Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Get Ready For Grass Farming

In the March, 2008 issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" there is an interesting article by Bud Williams titled, "A Short History of American Grass Finishing". It is almost an understatement to say that grass finishing is not a new idea considering the fact that many animals were created in such a way that they could digest forages for gain and energy. As Mr. Williams says, "It is grain feeding animals that is reasonably new. It mainly came about as a way to market grain."

There was a whole series of events and circumstances that led to the growth of grain finishing, but the article points out a few of the bigger things (this is the type of thing I find interesting because of my love of history). Two of the larger factors in this increase were the lower cost of transportation/fuel and the implementation of tractors on farms. The new transportation/fuel allowed farmers the chance to move animals and feed easily. They could now specialize in finishing steers or running cows and calves instead of have a birth to finish operation. Also, the new tractors allowed a farmer to grow more and also specialize in just a couple of crops. Then they could take advantage of that transportation and move their grains to those finishing cattle. Of course there were many more factors, but these two played large rolls.

But, times are changing. Grain and transportation costs are still relatively inexpensive (at least in the sense that it is possible to buy), but because of the way that our finishers, growers, and processors have become centralized there is a possibility that things will only get worse ... especially for the small farmer. Right now I would guess that is all but impossible for me to jump into the commodity beef, pork, or grain markets. The amount of land, machinery, and facilities I would need would make it impossible. But, instead of looking at that as a downer I need to see it as an opportunity.

Actually Mr. Williams makes good point, all farmers should be thinking about quality grass finishing because you never know which way things will go or what opportunities there will be. There are a couple of problems with that. First of all, much of our grass finishing knowledge has been lost, although there is a lot out there and more coming out everyday. Secondly, much of our beef/dairy herd in the United States have also have forgotten how to finish well on grass ... or more specifically our current agricultural system has bred it out of them.

We need to be learning how to produce quality forages for our livestock and rebuilding those breeds that can thrive in the environment they were created for. The opportunities will always be there, but they may be even bigger with many of the changes we could see coming.

31 comments:

Blair H said...

I read that article too, it was posted on his website first. I was excited to see a BW article in SGF, but then saw it was one I already read. I know people have been grass finishing for a long time, there was no such thing as feedlots when our family started ranching in the 1800s. My dad and grandparents always talk about how tough our grass fed beef was, we used to raise Limousin cattle which are known for being lean already. I've also read that Americans are happy to trade taste for tenderness in beef, whereas Argentinians are the other way around.

Yeoman said...

Railroads and refrigeration made a huge change in the beef industry, and in agricultural markets in the US.

People have forgotten it, but cattle west of the Miss were mostly raised for their hides, not for meat, until after the Civil War. East of the Miss the main meat animal was the pig, not the cow. Cattle were eaten, but the herds were small, and in the North they were multipurpose herds, as opposed to beef cattle herds.

West of the Miss, until after the war, the main cattle raising industry was Mexican influenced. That market had always been for hides, and it meant that cattle were raised for large hides. They were eaten when slaughtered, but the meat was of secondary importance. If you think of the nature of Mexican food today, with its emphasis on spiced shredded or ground beef, you'll see why it developed that way.

The cattle drives started due to an explosion of cattle number during the Civil War, combined with the introduction of the refrigerated car. That changed everything.

Rich said...

It has been largely forgotten or a case of misunderstanding that cattle drives were actually a grass-fed finishing grazing operation and not a hell-bent-for-leather race to the railheads.

Cattle were bought by the head in places like Texas, and grazed northward in the spring on open range following the lush spring growth of the grass towards Kansas, gaining weight until they reached the railheads where they were sold by the pound. Later, lighter weight cattle were held over on grassland in Kansas until they had gained enough weight to be shipped to slaughter in Chicago. As a result, the cow-calf producer evolved in places like Texas, and the stocker producer evolved in places like Kansas.

Yeoman said...

Rich is quite right.

Also forgotten is that stockmen in the West still drive cattle to, and from, the high country. It isn't a speedy operation, as you don't want to run the fat off of them, particularly coming down.

Mellifera said...

