those farmers aren’t good with cows within their current system. But this new system, where cows must have access to pasture for 30% of their dry matter intake and where you must have a workable record keeping system to prove you’re meeting that standard, is a major change, and not an easy one.

For example, do you graze short, when pasture is 8 inches tall, or grazer taller, more mature plants? Plant height and density are also important, so that the cow gets significant value with every mouthful she takes. After all, she can only take so many bites each day, as she also needs time to rest and chew her cud. Remember, it’s not about what’s available in the pasture, but about the actual quantity of feed eaten. Every day is different when grazing, and it’s not easy to make all of these decisions, each of which is important.

As I write this article it’s raining, which presents new challenges. This 2 1/2 inches of rain meant the cows had to stay in overnight and be fed total mixed ratio, or TMR. Cows hate change, but as graziers we have to be flexible to changing conditions. Meanwhile, the main pasture is getting too mature, and in another field the sorghum-sudan grass we planted (after an early spring grazing of fall rye) is not yet ready for the cows. Even if it was, it’s too muddy and we can’t let the cows out there or they’ll ruin the field. Now because of the weather that field will get away from us. There are simply times — like right now during this rainy spell — that we need to cut and bale forages because grazing can’t keep up with the growth. We may even pre-cut (by four hours, allowable under the NOP rules) and lay the pasture out before turning the cows in to graze. Sometimes that’s what’s needed to keep everything working.

So the real question with the new organic grazing standard — which I’m convinced is a blessing in the long run — is whether you are going to try to make it easy and do the minimum grazing to meet the standard or whether you will become a real grazier.

At Otter Creek Organic Farm, we are graziers, and we absolutely will not have trouble meeting the standard of 30 percent dry matter intake from pasture, while maintaining our milk production and quality, too. We have been at this for ten years, getting better and smarter as we go along. Knowing when to change to prevent problems is not easy. It takes the eye of a master.

Our biggest problem will likely be the paperwork to show — and prove— what we’re doing. You see, the only easy thing I want on our farm is the paperwork and record keeping, so we are developing our own easy-to-complete, easy-to-follow forms to help us along. Everything else should require thought, consideration and knowledge.

Following the rules and meeting the standards, for the most part, isn’t difficult if you really want to be a grazier. Having a pasture management plan and managing the pastures as a crop is what we’ve been doing for years, but like many farmers, our plan is in our heads and not on paper.

Meeting the 120-day, 30 percent dry-matter-intake requirement won’t be a problem on our farm. We have our TMR and know the number of cows being fed and how much they eat. As pastures grow and more feed becomes available, we remove balage from the TMR. This gives us a pretty good record of dry matter intake (DMI) from the pasture. We also monitor body condition, milk production and pregnancy rates.

Eventually (unless a lot of rain shows up) we get to the point where we’re feeding no balage at all, just the corn silage at 8 pounds dry matter (DM), grains (mostly corn) at 12 pounds DM with 1 pound roasted soybeans and dry hay or straw at 2 pounds of DM. We’re feeding Holsteins and normal winter dry matter intake is in the low- to mid-50 pounds-per-day range.

Doing the math, we are over 50 percent DM coming from pasture almost the entire summer. We start grazing at only 10 percent DM intake, building up as the summer progress, dropping back in the fall and ending up back at 10% DM intake. And that’s with 180 days of grazing.

Our dry cows, heifers and even calves (except for the younger ones) are on pasture with 5 pounds grain/mineral supplement plus a 75 percent pasture diet with an occasional dry hay bale. If this doesn’t work for your farm, switching to fall calving makes it easier to meet the standards (and also helps with the spring milk flush). Fall calving keeps the dry cow on 75 percent forage intake for 60 days during peak grazing time. If land is short, move her to pasture elsewhere. I have seen this done successfully in both South Africa and Australia.

Because of the difficulty of knowing exactly what and how much minerals the grazing cow is getting, in addition to the highly digestible feeds high in minerals (which deliver minerals more efficiently), we offer our cattle free-choice mineral. The numbers nutritionists use for ration balancing were not determined using a pasture that’s in a highly mineralized, rich-forage farming system. We don’t precisely follow those set numbers because we operate differently. When grazing, there is no exact number for what that cow ate and what nutrients she got from what she ate, so a computer-generated “perfect” ration isn’t actually very helpful. We do the best we can, then let the cows help us see what they need through free-choice supplementation. If the cow lacks something, she will go for it, just like she’ll crave salt if her diet needs it. Her free-choice behavior alerts us to needed ration changes. Again, it’s not by-the-book easy. We also do like feeding our extras for health and digestion as well: kelp, yeast, direct-fed microbials, charcoal, Dynamin, extra vitamin E, and selenium. Prevention is key.

We also free-choice feed throughout the winter months providing the basics of calcium, phosphorous, carbon, salt, kelp and a clay buffer. We have a system and we know it’s working; our proof is our healthy, productive, pregnant cows.

There will be some farms, some places, and some situations where meeting the NOP grazing requirement will be difficult because of high cattle numbers, a shortage of land, or weather that’s too hot, too dry, or too cold. Farmers will have to develop creative ways to meet the standards. For those who are organic and not grazing or not wanting to, I believe that this rule may be a blessing in disguise.

The consumer, right or wrong, is paying higher prices for organics expecting things like quality foods and cow comfort. To satisfy them, we have to let that cow be a cow. Instead of doing little or no grazing as has been the case, everyone is now forced to enter the grazing game.

To be successful, get creative!

In conclusion, for successful farming and grazing don’t violate the principles of the soil or the principles of the cow:

  1. Have a soil fertility program, testing both soils and plants; farm to promote soil life; and deal with soil aeration.
  2. Pay attention to protein and energy; keep C:N in balance.
  3. Lower protein, highly digestible corn silage and/or summer annuals fit most farms, combined with excellent, highly digestible pastures.
  4. Provide effective fiber, dry hay or straw.
  5. Supplement minerals and free choice.
  6. Don’t forget the water.
  7. Get smart. Grazing is an art. You need the keen eye of a master.

Zimmer runs his own organic and biological consulting company, Zimmer Ag. His farm, Otter Creek Organic Farm, is in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. He is the co-author, with his daughter Leilani Zimmer-Durand, of the books The Biological Farmer and Advancing Biological Farming, both available at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore. He is a frequent and popular speaker at Acres U.S.A. events and annual Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

Learn biological farming this summer with Gary Zimmer. The On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag is a two-day educational event. Join a small group of fellow farmers and growers on Gary Zimmer’s Otter Creek Organic Farm in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. Walk away with practical information you can apply to your operation right away! Event lasts from July 19-20 so don’t wait to sign up! Learn more about it here.

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn more here!

Methods for Weathering Drought

By Ed Brotak

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts.

In the summer, temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible.

For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur. Every farmer is bound to find themselves dealing with drought at some point. What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred.

In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat.

corn field drought
For farmers, the decision to put in an irrigation system is often dictated by economics. One must consider the cost of the system versus the possible crop losses due to drought.

Livestock and poultry can be directly affected by heat. For cattle, temperatures of 80°F to 85°F will start to have an impact. Temperatures above 90 degrees can pose serious health risks. The same is true for sheep and goats. Swine are even more susceptible to the heat. With poultry, egg production will start to fall off with temperatures above 80°F.

When temperatures get above 85°F, significant physical effects are noted. Temperatures above 90°F can lead to heat stress, illness and even death.

For plants, heat can also cause problems, but it’s a lack of water that is most critical. As soon as the water needs of a plant aren’t being met, you start having problems. You can have reduced yield for edible plants or crops even without visible damage. Temporary wilting can occur and even if the plant recovers, growth can be stunted. Plants may shed their leaves to conserve water.

