Category: Rotational grazing

Are You Ready to Graze?

Sarah Flack

Pasture management tips for successful grazing

Farms that practice smart pasture management spend less on feed and realize greater production from their herd. We caught up with dairy pasture management expert Sarah Flack for some tips on getting the most out of your pasture.

Spring is finally here, time to get grazing. But when do you turn the cows out on pasture? “From the plant’s perspective it is best if the animals don’t graze the plants too short, too early,” notes Flack. “But from the animal’s perspective, you’ve got to turn them out to pasture early enough so that you can set the different stages of regrowth, so the pasture quality can be managed consistently through the rapid spring growth state.”

Flack recommends using a multi-faceted approach for determining if pasture plants are graze ready. “I don’t think pre-grazing height by itself is sufficient,” she says. “It depends on the plant species in the pasture and the farmer’s goals. Because we are dealing with cool-season perennial grasses which lignify and grow really tall at certain times of the year and become less digestible, while at other times of the year become very digestible.”

Graziers should be strategic about where they kick off the grazing season. “If you choose an area on your farm where say your orchard grass has gotten really tall and rank in the last couple of years, your plant density has gotten sort of low – and you choose that to be where you graze the cows or sheep first thing in the spring, you can actually stimulate tillering to increase plant density and stimulate the spreading of the white clover.”

Increasing the quality and density of forages in your pasture helps cows maximize dry matter intake, which positively impacts milk production. “You are increasing the amount of dry matter they can easily get per bite, and you are improving the digestibility of each bite,” explains Flack. “So, they don’t have to chew it as much, they don’t have to work as much to digest it, and they can actually physically eat more of it, because of the high digestibility.”

While each pasture is unique, Flack focuses on three things when evaluating a grazing system: amount of time animals are on the paddock, how short plants are grazed, and length of the regrowth / recovery period.

Time on and time away from each paddock are fundamental to good grazing management. Flack advises using variable recovery periods rather than fixed recovery periods. “Variable means the farmer has to be out there on a regular basis observing how fast the plants are growing in the pasture,” says Flack. “And they are changing the speed of the rotation based on how fast those plants are growing.”

“The slower the plants grow, the longer the recovery period gets to be,” she adds. “So you are always making sure the plants in the paddock are sufficiently regrown and recovered so they are ready to be grazed again.”

Beat the heat stress
Since cow comfort and production go hand in hand, good pasture management includes looking out for animal welfare. Flack recommends farmers consult a heat stress chart for their class of animals to know the heat and humidity at which their animals can experience heat stress. Farmers should also know the signs of heat stress and monitor animals for those early signs.

“Good grazing management by itself will actually help prevent heat stress at the lower temperatures,” adds Flack.

A well-managed pasture is filled with lush green pasture plants. “Right up to their eyeballs if it is the correct pre-grazing height,” notes Flack. “The temperature is going to be lower at the soil surface because of the tall shading plant material and that is where the cows muzzle is going to be. They are getting a lot of extra oxygen from those plants photosynthesizing. There is this really beneficial effect of the pasture canopy keeping things cool.”

Make sure there is plenty of water available and have a shade strategy. Shade needs are unique to a farm’s location, climate and landscape. A pasture with trees widely spaced with plenty of undergrowth for grazing is one ideal situation, notes Flack. Since not all farms have natural growing shade, fixed or mobile shade structures are an alternative.

“The problem with fixed non-portable shade is that you get a trampling effect underneath, and it is being focused in the same place all the time,” says Flack.  “I’m more inclined to use a portable shade or move cows back to a barnyard, where you can manage the manure, the feed waste and the trampling impact.”

“Portable shade – if it is not going to blow away – is ideal, because the farmer can actually use the trampling impact under the shade strategically,” adds Flack. “You could do a trample seeding, intentionally trample a problematic weed area…You spread seed, then you put the animals in, they trample the seed in, then you pull them out for a couple months, and you get fantastic germination and establishment of new perennial pasture plants—if the soil moisture conditions and temperatures are right.”