It's true, we were once up in the mountains in Utah trying to find a hot spring that didn't already have people skinny-dipping in it (we were on a geology field trip) when all the sudden we heard... mooing? And down the trail came about 200 Herefords and three dudes on horseback in Stetsons. This was probably in 2004. I get to tell people about this one every time they try to tell me cowboys are just a stage act now. : ) I don't imagine ATVs would do so well on that kind of range.

Yeoman said...

ATVs are at a disadvantage doing that sort of work. A horse is an absolute necessity.

I trail a long trail twice a year. Once going up, and once coming back down.

Yeoman said...

By the way, it's likely they weren't "dudes". Dudes aren't working hands, but tourist.

Yeoman said...

Also, while it would be better on the tools thread, ATVs were largely a passing fad in Western stock work. A few are still in use, but they were never as useful as the horse, so they've mostly passed on now, at least around here.

Steven said...

I bet a four wheeler or ranger would work, or even golf cart would work better for setting up step in posts and electric twine than a horse.... believe me, I've tried to come up with a way to use our horses in a MIG system. I just don't think my horse would like a pile of plastic posts on her rear. But maybe if I had a big enough quiver.....

Kramer said...

Why do I need a horse when I run a MIG operation. Like Steven said, a horse, which would have to be saddled up and ready to go at all times, probably wouldn't like having 8 reels filled with poly wire on his back not including the several hundred tread in posts. Then add the water troughs, mineral feeders, and tool box. I guess I should go ahead and get a wagon for my horse.

Seriously, unless you are running a conventional traditional cattle operation, a horse is a dying past time. If I purchased a horse, it would be only for the purpose of hobby. My cows move when I want them to move and will follow me wherever I go. I don't need to rope off a horse or ride one to check fences. So thats why I suggest a Ranger, Gator, Mule, etc. Some ATV with a bed on the back. That is the single most used piece of equipment on my farm.

And if you think you need horses on a larger ranch, that too has changed. Just the other day, I was at an 1100 acre ranch and a calf took off across another pasture. The hand took off on a four wheeler and roped the calf, putting him across his lap, and brought him back. I don't know, I people can't give them away around here because the animals are so dang expensive to keep up. Feed, farrier, saddles, etc. I prefer just putting oil and $3.20 a gallon gas in mine and ride away.

Blair H. said...

Kramer,
I don't know what part of the country you live in, but in my part of the west, horses are a downright necessity. I can't think of a better way to move cattle around our wilderness permits, and there's just no other way to haul salt blocks to 10,000ft near tree line. ATV's are great for putting up and fixing fence, as well as irrigating. Our place has 4500 acres of pasture, and about the same amount to cover in our wilderness permits, about average for our area.

Steven said...

I really want my horses to be useful on the farm, and I think that checking fences, or pulling a manure spreader some day will be one of those uses, I just can't see them standing patiently while I move portable fencing. I have to admit though, I can't imagine trying to chase down an animal with a four wheeler... they don't turn on a dime and jump ditches like a horse.

Ethan Book said...

Lots of conversation in these comments ... good stuff!

As far as the horses go, location and type of grazing management seems to make a large difference. If you are not moving cattle everyday, but less often and over a greater distance horses would be a plus. But, if you are running a MiG system your two feet or some sort of ATV would probably work best.

I was more specifically mentioning the use of horses beyond livestock though. Horses could be used for hay, field prep, planting, harvesting, spreading, and most of the "tractor" work. I think there is a slightly growing group of farmers doing this sort of thing on small diversified farms.

Blair H. said...

Even though horses are indispensable to us, there's one herd of about 200 pairs that rents pasture from us in the summer that has been trained on a whistle to be moved. They hear the 4-wheeler coming and start bellowing, most of the time all you have to do is open the electric fence, start whistling and they roar through to the next paddock. It's very cool, and a good example of what can be done without horses.

Yeoman said...

"Seriously, unless you are running a conventional traditional cattle operation, a horse is a dying past time. If I purchased a horse, it would be only for the purpose of hobby"

Perhaps that is because I am in a conventional traditional cattle operation, but the opposite is true here. I've seen motorcycles come and go, and now I've watched ATVs come and go.