Permanent wilting means death for annual plants and an end to the growing season for perennials. Water is more critical in certain life stages such as germination and initial development when roots are small. The reproductive phase also requires more water. Water usage varies with plant type with some plants being more or less susceptible to the effects of drought. Whereas other types of drought take weeks or months to develop, plants can begin to feel the effects of reduced water within days of even a good soaking rain.

Like heat, drought is a problem even when it occurs only periodically. In the Southwest, you know it’s going to be dry and you can allow for that. Along the West Coast, you can expect dry summers, increasingly long and dry as you head further south. But for much of the country, rainfall during the growing season is common. It’s the unusual lack of rain that causes problems.

In terms of weather patterns, drought and heat in summer have the same source. An upper-level ridge of high pressure is the culprit. A ridge is a large mound of warm air that extends miles up into the atmosphere.

Under the ridge and to its east, the air is sinking. Air warms as it sinks, so any clouds would dissipate in the sinking air. Besides being warm to start with, the air is heated even further by the strong summer sun shining through cloudless skies. What moisture there is in the ground is quickly evaporated. The dry ground heats up even more, warming the air above it and further strengthening the upper ridge. With upper-level weather systems covering hundreds if not 1,000 miles or more, it’s certain that some place in the country will suffer through a heat wave and drought during any given summer.

Predicting Drought

Can meteorologists predict heat waves and droughts in advance? To a certain extent, yes. The complex computer models that are the basis of weather forecasting today are actually pretty good out to two weeks, especially in terms of upper-level features. Just go to the National Weather Service website, and click on Climatic Outlooks or check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

You can see if your region is headed for hot, dry conditions. The Climate Prediction Center also issues the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook. This is a prediction based on long-range mathematical and statistical models. The Outlook is issued on the third Thursday of each month (it’s tied to the running of those models) and updated on the first Thursday.

Starting with areas already designated as drought stricken, the Outlook predicts whether things will persist or get worse, improve somewhat, or will improve dramatically. It also highlights areas where drought is expected to develop. The Outlook covers the next three months. Always keep in mind that such long-range forecasts can be off considerably. The science of weather forecasting has not yet developed to the point of making highly accurate long-range forecasts.

So, what can we do to combat these summertime weather extremes?

How to Care for Crops in Excessive Heat and Prolonged Drought

Mulching can reduce direct evaporation of moisture from the soil. This can be especially helpful for seed germination. For plants, water is critical. Plants evaporate water through the process of evapotranspiration. They transpire water through their leaves and as it evaporates, it helps cool the leaf. But water is also critical since it is the food/nutrient transport system in plants (similar to blood in an animal). And the water vital for plant existence is taken from the soil by the root system.

One caveat of this is the importance of soil type. Sandy soils drain quickly, not retaining much water for plants. Pure clay soils are often too wet for good root development.

Loam soils (a mixture of sand and clay) are best. Mixing in organic matter also helps retain moisture.

drought-stricken soil
Sandy soils drain quickly, not retaining much water for plants. Pure clay soils are often too wet for good root development.

Mainly, we have to provide water — watering gardens and irrigating crops. For farmers, the decision to put in an irrigation system is often dictated by economics. One must consider the cost of the system versus the possible crop losses due to drought. The statistical probability of a drought in your area would be a major factor.

How much water do we need to provide? The actual amount of water you should supply depends on the remaining moisture content of the soil. This is often difficult to measure precisely. Certainly you can get an idea of how dry a soil is by just feeling it.

Some of the state ag stations actually keep track of soil moisture, but keep in mind this can vary a great deal regionally. The soil moisture supply is a function of rainfall and evaporation.

Rainfall can be measured by simple rain gauges, which are inexpensive and available at many stores featuring outdoor goods. Evaporation from the soil and evapotranspiration from plants is almost impossible to measure in the real world. Various agricultural weather sites measure “pan evaporation,” evaporation from an open water surface. This gives at least an idea of how much water is being lost. Amounts can be significant. On a hot, dry summer day, one-quarter to one-third of an inch of water can evaporate in one day.

Livestock Considerations in Extreme Heat and Drought

For animals, tolerance to heat is directly related to water supply. Cattle and horses cool themselves by sweating like people do. Chickens and pigs pant like dogs do. In both cases, internal water is evaporated causing a cooling effect. With an adequate water supply, animals can deal with a certain amount of excessive heat. Dehydration is much more of a concern.

In terms of livestock and poultry, we must consider the humidity as well as the temperature in judging heat effects.

The Temperature-Humidity Index, now more commonly called the Heat Index, was developed to ascertain the effects of heat on humans but also works for animals. The rate of evaporation and thus the ability of a body to cool itself is a function of the relative humidity of the air. Dry air allows more evaporative cooling. So at the same air temperature, moist air feels warmer to people and animals and puts more heat stress on them.

Cow drinking water to combat heat
With an adequate water supply, animals can deal with a certain amount of excessive heat.

How can we combat heat stress in livestock and poultry? Basically, we can use the same methods we use for humans (although air conditioning would be a bit extreme). Provide sufficient clean and cool water to alleviate the threat of dehydration. Provide shade. Temperatures in the sun can be 10 to 15 degrees warmer than in the shade. In enclosures, ventilation helps. It will keep the heat from building up and aid evaporative cooling.

This can be as simple as having open sides on a shelter or installing ventilation fans. Foggers or misters can also be used.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

From Grass to Glass: Organic Dairy Farming

By Leigh Glenn

Maybe it’s a chance remark heard from a fellow farmer or an epiphany that comes while attending a farming conference. It lands on fertile ground and a way of looking at things, a way of being in the world, shifts. For Evan Showalter a book his father picked up — Gary Zimmer’s The Biological Farmer — launched him down the path he’s on, which includes providing milk for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk brand.

He came to the book in 2007. At the time, Showalter, of Port Republic, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, had returned from working in construction and landscaping to the dairy farm where he grew up. There, he had managed a renting farmer’s conventional dairy herd of 80 to 100 cows. As he and his father considered the prospects for dairy, Showalter decided not to buy that herd and to focus instead on produce and corn for silage and grain; he also continued haymaking. He took over renting from his father in spring 2008.

Showalter, who had planted genetically modified crops and sprayed glyphosate because that was what he knew, was interested in biological farming, so Zimmer’s book came to him at the right time. When he returned to the farm he began to phase out synthetics and by 2009 began to apply for certification for some areas of the farm.

Between 2009 and 2011, Showalter began routinely testing soils and working with consultants. He saw a rapid shift in soil balance as he sold crops and had no animals on the farm to cycle nutrients.

dairy cows in field
Evan Showalter produces Grassmilk for Organic Valley on his Virginia farm. Photo by Russell French for Organic Valley.

“What I was doing was exporting nutrients off the farm,” because there were no animals leaving their waste to be recycled as nutrients back into that cycle. He pondered how to get animals back on the farm. “Beef was not going to cash-flow the rent,” he says. “We thought about organic dairy: ‘Lord, what do we do here?’”

At that point, early 2011, Showalter reached out to Organic Valley, and the co-op agreed to take on the farm. Showalter sought cows later that year — a “mongrel herd” of crossbreeds with two primary components, including a Friesian base in one and Jersey/Normandy in the other — and joined the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) Cooperative in January 2012.

Organic Valley Grassmilk 

Because of his research into the benefits of grass-based dairy, Showalter was already geared toward having the cows on a low-/no-grain diet. “We fed a few pounds of grain for the first winter. And I haven’t fed any grain since mid-March of 2012.”

Showalter urged Organic Valley to consider his farm and others in the area for grass-based dairying to develop Grassmilk. That Mid-Atlantic route came together in late 2016, with farmers like Showalter and Arlen Beery in nearby Dayton, Virginia, toward the southern portion of the route, which ends in Staunton.

In all, 168 dairies supply milk for Grassmilk products, including fluid milk, yogurt, half-and-half and cheese. The milk from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania is bulk-collected and taken to New York for processing.