Your mobile shade solution

Shade Haven mobile shade structures can sustain winds up to 40 mph and are easily collapsed in case inclement weather. A Shade Haven can be transported with a truck, tractor or ATV. Three models provide up to 1200 square feet of shade to maximize animal comfort and productivity. Get more out of your pasture with portable shade.

Contact us today for more information or to arrange a demo.

 

Sarah Flack is an author and consultant specializing in pasture management for grass-based livestock farmers. Her books, workshops and videos empower farmers to create grazing and pasture management systems that work successfully for their unique situations. More information on upcoming workshops, books, videos and consulting services at sarahflackconsulting.com.

Upcoming Events
May 2-3 – Grazing Workshops in Chenango and Steuben County, NY
June 4-5 – Grazing Workshop at Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT
Aug. 9 – Grazing Workshop at Sweet Rowan Farm, VT
Aug. 16 – Full Day Grazing School, Stone Barns Center, Pocantico Hills, NY

Shade Haven: Your Instant Savanna

 

A grass-based farmer is an ecologist. He is concerned with the whole world he is creating, the interplay of plants and animals, microorganisms and weather. He strives for a system that is balanced on its own, without any need for purchased inputs, able to tolerate extremes of rain and drought.

The ultimate grass farm is the savanna. The savanna is grass and trees together, sustained by and helping to sustain herds of herbivores who in turn support a network of large predators. Grass feeds the large animals, who then fertilize and revive the plains that they traverse. The savanna is a highly productive grassland ecosystem that permits the coexistence of the largest number and variety of species. Yet, through human error or ecological catastrophe, savanna can become desert.

In her book “Cows Save the Planet,” author Judith Schwartz writes, “…attend to the needs of the soil, and the ecological cycles will begin to get back in sync.”

The book, which Schwartz deems a “call to action on behalf of the soil,” sheds hope on what seems to be a dire environmental predicament. That hope is in the form of managed grazing “as a tool for preventing or reversing the desertification process.”

Judith D. Schwartz

In the chapter “The Making And Unmaking Of Deserts – The Grazing Paradox” Schwartz reports that worldwide roughly 30 million acres of “productive land are lost to desertification” annually.

“Today 1.5 billion people depend for their food and livelihoods on land that is losing its capacity to sustain vegetation,” she writes. The cause is largely man-made and “driven by actions that disturb the lifecycles of many plants and animal species…poor irrigation design, poor livestock management and the use of technology ill-suited to the landscape.”

By cutting down trees, over-grazing, or improperly tilling the soil, humans can cause topsoil built over thousands of years to disappear in a generation.  A grass farmer keeps his land and animals thriving by keeping the land covered with mother earth’s loving blanket of living, heavy sod. His main tool in doing this is moving his cattle, moving throughout the seasons, like the prehistoric herds.

Desertification, climate change and biodiversity share similar outcomes and must all be part of the discussion when considering the fate of the soil and its ability to sustain life. Schwartz points out that desertification is not just a problem in Africa and the southern hemisphere. She notes that North America is the continent with the “highest portion of its dryland areas classified as severe or moderately desertified.”

Schwartz praises Allen Savory’s Holistic Management approach of using livestock to restore the land. She writes, “So if domestic herbivores can be managed such that their behavior mimics that of their wild counterparts, the grasslands – the African savanna or the U.S. prairies and plains, terrain that represents about 45 percent of all the land worldwide – will regain the state of wild land: healthy, diverse, and resilient.”

The mobile shade solution

Shade Haven mobile shade structures can help farmers mimic that behavior to create their own savanna, providing shade wherever the impact of cattle is most needed –keeping the cattle moving and improving soil health, while also improving profitability and animal comfort.

“You are kind of creating microclimates, which makes a lot of sense,” says Schwartz, who notes that her primary focus of research was soil. And while every system and ecological place is unique, farmers “figure out what works with what they have.”

“Nature has figured out what the soil needs and what the plants need. Let’s learn from that,” adds Schwartz. “Part of that system of moving nutrients around are the animals.”

While there are different ways to graze cattle, one fact remains consistent. “In the areas of the world where there are grasslands with deep rich soil, those soils have been created by animals,” notes Schwartz. “We can’t expect to have those rich soils without a system that includes grazing animals.”