Now, in talking about fencing, while I do know of outfits that actually carry their fencing gear with horses, that's a different topic. I was only addressing driving cattle.

Which gets back to a point I've raised from time to time. Cattle operations are very regional. There's no absolutes. When people declare something such as "horses are a think of the past", or "horses are necessary", they're really discussing their region alone.

Here, horses are necessary. No cattle operation operates without them, and those that used ATVs have retired their ATVs (if they didn't get the riders killed off using them), for the most part. I don't know of any outfit relying on ATVs other than a few for assistance, but not for general use.

But, would this be true in Oklahoma, or Iowa, I don't know.

But, there are no absolutes here. Cattle raising where I am, in Wyoming, is not the same as it is in Nebraska, or Iowa, or Georgia. Which is why we need to keep that in mind in offering advice, or if we try to relocate.

Yeoman said...

" Blair H. said...

Kramer,
I don't know what part of the country you live in, but in my part of the west, horses are a downright necessity. I can't think of a better way to move cattle around our wilderness permits, and there's just no other way to haul salt blocks to 10,000ft near tree line. ATV's are great for putting up and fixing fence, as well as irrigating. Our place has 4500 acres of pasture, and about the same amount to cover in our wilderness permits, about average for our area."

Blair, I don't know where you are, but I suspect your conditions are like mine.

Horses here are not an anachronism, but a necessity. ATVs, for the most part, are darned nearly worthless in my area, due to the terrain and conditions, for stock work, and are seeing less and less use for anything. They've become uncommon enough that it's a topic of surprise when some are seen in use assisting in driving cattle.

Indeed, the last time anyone tried to use one in a group I was gathering it was noted by everyone with surprise, and the last the ATV was seen was when we looked several miles back at it, as its driver looked for a place to come down a steep bluff and over a river, which we had all crossed some time back. He gave up, and went home.

Is this the rule everywhere? Of course not. But in huge Western pastures, it is.

Indeed, the in last two years, as fuel prices have gone up, I've heard a lot of serious discussion about bringing old sheepwagons out of retirement of the season drives, and dispensing with vehicles for that entirely. They're no slower, and cheaper.

Yeoman said...

"Steven said...

I really want my horses to be useful on the farm, and I think that checking fences, or pulling a manure spreader some day will be one of those uses, I just can't see them standing patiently while I move portable fencing."

Why not?

Horses will wait, if accustomed to doing so.

Shoot, I'm a little surprised to see the assertions that they aren't usable for fencing. They are. In rough mountain pastures here ranchers, and the Forest Service, load up panniers with fencing equipment and haul it in.

Sure, they can't carry as much as a pickup truck, or an ATV, but they can go places those things can't. It gets back to the tool discussion. I suspect ATVs are used for many thing not because they're better, but because we just can't accommodate ourselves to the idea that something that was done one way for decades isn't done better by something that was just introduced.

FWIW, those interested in the farming use of horses can find a lot of interesting information on that topic in the Rural Heritage magazine.

A thought here, FWIW. There isn't any single traditional use of a horse which isn't still in use, even in the most advanced societies. Think of some use, and you'll find it still ongoing. Just not to the same degree as it once was.

The key is to think in terms of utility, not in terms of "modernity".

Yeoman said...

"Ethan Book said...

Lots of conversation in these comments ... good stuff!

As far as the horses go, location and type of grazing management seems to make a large difference. If you are not moving cattle everyday, but less often and over a greater distance horses would be a plus. But, if you are running a MiG system your two feet or some sort of ATV would probably work best.

I was more specifically mentioning the use of horses beyond livestock though. Horses could be used for hay, field prep, planting, harvesting, spreading, and most of the "tractor" work. I think there is a slightly growing group of farmers doing this sort of thing on small diversified farms."

The absolutely correct way to view it, I think.

Usefulness is the key. Not when something was introduced.

I think the cult of the new may be one of the great failings of our society, and one of the great enemies of the agrarian lifestyle. We're all so accustomed to the thought that new must be better, that we rarely analyze things in terms of utility, which is the way we should look at it.

Indeed, while most of us have probably not bought in to it, you can find written examples arguing against the very thing we love, family agriculture, on the basis that it is antiquated. Even here in the US, where there is a traditional love of farmers, there are those who argue that you shouldn't be a farmer, as it is old fashioned. You should work in an office in the city, with a computer, as that's "new".