The market for Grassmilk is expanding while the market for organic milk is not, says Beery, who also operates an Organic Valley farm. Organic Valley has instituted a quota restriction this year pegged to the previous year’s production. Grassmilk is not restricted, he says.

Of course, the Grassmilk requirements — such as no grain — go beyond those of the national organic standards, but the co-op also pays its grass-based farmers a total premium of $5, including $1 for soil amendments to improve pasture. Grassmilk farmers are audited annually. Organic Valley inspects the condition of the cows to ensure they are maintaining flesh and are in overall good health. Showalter and Beery had their annual inspections in mid-April, and the auditor said the cows looked great.

Orgainc Valley, Viginia 2017
Showalter and his son.

As of 2018, Showalter is managing 250 acres. A herd of about 60 dairy cows — two-thirds freshen in the spring and one-third in the fall — and 15 calves/heifers graze 85 acres of pasture on the home farm. Another 80-acre tract is grazed by breeding-aged heifers from his and two other Organic Valley farms.

Supplying fluid milk to Organic Valley is the core of the farm’s operations, which also includes growing cole crops for fall sales, haymaking, making cheese and selling it at the local farmers’ market and the Friendly City Food Co-Op in downtown Harrisonburg, north of the farm, as well as some meat, such as lamb, pork and beef for direct sales at the farmers’ market.

The Showalters go to the farmers’ market only in the fall. Showalter also works with a few Harrisonburg restaurants. This year, he is backing off sweet corn to take a break from that and restructure the vegetable aspects of the farm. Evan, his wife Judith, and their seven children, ages 1 to 11, with some help from his father, take care of most of the farm chores. Someone comes to help with two milkings a week as well.

The Soil Puzzle

Even though the farm is succeeding, Showalter continues to be stumped — and intrigued — by some of his soil samples. It seems like improvements should be coming more quickly, but certain markers, like organic matter, are stubborn to rise. And in visual inspections, there is too much bare soil. Even in areas allowed to go to seed, there is not a lot of seedling activity.

“I’ve got more things to experiment with and learn,” he says. The current fertility program includes a dry blend consisting of several hundred pounds of lime, along with gypsum, boron and elemental sulfur applied in the fall.

dairy cows grazing

Showalter relies on Beery as a mentor and says Beery tells him to, “‘Just keep on, do what you know, give it time, just wait, tweak it and give it time.’” Showalter tries to graze a fairly tall sward to keep more of a balance going into the cow, and would like to get animals across more of the farmed acreage and have less hay and more pasture in the winter. Fencing and logistics have yet to come together to make this happen, he says.

Despite some of the frustrating aspects of managing soil, Showalter would not have it any other way.

“I view soil and our interaction with the natural world as more stewardship versus dominance,” he says. “We have been given dominion by God, but that doesn’t mean exploit and run down. … I don’t know who brought it to my attention — there’s such a disconnect in much of agriculture. We think we can apply anything, spray anything and there’s no consequence after the fact. In no other area of life is this true.”

Showalter says he does not do everything “right.” He still uses diesel and plastic and doesn’t like that, “but we’re doing the best we can with the knowledge and circumstances we have.”

A Local Presence

Showalter is grateful for the opportunity to work with Organic Valley.

“From my perspective, CROPP has been built on openness,” with some standards that may go beyond those required by the National Organic Program. “That’s heartening to me. Their desire to help the smaller family farm and the great number of small, Plain farms they’ve taken on and support — I really appreciate that. … I know there are people out there who don’t feel the same way about Organic Valley, but with over 2,000 farmers and a billion dollars, it’s a lot to keep your hand on.”

Still, Showalter wishes the dairy could be sold more in his local region and that consumers could look at an Organic Valley product label and tell which farms it came from. The ultra-high temperature processing of milk also frustrates him. “That’s what retailers are demanding. They want to have a longer shelf life,” he says. “I want it as fresh, as minimally processed as possible.” And, in a perfect world, he adds, there would be an opportunity for raw dairy.

Hidden Hollow Farm

In Dayton, Virginia, northwest of Showalter farms, is Arlen Beery’s Hidden Hollow Farm, which has been part of Organic Valley since 2010. Beery has managed a dairy herd there since spring 1990 when he was 17, which is when his family moved to that farm. He bought the farm from his father in 2001 and operates it with his wife, Evelyn, and 12 children — one son and a son-in-law run a second farm nearby, which also provides dairy for Organic Valley.

Like Showalter, Beery appreciates Organic Valley’s attentiven

ess and support of its farmers. But he, too, would love to see more of a connection between Organic Valley Grassmilk products and helping consumers understand where the milk is coming from, because many consumers want to know that they’re supporting their local economies with their food dollars, he says.

Cows graze at Hidden Hollow Farm in Dayton, Virginia.
Cows graze at Hidden Hollow Farm in Dayton, Virginia.

He also wishes that consumers were less fad-driven in terms of processed foods and isolated ingredients produced in industrial kitchens and more knowledgeable about how “complete” foods such as eggs and cheese are. He says, when it comes to animal welfare, “Lots of people don’t realize we take better care of the cows and chickens than they would exist in the wild,” where they are subject to predation and the elements.

Hidden Hollow Farm encompasses 115 acres. Of that, 74 acres are divided among 12 paddocks for about 70 milking cows and another 20 to 25 acres are for the 25 or so dry cows and bred heifers. Within the paddocks are 10 acres for the 800 to 1,000 laying Red Sex-Linked hens — 10 acres that become winter pasture for the dairy herd.

As with Showalter’s Portwood Acres, the Beerys’ main operation is providing dairy for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk line. They sell eggs and produce via the local Shenandoah Valley Family Farms co-op to Whole Foods and other retailers; run a grinding/mixing operation of domestic-only grain for feed, selling 500-plus-pound minimums; and Beery’s cousin Wayne gets two days’ milk supply every two weeks to make raw-milk cheeses, which are also sold through the local co-op. Stewing hens from among the local co-op’s pastured-egg producers go to a private processor near Washington, D.C.

“The children are very instrumental in helping with the produce, the chicken, feed grinding and dairy,” says Beery. “We don’t hire any help at all.”

The dairy herd, New Zealand Friesians, are mostly, if not completely, A2, Beery says, as they’ve been breeding for A2 genetics for 12 years, though have not tested recently. The herd is on about a 30-day rotation. When it’s hotter, that extends to 40 days. Because the chickens are destructive to the grasses, they don’t follow the cows too closely, he says. The pastures where the birds range are renovated within 36 months.

Plants at the Heart of Hidden Hollow

Pastures — which are in an eight-year rotation — consist of heat-tolerant brown mid-rib Sudangrass and millet, in a 2:1 ratio of Sudan to millet, for when the orchard grass, alfalfa and clovers slow down in the summer. (He has used sorghum-Sudan, but regrowth was so-so.) This year, Beery plans to seed cowpeas as well. The rotation works like this: Where the herd has wintered, those three paddocks (including for dry and bred cows) are seeded the following spring and summer with Sudangrass and millet. In autumn, they seed a pasture mix of grasses, alfalfa and clover, in descending ratio of amounts. The following year, another three paddocks are re-seeded.

In all the pre-annual mixes, they use a nurse crop of triticale, which is the first graze crop in March, before the orchard grass, alfalfa and clover are ready. By early May 2018, the Beerys had already grazed the herd twice on the triticale and the other pasture grasses were coming on. Even though the triticale is a nurse crop — eaten down, it allows sunlight to goose growth in the plants that follow it — it’s “vital in spring for getting the cows up quicker. They really milk well off it,” says Beery.

Beery echoes Showalter’s concerns about pasture density. “That’s one reason we started pulling the chickens back off the whole grazing platform,” he says. Trying to establish seedlings with chickens ranging meant losing the young plants to the birds.