Read it!
For more information on Judith Schwartz or to purchase “Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth” visit her website. Also check out Schwartz’s newest book “Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World,” which includes stories of innovators who thrive by working with the water cycle.

Contact us today to add mobile shade to your grazing system.

Shade Haven Customer In the News: Keith Tuck

Keith Tuck.(Progressive Farmer image by Becky Mills)

Savings Bump: Boot the Hay Habit

As appeared in DTN Progressive Farmer 
3/26/2018 | 8:57 AM CDTReprinted with permission, copyright 2018, Progressive Farmer/Telvent DTN, LLC
By Becky Mills, Contributing Editor

If you want proof Keith Tuck’s rotational-grazing system works, take a look at his hay equipment. Oh, wait. It’s gone. He sold it in 2016.

“It was a hard decision to make,” the Moneta, Virginia, cattleman admits. “My hay equipment sat there for two years before I took the plunge. But, it is a whole lot easier and less stressful.”

Tuck’s 75 to 80 cows and 30 replacement and first-calf heifers still need hay, even with his rotational-grazing system. But, he gets by with around 60 days of feeding hay compared to the 120 days he averaged before putting a rotational system into use on the family farm.

Savings Add Up

Prior to 2014, Tuck hayed 120 acres every spring. If he had excess forage, he did it again in the fall. He found that putting up, and feeding less, hay translated into major savings—with costs going from $21,000 to $24,000 before the switch to $9,600 to $12,000 after.

Now, all 250 acres of his fescue-clover pastures are grazed rather than part of it being set aside for making hay. He spends approximately $14,000 less on fertilizer for pasture- and hay land, and not just because he quit making hay.

“Rotational grazing works great to build up the soil,” Tuck says. “I read about a study that says it takes 27 years to cover your pastures with manure with conventional grazing. It only takes three to four years to get manure on every square foot of pasture with rotational grazing.”

He still soil-tests every two years but now sets the fertilizer spreader down to the lowest level possible, putting out 50 units of nitrogen an acre. He says this is enough to give fescue a boost and create stockpiled forage (standing hay) for late fall and winter. Potassium and phosphorus needs are maintained naturally with the cow herd and the hay they buy and feed.

Professional Planning

Tuck had been eyeing a rotational-grazing system for years. Lack of a handy water source kept him from trying it.

“The pond was my only water source, and it was 2,000 feet away from part of the pasture.”

He sat down with his county’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) and Peaks of Otter Soil and Water Conservation District employees. They mapped out a system for him, and NRCS provided 75% cost-share money through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and Environmental Quality Incentive Program. Contractors moved in around Labor Day 2010, installed fences and water systems, fenced out his pond and creek, and planted trees in the riparian areas. The work was finished by Thanksgiving.

The total cost was $100,000, with Tuck providing $25,000. “It was easily paid back with the savings in hay,” he notes.

Tuck says fencing cattle out of the creek and pond was a major component of the new system.

“All this water runs into Smith Mountain Lake when it leaves this farm. It is in the lake in a half a mile,” he says. The 32-square-mile lake is a major tourist draw for the area and has sparked quite a bit of development.

Today, Tuck’s 70-acre pastures are divided into permanent paddocks of 15 to 20 acres each. He further divides these with temporary electric fences. Each of his eight water troughs are in a corner so they can be central to four paddocks.

Tuck deploys one of two Shade Havens purchased in 2017

Recovery Builds Roots

In the summer, Tuck rotates cattle from paddock to paddock, usually after a week.

“We never graze below 3 to 4 inches; we don’t want to stress the root systems,” he explains. Each paddock gets six to eight weeks of rest before he allows cattle to graze it again. “I like for it to be 18 inches tall when they come back around, enough for them to graze for a few days.”

John Andrae, Clemson University forage agronomist, says Tuck has the right idea. “Rest periods allow plants to produce new leaves, which collect energy, transform it into sugars and store these sugars so more leaves can be produced following the next grazing cycle. Not only is regrowth potential improved, but root depth and stand life are improved, as well.”