Ethan Book said...

Why can't you do a managed intensive grazing system on the Western Plains? Just throwing the thought out there. Personally I don't think there is much standing in the way other than conventional wisdom, but that is just my two cents.

Great discussion!

Rich said...

Water distribution is more than likely the limiting factor in implementing MiG in many areas. That is the problem I am facing in north-central Oklahoma, we don't have mountains to deal with, but we have rougher areas that are hard to access with vehicles, and getting water to smaller paddocks would be a difficult proposition.

Yeoman said...

You probably can do some sort of MiG on the plains, but forage densities and water present problems that do not exist elsewhere. Up here, pastures will run 4000 to 5,000 acres, or larger. So you'll be moving cattle herds through these pastures on a rotational basis. That's a lot of ground, often very rough ground, to cover. And it has to be covered repeatedly. Basically, the stockman must be able to go where ever a cow can go.

To add to it, the challenge up here is not to graze a location intensely, but rather to prevent any one spot from being overgrazed. It's perfectly possible to overgraze one location in a pasture, as it'll be near water, and the cattle won't want to leave it. At the same time, grass in other spots in the pasture will be untouched. You can't bust the pasture up in to smaller pastures, as there is no water. You could haul water, of course, but that would be very expensive.

Water wells, of course, are highly desired for that reason. But about the only time a new one appears is when an oil company drills down and hits water, rather than oil, and the rancher is able to make a deal for the water. All the shallow wells were drilled long ago. Having said that, we pipe some water for several miles, just to have greater water resources in an otherwise dry pasture.

In order to encourage cattle to use corners of a pasture they'll otherwise avoid, you put out salt, or put down feed in the winter, so they'll go there.

Western pastures are very large, which is why the ranches are large. From personal experience, stockmen from other areas are sometimes stunned by the size of a pasture. To add to it, a large pasture does not mean a huge number of cattle. 100 to 200 cattle can be in an enormous pasture. The bigger the pasture, and the smaller the herd, the more riding is necessary to find and move them.

Anonymous said...

Hey all. Good subject, I'm Beef11 a carryover from homesteading today. Yeoman must be from Wyoming. I'm an Idaho boy myself. As for large ranches i've been around a few. I've worked on outfits where the first thing you did was saddle a horse in the morning. The four wheeler has its place but is by no means a replacement for the horse.

I've seen several large ranches (hundreds of thousands of acres) that use a MIG like system. Cattle aren't moved everyday due to water issues but cattle are grouped in large groups and moved frequently only grazing a pasture once a year for a few days. One outfit i've associated with is 60 plus miles long (all contiguous) and they move in a continuous loop every few days towards the mountains in the spring in the mountains in the summer towards the desert in the fall and winter and start it all over again.

Ethan Book said...

I can understand the water problem and don't really know the way around that ...

Management Intensive Grazing is all about controlling forage height and growth in conjunction with distributing free fertilizer. Also, it is about moving animals to the spot you would like the to graze rather than where they want to graze. A key component of MiG is to not over graze an area!

Obviously carrying capacities would be much different in the more arid regions so you would have to have larger paddocks and such, but it seems like I have heard of MiG in some of those range lands. I'll do some research.

Beef11 - Thanks for coming over and commenting! I hope you continue to share with us :)

Yeoman said...

"I've seen several large ranches (hundreds of thousands of acres) that use a MIG like system. Cattle aren't moved everyday due to water issues but cattle are grouped in large groups and moved frequently only grazing a pasture once a year for a few days. One outfit i've associated with is 60 plus miles long (all contiguous) and they move in a continuous loop every few days towards the mountains in the spring in the mountains in the summer towards the desert in the fall and winter and start it all over again."

Moving every few days would be problematic on most outfits, as the pastures would simply not logically allow for it. However, grazing one pasture once per year is common. The pastures just receive a more prolonged use. Again, given their size, that's manageable.

Most Western pastures will not sustain more than a single annual use anyhow, fwiw, so the practice is a natural one.