“We are now seeing a bit of improvement with new undergrowth coming in a little better,” he says. “Yet, I’m still wishing for a thicker, more dense pasture than what I have. I’m trying to figure out what’s the right balance.”

Silvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., D.V.M.
Organic Valley ruminant nutritionist Silvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., D.V.M., examines pasture plants at Hidden Hollow Farm.

Other Grassmilk graziers, Beery says, manage their pastures differently with more of a mob-grazing style. They’ll let it go 40 to 50 days, then maintain a large stocking rate on a smaller area. Because the plants are more fibrous, the cows do eat it, but also stomp down the rest, creating a thicker pasture.

“But when you do that, forage is high in fiber and is not as good for making milk,” Beery adds. The herd, in essence, is less productive, and the more fibrous the plants the greater the risk to the cows for maintaining body condition, which is less important when it comes to mob-grazing beef cattle. “[The dairy cows] eat a lot, but don’t make the milk or keep as much body condition on their back,” he says.

That’s a big concern for Organic Valley ruminant nutritionist Silvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., D.V.M., who toured Beery’s farm in April 2017. She used a refractometer to check several plants’ fluid content, including so-called weeds — which offer phyto-compounds not found in typical pasture plants — for a qualitative assessment of their nutritional content. She notes that pastures with the highest species diversity provide the most balanced nutrition for cows. Aiming for that diversity, she says, is best for soil health, plants’ mutually beneficial relationships, cows’ health and, ultimately, human health.

Still, Beery is experimenting with letting the grass head out and then clipping it with a bush hog to help the plants re-seed themselves to create a thicker stand. He says if they don’t graze the cows too tightly in the spring, they may leave about 25 percent in the form of clumps, which then, as they mature, don’t taste good. Those plants go to seed by mid-June and the cows ignore them. The Beerys clip these in late June, which knocks the seed down so it’s ready to sprout by August.

At the same time, the clipping discourages pig amaranth/sow thistle. By August, the fallen seeds that have sprouted are starting to gain succulence and appeal to the cows. If they leave the clumps, they would also re-seed, but it would be a slower process and cut into the productivity of the forage.

“He’s very intentional about the plants he wants to have regrow and come back into his pastures and the plants that he does not want to come back,” Abel-Caines says of Beery. “That requires more intention and more attention when he’s grazing.”

Winter forage includes local certified organic hay for as long as Beery can get that and hay from a grower in Minnesota who is part of Organic Valley’s growers’ pool.

Shifting Organic Dairy

Beery began selling organic milk in 2006. Seven local dairy farms, including Beery’s, got certified at the same time and supplied milk to Horizon. Back then, Beery fed about 10 pounds of grain to the cows and every year cut back on the grains by 2 pounds until he fed them no grains. He liked the results, but at the time, there was not a market for grass-only dairy.

“We felt like the margins were tight enough to go back to feeding a little grain,” about 3 pounds, not because of body condition, but margins. “But when Grassmilk came along, I already knew that I liked it and that the cows would do okay. We went back to no grain again.”

All seven dairy farmers shifted their supply from Horizon to Organic Valley in 2010 and then the Grassmilk line in late 2016. “We really encouraged them to consider us,” said Beery. “We tried to point out, the farther south, the longer the grazing season. We’ve also been remineralizing our soils,” which have been worn out through conventional production, by using “different kinds of rock powders, fish and different things. The cows are healthier and milk quality is a notch above average. … We do put more emphasis on quality feed and nutrient-dense forage. It’s always attractive when you’re looking at a specialized or niche market, where the taste of the milk is really, really important.”

Taste is a big draw for Grassmilk products, but so is the nutrition that begins in the pastures.

Abel-Caines says grass-based dairy offers a much lower omega-6: omega-3 fatty acid ratio and is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Recent research bears this out. Abel-Caines points out there are many types of CLAs, but one that has great impact on human health is synthesized only in the stomach of ruminants.

So, what the cows are getting for their own health and well being, they are passing along to humans.

“One of the most impressive changes I witness as a veterinarian and ruminant nutritionist is the dramatic reduction in metabolic disesease, such as milk fever, ketosis and displaced abomasum,” she says. “Once they are transitioned from conventional bunk-feeding to pasture-based management, all these nutritionally related health conditions seem to disappear.”

When visiting Grassmilk farms, Abel-Caines observes cows for body condition, locomotion, hygiene and hock condition.

She says another area of profitability through savings for grass-based dairy farmers is the longevity of the cows and the number of lactations they can go through.

Beery’s herd includes a couple of cows he’s milked for 13 years, though half are between five and 10 years old and half between two and five years old. That’s way better than the average 2.5 lactations of a conventionally raised cow.

Going forward, Beery hopes to better pinpoint what contributes to higher CLAs and a better omega fatty acid ratio by back-correlating what the cows were feeding on, whether clover or alfalfa, chickweed or dandelion.

Providence and the growing interest by consumers in healthy foods have come together to provide the kind of space and incentive farmers like Beery and Showalter need to tease out the mysteries of soil and pasture.

“We are so grateful that the consumer is asking for the kinds of food that we’re trying to produce,” says Beery. “God has given us an opportunity to be farmers, too. We couldn’t do this unless someone were asking for it.”

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

To reach Evan Showalter and Portwood Acres, call 540-271- 2145. To reach Arlen Beery, call 540-879-2054.

Detecting and Understanding Stray Voltage

By Will Winter

All stray voltage is unintentional and undesirable, yet it is extremely common. In fact, it would be rare to find a farm or home without it, usu­ally not in a good location. The main culprit, even though there are several variations of causation, is that with all standard 120 volt wiring we only have one hot wire, one neutral wire and a ground wire.


If the neutral wire is in­adequate or if there is a weak or failed connection, the electrical current ar­riving on the hot wire must return to the source in some manner, which means it will try to go through any and all other objects that will conduct electricity. This undesirable flow of electrons can be via the earth, metal buildings, metal stanchions, fences or other objects.

The motor on a center pivot irriga­tion tower had been experiencing a tiny short in the wiring recently on a Midwestern farm. It had been this way for several weeks, but it was still working, and as you know there’s never enough time to do everything on the farm. However, the sand filter on the irrigator was also full, and this function needed emptying. The farm­er was up on a metal ladder opening the overflowing trap to clean it out. It was safe, because all the pumps were switched off — except for what he did next, which was to instruct his wife to turn on the pump in order to flush the sand. It was a fatal mistake, as 480 volts surged through the system, instantly killing the farmer.

Another farmer had a grinder in the shop with a minor short in the mo­tor; when it was turned on, it would give out a little shock. He “cured” the problem by turning on the grinder switch with a wooden broomstick. Who hasn’t done something like that?

On another farm there was a series of five livestock water fountains all connected to the electrical line. The first four fountains seemed normal, and the cattle were approaching them casually and drinking water normally. However, the cattle seemed to sense something was wrong with the fifth fountain, and they avoided it. Thirsty, two young heifers approached the fifth fountain, which was also over­flowing slightly and creating a small puddle they were standing in. Within seconds after touching the water in the fountain, both heifers were in­stantly killed.

I heard many stories like this from Jerry Lush, a professional stray volt­age consultant and ag engineer from Sioux Falls. After decades in the field of electrical energy, Lush can recount many horror stories of the abundant, and usually safe, power supply that we can’t seem to live without. Even folks who do not allow commercial electricity on their farm can encounter problems. I’m talking about stray volt­age, a potential evader that can sneak onto any farm or barn.

What is Stray Voltage?

This is a very aptly named prob­lem, in that it applies to any two objects that have electrical potential between them that ideally should not have any voltage difference between them. How much does it take? In gen­eral, we are always hoping for zero voltage, however, almost any animal can easily feel anything at 0.5 volts or higher. We could feel it too, but we usually have shoes or boots on and sometimes gloves. Lush says he finds this all too often and has even seen it run as high as 9 volts of current. Just imagine touching your tongue to a 9 volt battery.

Spark Your Electrical Vocabulary
Amperage: A measurement of the amount (strength) of current that is flowing through a wire.
Current: As stated above, current (flow of electricity) is measured in amps.
Induced voltage: A form of stray voltage that comes from other nearby circuits. This is more difficult to diagnose, but commonly runs through head stanchions or milk lines. It can be diagnosed and cured by a professional.
Resistance: This is something like a heater or lightbulb; it is anything that holds back the current. It is measured in ohms.
Single-phase wiring: Brings 120-240 volts via one to two hot wires.
Three-phase wiring: (High voltage for large motors) brings in three hot lines.
Voltage: A unit of measurement of the pressure that pushes the amps through the wire.
Wattage: The sum of volts X amps and equal to power, as in the horse­power of an electric motor, for example. High voltage lines can adjust cur­rent flow by vastly increasing the voltage, which simultaneously lowers the flow of current and reduces line loss. Many transmission lines carry 7200 volts (this is what linemen work with) whereas coast-to-coast lines can carry 35,000 volts or more.

Potentially dangerous stray volt­age was just diagnosed in our own 1906 home because the neutral wire coming from some “professionally installed” wiring, which had been put into our house by licensed electri­cians during remodeling, had actu­ally been spliced into the ancient knob-and-tube neutral wire that runs through most of the walls and ceil­ings.

Jerry Lush has more than 40 years of experience in the field of electrical energy.

Lush states that a big part of the problem is that electricians and line­men may see electricity in a different way than engineers trained in elec­tricity (I’m generalizing here; there are some very knowledgeable techni­cians, likewise engineers are frequent­ly so specialized they just don’t know everything, some engineers have no electrical training at all). But typically, the linemen have not been trained in household or farm wiring. Sometimes they can barely visualize the flow at all; their job is to get the power to the site.

Electrical engineers, including ag­ricultural engineers, are trained to see electrical current wherever it is, quite like the rest of us might see wa­ter flowing. We could hardly expect to see water flowing into a structure without knowing where and how this water will exit. With voltage, if the neutral wire is not fat enough, or if the distance is too far, there’s no way it can keep up with electrical flow so that current “spills” into other areas in order for it to eventually get back to the source.

Stray voltage can come from any electrical device that is malfunction­ing. Even properly installed wiring or devices can be damaged by moisture, lightning, or mice, squirrels and rats. Most commonly afflicted are barn fans in the summer and water tank heaters in the winter. Lastly, there can often be problems coming onto your farm from the utility service. Wher­ever the source, proper diagnosis is a critical starting point.

Symptoms of Stray Voltage 

The key word is mysterious. Many farmers think they must be bad farm­ers or bad managers, or that they must have poor-quality livestock, not realizing there is a hidden cause. Electricity is essentially invisible, and we are usually focused on visible is­sues. Every single farm, ranch barn, garage or home can have stray volt­age problems — we have seen it with dairy, beef, swine, sheep, goats, poul­try or horses, but most often electrical problems are most clear in a dairy. In general, dairy animals drink more (to make milk), and they are quite often indoors and being handled, in a place where we can watch them.

Animals that are plagued with stray voltage will most frequently manifest specific problems such as mastitis, or high somatic cell count (pus in the milk), or they are jumpy when they come in to be milked. In many cases they just will not let down their milk flow. Watch your animals when they drink; they will tell you. Frequently they will only drink just enough to satisfy their thirst but not enough to maintain adequate production, which soon falls off even worse. Instead of taking a steady intake of water, they merely lap at the water, bobbing their heads.

Humans are more likely to feel the voltage themselves when walking barefoot on wet concrete, even more so when touching plumbing or metal when they are somewhat grounded by being wet. People have even been known to keep a dry rag around so that they can shut off their shower faucet without getting a mild shock.

Diagnosing Stray Voltage 

Ideally, hire a pro! Lush is one of several in the United States. He comes by his skills honestly with two degrees in ag engineering and years of ser­vice working for rural electric utilities and co-op extension services. He has focused exclusively on stray voltage problems since 2007. Having worked both for the utility and for the farmer, he understands both sources of prob­lems. He says his main tool of the trade is a simple volt meter, one that can measure microvoltage. At times he will hold a metal rod in one hand as he explores with the leads from a volt meter. He also uses a device that converts electrical current into an audible signal which emits a buzz if there is current flow. Quite often he can instantly spot wiring design errors or find loose connections. By the use of all these devices he can pinpoint sources of the problem.

Electric fencing is rarely a prob­lem, in general, but if wired wrong it can be devastating. Lush says that it is of utmost importance to create a grounding system that is as good as or better than that of the rest of the farm. The fence should have its own indi­vidual ground and it should never be attached to any other ground. Place the ground far away from barns or other electrical systems.

Can Stray Voltage Be Cured?

Absolutely! However, Lush admits there are a few mysterious challenges over a lifetime of work. He recalls a few farms that defy logic such as an Amish farm he once investigated that haunts him. They were having barn issues of serious stray voltage in the metal stanchions yet were hundreds of yards from power lines, buried lines, transformers or substations. In some of these cases, even though no source can be detected, the professionals can build a circular passageway around the farm buildings using highly con­ductive materials.

Most of the time however, he says he can diagnose and cure almost every farm within four hours’ time, and most diagnoses come in the first half hour. Even if the problem is coming from the utility, a power pole/transformer neutral isola­tor can be installed. Since many prob­lems come from inadequate ground­ing, this is a cure that can be rewired in a proper manner and without much cost. With 240 volt wiring there are fewer problems because there are two hot wires, and the current will arrive via one hot line and go back to the source via the other hot wire.

However, it’s not always that easy to settle disputes if questions arise with regard to the sources of the problem. If the utility will not accept responsibility for causing the problem or for the cost of fixing it, many farm­ers can feel left in the lurch. In fact, many institutions practically deny the existence of the problem, some even insinuating that the farmer must either be crazy or just a whiner.

Here in my state of Minnesota alone there are currently at least six pending lawsuits between farmers and the utilities with little hope of resolution in sight. How­ever, the tide is slowly beginning to shift toward more accountability and more willingness to admit that the problem exists. Is it worth fighting? One dairy farmer in Minnesota suing the power utility estimates the voltage running through his dairy cost him over $700,000 in lost production, last year alone. Another Minnesota suit was settled, awarding $3 million to the damaged parties.

This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Will Winter is a holistic herd health consultant and livestock nutritionist who hangs his hat in Minnesota. He is also a traveling teacher focusing on sustainable agriculture and traditional nutri­tion. He provides consultations and natural live­stock supplies to farmers and also raises his own pastured hogs, hair sheep and meat goats.

Jerry Lush is one of several professional and independent stray voltage experts in the United States and serves the general Midwest area. He charges the standard tax rate for mileage to and from the farm, in addition to his labor on-site. Complicated cas­es may take longer or involve labor from an electrician or utility lineman. You may reach him through his company website or by calling 605-695-3328.

Drought Planning: Grassland Preservation

By Walt Davis

Drought planning and preparation should be a priority for most ranching operations, as ranches are likely to be located in areas of natural grassland and one of the formative factors for grasslands is erratic mois­ture availability. Drought is not just dry weather; drought occurs when there is a significant reduction in normal pre­cipitation. A desert area that received only 9 inches of rain is dry, but it is not in drought unless annual precipitation falls well below 9 inches; an area that is in a 40-inch rainfall belt and received 20 inches is in a serious drought.

Our home ranch in Nolan County, Texas, was in a 20-inch rainfall area that was very drought-prone; local wags said that the 20-inch average came about because it would rain 60 inches one year and then skip two years.