What you describe on driving to and from summer and winter pasture is quite common here, however, and is sort of a MiG system, although much of the livestock driveways are public. When you drive to the high country, you only move cattle a few miles per day, normally. So they graze intensely on the way (as do other cattle using the driveway). In the high country, you cycle through your summer pastures. On the way down, you again drive slowly.

Nice to see another Western stockman here, by the way. We can all learn much from each other, but it's important to keep in mind regional difference. I suspect that Western practices, which are quite logical and necessary here, seem bizarre elsewhere, while likewise practices that take place elsewhere, often seem odd here.

Mellifera said...

Yeoman- re the regional differences (especially in regards to the horse/no horse thing), they sure are a big deal. I knew a girl at school (out in Utah) who was from a dairy family in Michigan. She remarked once that in Michigan the only horses are good for is burning hay, whereas out west what with terrain and other issues they really were the best option for getting some jobs done.

I really miss the West. Which is too bad, since we want to farm but the West has no water, so we can never go back....

Yeoman said...

Another difference between the Mid West and the West this brings out, or from the South and the West, is that the lack of water, and much less dense forage, means by its very nature many more acres per cow are required.

That's significant in terms of a farmers goal (and I'd class ranchers as grass farmers). Several times here it's been suggested that a person can get by on less than 100 cows. I really wish I could find a way to do that, but so far, I haven't been able to. I'm sincere in my requests, but I have not been able to puzzle it out.

This is the problem. Because forage is so less dense, and there's so little water, pastures are huge. Cattle will destroy a small pasture. Even if I were to have 50 head only, all bought and paid for, I would need a couple thousand acres bare minimum to run them on, or I'd destroy whatever they were on.

But, a 2,000 acre pasture is probably just that, one pasture. With one water source. So, as a practical matter, I probably have to go larger. If I go larger, I can't have only 50 cows, and so on. Economically, things seem scaled towards 200+ bare minimum. That's sometimes been referred to here as a "big cattleman" (or like words) goal, but here, that's a tiny, barely get by, cattleman number. A "big" cattleman would have 1,000 or more, and still not be making vast sums of cash. Keep in mind that everyone runs loads, and we all must buy feed in the winter.

No local cattlemen will tell you that this is the best place in the world to run cattle. It isn't. It's just that we can and want to. It's one of those things that seems to be a deep seated instinct.

I'll certainly take suggestions on how to improve this situation, however.

Mellifera said...

Yeoman-

I picked up a book at the library a while ago that talked about some ranchers in Colorado moving to a MIG-type system adapted for out west. It may or may not be apply for your situations, but was a very interesting read on western-ecology-and-ranching-dynamics in any case.

The Last Ranch: A Colorado Community and the Coming Desert, by Sam Bingham.

JRG said...

Hi all, This is my first visit to this site. I was looking for something else and found the conversation interesting.

We work with a large intermountain ranch (900+ cows in central Idaho) and run MiG systems on both public range and deeded irrigated land.

On the center pivots we move electric fence every 1-3 days (Polybraid on O'Brien reels with O'Brien step-ins). I do this either on foot or from an ATV. Usually I walk just because I know its better for me. It takes me about 20 minutes to move an 800 ft fence. That is to take it down and set it up again for the next move.

The range herd is about 600 cows and it moves through a series of BLM & FS units. They move about every 5-10 days, depending on pasture size. The pastures vary from 800 to 5000 acres, most are in the 2000-3000 acre size. This is an 8" precip zone. Each pasture is grazed once a year and we try to begin grazing in a different unit every year and some units will get a full season rest about every 4th year. Yes, most of the range moves are done from horseback as it is the only practical means of covering a lot of this country. It's about 26 miles to trail them home from the last graze.

So, even on the same ranch horses and ATV's can live compatibly. The movable electric fence is an esential tool on the irriagted land and gets used occasionally on the range.

There are lots of ranches out here that practice some level of MiG on both range and irrigated land.

JRG

Ethan Book said...

JRG - I'm glad you stumbled across the site and decided to read a little. You input is great and I hope that you stick around and continue to share!

Yeoman said...

JRG, I'm glad to see you too, and I also hope you stick around!

Steven said...

Ditto

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