Where moisture availability is con­stant, the vegetation tends to be made up of longer-lived plants (trees). If drought kills most of the local vegetation, grass­es and forbs can germinate from seed and reproduce quickly, but trees require much more time to reach maturity. The fantastic ryegrass and clover pastures of England and Ireland did not come into being until the oak forests that were originally there disappeared into ship timbers and charcoal kilns. If humans were removed from these areas, the oak forests would return because of the uni­formity of the local moisture patterns.

The frequency and severity of droughts vary widely according to location; know­ing the probability of drought in the local environment is essential informa­tion for formulating drought planning management strategies. Equally important is recognizing the early signs of impending drought — the sooner drought is recognized, the more effectively its effects can be offset. If drought is recognized as a normal occur­rence, and it is, then plans can be made to reduce its impact upon the operation and upon the soil-plant-animal complex on which the operation depends.

Just as it is essential that biological capital be generated when times are good, it is crucial that a financial cushion be built up when conditions are normal.

The National Weather Service keeps detailed weather records for many places in the United States, and an examination of these records for your area is a good place to start in determining the likeli­hood of drought and need for drought planning. There is nothing you can do to keep drought from occurring, but you can do a great deal to reduce its impacts.

The effect of drought on grassland is in direct proportion to the health of the grassland; rule 1 in drought-prone areas should be to maintain the plants and soil in the healthiest possible state. This can be done by manipulating the eco­logical processes; when the vegetation in an area is composed mostly of healthy, deep-rooted, perennial forage plants, the soil has a high degree of biological ac­tivity, and the ground is covered with plant material both dead and alive, the ability of that area to withstand dry weather is high.

Conversely, if the forage sward consists of mostly annuals and overgrazed, short-lived, perennial plants growing on areas with a lot of bare soil, even a slight reduction in precipitation will be devastating to forage production. Build the health of your range, your bio­logical capital, when growing conditions are good so that you can survive the drought that is surely coming. It is much easier to maintain healthy grassland than it is to bring degraded grassland back to health; be ready to do whatever is necessary to keep from degrading your country.

Drought Planning: Financial & Mental Health

We are all familiar with the effects of drought on land and animals, but we seldom consider that it also has tre­mendous effects on two other areas: our financial health and our mental health. These two are closely related, but let’s look at financial health first. Just as it is essential that biological capital be generated when times are good, it is crucial that a financial cushion be built up when conditions are normal. If it is not possible to create a financial surplus and salt part of it away in a “not rainy day” fund, then the entire operation needs to be re-examined and replanned. If the operation is not profitable under normal conditions, it will certainly not be profitable when drought or other un­favorable conditions occur. This fund is not something that may be needed; it is something that will be needed.

Until this fund can accumulate enough to fulfill its purpose, an arrangement to have credit available when needed should be made; however, although having credit avail­able is necessary, a line of credit, which is a debt, does not take the place of a financial cushion, which is an income-producing asset. A west Texas rancher with years of experience told me long ago, “We all need a drought once in a while to make us cull the stock like we know we should and to force us to quit spending money based on ‘we want’ rather than on ‘we need.’”

A rather cynical note on droughts and government “help:” When drought does strike, the last thing most people need is donated feed or low cost loans to buy feed. What happens every time funds are made available for “drought relief” is that a lot of people beat the heck out of their country by turning it into a feedlot and wind up deeper in debt with a bunch of thin stock at the bottom of the market. One of the most economically damaging things that a rancher can do is to hold stock on land that can no longer feed it.

The expense of feed and lost animal production is bad, but the real cost is the damage to the land. Droughts have come and gone for eons without permanently damaging the land, because before fenc­es and stored feed and pumped water, when the land could no longer support grazing animals, the animals either left or died. If you have stock that you are determined to save, send them to where it is still raining or put them in a feedlot. Even when animals are being fed all they need and more, they will pick every green leaf as soon as it appears, reduce the groundcover, and do serious damage to both the soil and the vegetation sward.

One of the most debilitating of hu­man emotions is the feeling of help­lessness in the face of overwhelming adversity; Elmer Kelton in The Time It Never Rained (a great book on a sad subject) paints a vivid picture of the human and financial suffering caused by a major drought. Emotion of this intensity can and does cause people to make poor decisions, and it can bring about physical harm; stress is debilitat­ing to humans just like it is to livestock. A major drought is guaranteed to cause exactly this state of anxiety unless plans have been made to offset the effects of drought. Such plans must start well before the drought with the goal of building the health of the local environ­ment, biological capital, and financial health; the most useful tool for building biological capital is planned high stock density grazing.

Design, implement and continually update a formal grazing plan for each unit of the ranch; a part of these grazing plans should be time reserves for drought. These reserves should be in the form of higher residuals of forage left in each paddock after grazing; leaving extra leaf on the plants will speed recovery of the grazed areas and maintain reason­able quality of forage. If an area of for­age is set aside as drought reserve, both the quality and the growth rate of the forage set aside decreases dramatically when the plants reach maturity. The infrastructure needed for planned graz­ing, the fencing and water development, will also be invaluable in coping with drought.

Taking Action

Two things need to be done as soon as it is apparent that a drought has started: reduce the demand for forage, and (as growth rates of forage will be slower) increase the length of time the forage has to recover. The ability to determine whether a drought is imminent requires knowledge of the local weather patterns; the manager needs to know when pre­cipitation normally falls and when grass grows. If the rains do not come at the normal time or fall only sparsely, in most areas, some degree of drought is almost certain. If moisture is low or ineffective during the period of peak forage growth, it is past time to reduce forage demand.

Part of drought planning includes selecting a stocking mix that fits the lo­cal likelihood of drought; in areas where the probability of drought is high, some portion of the stocking rate should con­sist of animals that can be moved rapidly without incurring financial loss. Young, growing animals can nearly always be sold at a reasonable price, as they get on a truck and go to where it is still raining; breeding females, especially older fe­males and females with young offspring, sell at a discount in drought conditions. Making up a portion of the stocking rate with stocker animals, preferably home-raised, allows the manager to reduce animal numbers quickly with minimal financial pain.

cattle in dead pasture
The expense of feed and lost animal production is bad, but the real cost is the damage to the land.

In dry years, to lower forage demand, the calves are sold at weaning or shipped to grass; aside from being good drought strategy, carrying at least a portion of the calf crop over to be sold the following summer is a con­sistently profitable program for many ranchers. A calf at weaning has already incurred about 70 percent of the ex­pense required to produce a 700-pound yearling. This is because the weaned calf has to pay the cost of maintaining his mother for an entire year. The weight at weaning is expensive, but the gain from weaning to yearling weight can be made quite cheaply under the right program.

If cows are calving in the spring flush, this program also has the effect of loading up forage demand (cattle weight) when for­age is most abundant and reducing de­mand when forage is scarce. The calves should be wintered on the best available forage with only enough supplementa­tion to keep them healthy and growing normally; calves wintered in this man­ner will make quick and profitable gains in the spring flush. The temptation is always to plant some winter green stuff or to pour the feed to the calves to make them “do good;” resist.

Before the yearlings are shipped early, the manager should look through the pasture day book — the one that records in one place when what stock was moved into which paddock, how tall the grass was going in and how tall it was when the herd came out on which date and how much it rained and when it frosted and when 20/5 sluffed her calf and when the bulls went in and came out. Even all the other stuff that we used to try to remember or write down on the back of envelopes that blew out when we got to open the gate; the stuff we need to build and keep up to date, a “to-be-culled” list. I know that you will not forget that you saw 88/3 in standing heat on February 2 or that 16/5 prolapsed, having it down on paper will make certain that these cattle get on the truck if you are not around. This is also a time to consider downsizing the cows; if the need is to reduce forage demand, it might make sense to replace some of the older cows and the 1,400-pound cows with heifers that will be 1,000-pound cows when grown. Sometimes it takes a drought to jolt us into doing the right things.

There is another option, viable under the right conditions, if some high-quali­ty feed is available, it may be possible to wean calves early and lower the nutri­tional demand of the cows. Weaning her calf will reduce a cow’s need for energy by approximately 40 percent and her need for protein even more, and it will allow her to maintain herself on lower-quality forage; keep in mind that the calf will have to have access to a high-protein diet to replace his mother’s milk. Regardless of how the sell list is decided, when it is time to sell, pull the trigger!

In addition to reducing the total demand for forage, it is very important that provisions be made to give the forage plants that are growing slowly due to poor conditions more time to recover. A quick and simple way to accomplish this goal is to combine as many herds as is feasible into one herd; for example, if you have four herds each working through 25 paddocks, after combining all four herds, the new single herd will have 100 paddocks to work through. If all of the paddocks have been stocked conservatively, it is pos­sible that you can increase the recovery periods by a factor of three or four and still maintain short graze periods. If you have been using an average recovery pe­riod of 75 days during slow growth, you can now use recovery periods of 150 to 200 days. Using one-day graze periods with 100 paddocks and one herd, 1 percent of the area will be in grazing (assuming equally sized paddocks) at any point in time while 99 percent of the total area is resting.

Depending on topography and the amount of forage present, it may be worthwhile to use temporary fencing to reduce the size of large paddocks; this will likely work if these are paddocks large enough to require graze periods of five or six days. Long graze periods re­duce the efficiency of grazing and reduce animal performance, splitting up a large paddock can often increase the number of animal unit days of forage (AUDs) that the paddock can provide simply by reducing the amount of forage spoiled and refused by dunging.

It is usually not necessary to use a back fence when rationing out dormant forage. By increasing stock density the grazing efficiency (the percentage of the forage actually consumed by the animals) can be increased; this will increase the number of AUDs available and hopefully increase the likelihood of making it through to new grass. It is tempting to feed a little hay or other feed to “stretch the grass;” I have never seen this tactic work. What normally happens is that the animals catch the welfare syndrome and quit grazing to wait for the feed truck, and animal performance falls off.

A very little high-quality hay fed daily as a protein supple­ment can increase utilization of low-quality forage, but do not feed enough high-quality hay on any one day to be a significant part of the animals’ diet; if you do, you will risk rumen flora upset, similar to what happens when feeding grain to grazing animals. I would prefer to not feed any energy feed as long as grass is available; when the grass runs out, either move the animals or put them in a feedlot. As with any practice, watch animal performance and do what is required to keep it in the reasonable range — the operative word here is reasonable. Ruminants are adapted to fluctuating body conditions, but there are limits.

Drought Planning: Building Biological Capital

Drought forces us to make choices; sometimes the choice is between bad and worse, but planning can reduce the pain. Develop water in excess of what you expect to need; it hurts to have grass and not be able to use it because the tank is dry. Understand the difference be­tween feeding for supplementation and feeding for substitution; when you feed energy as hay, grain or whatever, you are substituting money for grass, and you are on shaky financial footing.

Remember that the real damage from drought comes from management that results in a loss of biological capital. On even very well run ranches, when a major drought finally ends, biological succession will have been pushed back­ward, and there will be open biological niches; nature will fill these niches with organisms that are capable of existing and reproducing in the new and harsher growing conditions. Expect a plague of weeds along with grasshoppers, army­worms, or whatever pest organisms are common to your area. These popula­tion explosions will come about because of the reduced amount of life in the drought-stricken area.

cattle in drought
If you have stock that you are determined to save, send them to where it is still raining or put them in a feedlot.

Be careful that your response to the situation doesn’t increase the prob­lem. Weeds are nature’s way to respond quickly to bare ground. If there is noth­ing growing but weeds and you kill the weeds, you still have no forage but you now have bare ground as well. Pest or­ganism explosions occur because of a lack of biodiversity. Be careful that your response doesn’t further reduce biodi­versity and make the problem worse.

Do not be in a hurry to re-establish the old number of herds. Keep your stocking density high after the drought breaks unless there are compelling rea­sons to not do so. High stock density is a powerful tool for improving mineral cycle, water cycle, and energy flow, thus moving biological succession forward. It is also the most effective tool to deal with the plagues of pest organisms, as it addresses the root cause of these plagues, which is low biological activity.

If you do not have a monitoring program in place, use the end of the drought as a starting point, and begin monitoring the health of your range. With good management, improvement will be rapid after good conditions re­turn, and this will offer an excellent opportunity to learn how the range heals itself, given the chance. Set up permanent photo points to record the changes, and begin a formal monitoring process that addresses the whole soil-plant-animal complex.

Our management determines the health of our grazing lands. If our practices promote healthy ecologi­cal processes (good water cycle, rapid mineral cycling, and strong energy flow) biological succession will ad­vance, and our ranges will become both more productive and more stable. Our management during drought is par­ticularly critical because the ecological processes are under stress, which mag­nifies the effects of management mis­takes. Natural grasslands are extremely stable due to their complexity and to the health (read high organic content) of their soils. These grasslands evolved in spite of drought over eons of time; when nature was managing the show, if drought became severe, the grazing animals either left or died. The drought eventually ended and the prairie came back just as it had hundreds of times before. Drought doesn’t destroy grass­land; our management during drought destroys grassland. If we are going to operate in drought-prone areas, we would be wise to study nature’s means of range management. Some of nature’s most valuable tools are keeping stock density high, matching the demands for forage to the production of forage (especially during drought), matching recovery time to growing conditions and never leaving animals on range that has lost its ability to produce the feed they need. Do these things in an economically feasible way and your operation will have a head start in the race for success.

This story was published in the June 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. This article is excerpted from How to Not Go Broke Ranching by Walt Davis.

New Livestock Integration

By Kelly Klober
From the September 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

There is an old adage among livestock raisers that holds that blue ribbon-winning animals seldom make good parents, but generally make crackerjack grandparents. The one word answer for why this happens is, I believe, adaptation. A top Texas-bred bull, boar or ram whisked away to our Northern Missouri climes or someone else’s Maine environment is going to struggle to adapt and must go through a time of transition.

This is especially true if the move is made in a time of temperature and weather extremes. The changes an animal can face when moved from point to point on the map are many and varied, and some are too often overlooked in that flurry of activity.

The differences between a Northern Missouri and a Southern Texas winter are quite obvious, but there are also differences in soil types, water composition, ration mixtures and forms, owner temperaments and skill sets, differences in facilities, differences between gene pools, new parasite and disease challenges, different pasture varieties and a great many more.

Quite often, the animals being moved are young, inexperienced and lacking in natural immunities for their new environments. The more artifice and “push” that went into creating that animal the harder it will be for that animal to make the needed changes.

Altitude, for example is a real factor in how beef cattle perform with some lines clearly denoted as “high altitude” cattle. An old and very much kept off the books rule of thumb for swine breeders held that for every young boar going through a test station, a full or half sib should be retained at home to replace it should it fail to perform for the new owner.

The boar grown out in a very small group, fed a very complex and costly ration to accelerate growth in a limited space, living in such a stifling environment, may hang up some real performance figures but then fall apart quickly in the real world of the breeding pen.

In founding a new herd or flock or upgrading or replenishing an existing one it is necessary to look to outside sources for the needed genetic material, the genetic pieces to make corrections and accomplish desired goals.

grazing cattle
A top Texas-bred bull, boar or ram whisked away to our Northern Missouri climes or someone else’s Maine environment is going to struggle to adapt and must go through a time of transition.

We were 35-plus years in the purebred swine business and are 10-plus years now with the production of purebred poultry and have had a fairly good look at the “genetic material” business. I have seen folks buy blue ribbon-winning boars and sale barn sow fresheners and make the same mistakes with both while trying to get good performance out of them.

Perhaps the first and worst mistake is waiting to buy a breeding animal until you absolutely have to have one. When you have females in standing estrus it does no good to return home to tell them you bid on a good male or open the gate and immediately turn in a too-young, overmatched and inexperienced male.

Today’s livestock industry seems to be based on a fast turnover of everything including breeding stock. The truth is that each and every successful herd or flock is an individualized creation. They have been in place and producing for an often extended period of time — they are a part of a farm biota.

The reason that outside animals, even blue ribbon-winners, tend to make better grandparents than parents is that the genetics that they present have had the needed time to fit in and meld with the scheme of things particular to that herd or flock. There has been the needed time for the animal to adjust and adapt to the new environment, to have developed the needed natural immunity for the “bug” population on that farm or ranch, and for the producer to have recognized how best to deploy the animal’s strengths throughout the breeding program. There are good producers who are always thinking three generations and more ahead.

And, quite honestly, the very best bull at this year’s Texas or Missouri State Fairs will not be the best bull choice for every producer in Texas or Missouri. In those 35-plus years in the purebred hog business the one question I dreaded most from buyers penside was, “Which boar is the best one in the pen?” There were two reasons for that; a time or two my pick as the best boar in the pen was the last one to sell and I knew little or nothing about the sow herd and production system that hog would be entering.

Often, when a new animal is purchased, especially a breeding male, there is a desire to put it to use right away and use it with every animal and breeding line in the herd or flock. The better approach is, I think, to be very slow and deliberate in the shopping and buying phase and perhaps even slower still in bringing the animals into use. We once paid a good price for a very young boar sired by one of the first show boars with a five figure selling price in modern times, owned him for several months, never bred a single female to him, and sold him to a feeder pig producer for a commercial boar price.

We bought him young, the way I like to buy seedstock, and had time to watch him grow and develop on our farm, eating our rations, and growing under our system of care. Another time, after deciding to add another Duroc breeding line, we went through nearly half a dozen foundation gilts before finding the one that best fit our farm and our markets.

In establishing our flock of Buff Orpingtons we went through a great many false starts and found what we needed in but a single trio of birds bought at about 18 weeks of age.

Livestock on the Move

A recently transported animal has undergone substantial stress, will be dealing with possible ration changes, will be uncomfortable in a new setting, and may even be dealing with a few health issues.

A lot of animals are like a lot of farmers; they are just not good travelers. When I was showing hogs in high school it was commonly said of hogs coming back from the fairs that they would have a bout of “flu.” It was mostly stress and disturbed routine, but a lot of “fluing” show pigs did go on to die from pneumonia and all needed some TLC once back home.

One of the appeals I have found to poultry-keeping is that most of the new breeding stock arrivals on the farm are hatchlings. They have months to adapt, to grow into their roles on the farm where they are expected to live, thrive and perform. The very first bite of feed they receive is our ration and the first drop of water they drink comes from our well.

There are numerous herds and flocks where there have been no outside additions for literally decades. A closed herd certainly represents the maximum in

bio-security. Many producers, however, are beginning an operation, doing repopulation work, need to add new lines or need to address a breeding deficit.

Also, many, due to space limits or costs, add female replacements from outside sources and producers of butcher and feeder stock often buy breeding males from multiple sources to continue on-farm crossbreeding rotations designed to maintain optimum levels of hybrid vigor in the resulting offspring.

The key is to not go too far afield when buying foundation and replacement animals. A good plan of breeding stock acquisition would incorporate the following points:

  1. Budget plenty of time and resources for the shopping and selection process.
  2. Buy from producers that operate from systems and facilities as similar to your own as possible.
  3. Buy animals as young as possible and grow them to breeding age yourself. Even when buying service-age males, for example, buy them 45 to 60 days ahead of first service.
  4. Select for middle-of-the-road type and from herds or flocks with across the board type and genetic consistency. Do not buy the extreme individual from an uneven crop or sibling group. Such extreme animals seldom breed on with desired predictability.
  5. Try to breed up no more than one or two lacking traits at a time lest you lose ground in other critical areas. Nor should you neglect type basics in the pursuit of current extremes in fad types.
  6. Learn as much as you can about a potential breeding male’s female ancestry and be guided by it. His greatest impact will be through daughters and grand daughters going back into the breeding herd.
  7. Shop smart and transport carefully. For example, the best time to buy a bred gilt is shortly after service or a short time before farrowing. One of the reasons livestock auctions follow seasonal patterns is not because that is when notes become due, but because certain seasons are often more conducive to livestock transport than others.
  8. Do not transport during extremes in weather. If an animal must be moved during warm weather wait for the coolest part of the day (early morning or late evening) and use a truck or trailer bedded with damp sand. In cold and damp weather cover the racks, position a tarp or plywood over the front of the bed or trailer to deflect wind and provide plenty of deep, dry bedding material. A couple of extra bales of straw are very cheap health insurance.
  9. Buy as close to home as you can. It keeps money in the immediate area and the animals should be hardened into local climates. A lot of livestock auctions are held in spring and fall, but October in Wisconsin and October in Arizona can be two very different fall seasons. Transporting livestock is always kid gloves work. Work them at their own pace, put away the whips and prods, keep them well hydrated, keep your temper in check, and monitor them often in transit.
  10. New arrivals need special care and separate facilities. A place for isolation should be provided for all newly arriving livestock. They should be held there for at least 30 days and it should be very well made while providing easy access to the animals.
  11. Fencing needs to be, as Dad used to say, horse-high, bull-strong and baby-chick-tight. It is best if out of line of sight and sound of other livestock.
  12. If the animals have been receiving a ration much different than yours buy at least enough of their old ration to carry them a few days and then allow a gradual, five- to seven-day transfer over to your ration. Provide plenty of clean, fresh drinking water and bolster it with a vitamin electrolyte product.
  13. Tend this pen last when doing chores to reduce the potential of tracking a health problem from one group to another.
  14. Bring new acquisitions into the herd or flock slowly and carefully. While most isolate new arrivals for a period of at least 30 days, 60 to 90 days would not be unreasonable. Drop a freshly transported young male into a breeding group and he may be injured or cowed for a lifetime, he could develop a fever rendering him sterile for a time, trigger flu-like symptoms in the females impacting their ability to breed and settle, and it will certainly void any warranty made as to his breeding ability.
  15. Consider transferring wastes and spent bedding between enclosures after the time of isolation so that an element of natural immunity can begin building before direct contact. Every farm has its own “bug” population and it is dealt with naturally only through exposure and time. The next step, ideally, would be fence line contact. It is a very controlled situation and yet crucial factors such as temperament and libido can be evaluated. It is a practice that can often trigger estrus onset in young females.

There is far more to successfully introducing new stock than opening the pasture or lot gate to newcomers and slapping a couple of them on the rump. There must be a plan of care and management in place long before they start up that chute toward a new home. There must be an acceptance of their abilities for change and adequate time and care given to them for that change to occur.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

About the Author

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Beyond the Chicken, Talking Chicken, and Dirt Hog, available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Kelly Klober was raised on a small farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species, including heritage poultry. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a State Farmer Degree from the Missouri FFA. Klober has written on agriculture, especially the small farm field, for over 20 years. He and his wife continue to farm with much love and attention to his heritage poultry flock.

Kelly Klober

A Hack for Making Winter Manure

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

Want to try an experiment with some pen manure or gut­ter manure (that’s not liquid)? I’ve read of a low-labor way of making compost by Trauger Groh, a biodynamic farmer in New Hampshire.

He does it this way:

  • Make a square pile of winter manure.
  • In May or June, split it into two windrows. Cover with black plastic and make holes on the top so it can breathe. Do not touch it anymore until it is ready for use the following year. Use it the next spring as a fully-finished compost.

Covering is critical because you don’t want it to be too wet. Manure with more than 70 percent moisture cannot build humus. Piles are 6-feet high fresh, made with straw/hay manure, and go down a foot or so as they age. They don’t use woodchips or sawdust, but if they did they would only need a little longer composting depending on size of woodchips.

Source: Four-Seasons Cattle Care