For winter grazing, Tuck goes to a stockpile system. He starts in August by taking the paddocks he wants to stockpile out of the rotation and applying nitrogen. With adequate rain, he generally has enough of a stockpile to graze by November.

He relies on strip grazing to get the most out of that stockpiled fescue. “I start at the water source and give them enough forage for three or four days, seven days at the most.”

When Tuck takes down the temporary fence and moves it, he doesn’t put up a back-fence but leaves it open so they can go back to the water trough. “There is no regrowth then, so it doesn’t hurt it,” he explains.

He keeps a rope hooked to his Kubota tractor and makes quick work of hitching it to the mineral feeder to pull it to fresh forage. “In 30 minutes, I can give them enough grazing to last for a week. It takes two hours to feed hay every day, plus you’re burning fuel. It is a whole lot more efficient and less expensive to stockpile hay.”

A meticulous recordkeeper, Tuck figured out how much time he spends a year now moving cattle and fence. He calculates he is making close to $50 an hour under the current system.

When he does feed hay, he tries to position it where pastures need the most help.

“I try to take mental notes during the growing season of where we need nutrients and seed,” he says. He also makes a point to unroll the hay, as this helps spread the nutrients and allows all the cows to get an equal chance to eat.

While labor and hay savings are impressive, Tuck emphasizes stockpiling isn’t a last-minute decision. “You have to plan well ahead. In the spring, plan for fall. And, take into account the cows have to be somewhere during stockpiling.

“The key to the whole thing is management. You have to be a good planner and think months down the road. You’ll put in as much desk time as you do in the field.”

Reprinted with permission, copyright 2018, Progressive Farmer/Telvent DTN, LLC

Weathering Climate Change Through Rotational Grazing

Regardless of which side you are on in the climate change debate, there’s no denying that weather is becoming more and more unpredictable. Extreme rain, heat and drought in the Midwest and throughout the country present new challenges for farmers. Rotational grazing is a solution that can enhance a farm’s ability to withstand the effects of these weather extremes.

Improving soil health and building organic matter through rotational grazing both reduces erosion and increases the moisture-retaining capacity of the soil.

Jim Munsch

“If you are doing rotational grazing correctly there is always something growing on the soil, and it is abundant,” says Jim Munsch, a Wisconsin beef farmer and rotational grazing expert. “If you have a vibrant plant growth covering the soil, you dramatically reduce the incidents of erosion in high-rain events.”

After 30 years of rotational grazing on his farm in southwestern Wisconsin, Munsch boasts zero predicted erosion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil erosion prediction calculations. NRCS measures the soil loss tolerance rate, or T, to determine the maximum soil loss allowed without damage to crop productivity.

“If you lost T every year, nature could not keep up and eventually there would be no top soil,” explains Munsch.

The cover resulting from rotational grazing drastically reduces that loss, even with heavy rainfall. Additionally, the process of intensive grazing–moving the animals daily–and allowing time for regrowth builds organic matter, which increases the soil’s ability to hold moisture.

“When we used to have crops on the land at our farm, we had organic matter of about 1.8%,” notes Munsch. “Through 30 years of rotational grazing, we now have fields that are, on average, around 4% and some with 4.5% organic matter.”

For every 1% of organic matter, the soil can hold 20,000 gallons of water. That’s about ¾ of an inch of rain. On a farm such as Munsch’s with 4% organic matter, moisture from a 3-inch rain will be absorbed. A farm without that level of organic matter will experience runoff and erosion.

“From an environmental stand point, it is important for the soil to be able to hold a lot of water as a shock absorber for these large rain events,” notes Munsch. “Climate change also brings periods of drought. And if your soil is holding 20,000 gallons of moisture per 1% of organic matter, you are building up a reservoir of moisture in the soil to help you ride through a drought.”

Additionally, rotational grazing creates a canopy of standing grass throughout the pasture, which shades the soil, keeping it cool and reducing evaporation.

Carbon-building through grazing

Building organic matter in the soil takes time. Munsch estimates that it took about 15 years of rotational grazing on his farm to build significant organic matter. Rotational grazier, Vince Hundt experienced a measurable difference in organic matter within five years at his farm in Coon Valley, Wisconsin.

Vince Hundt

“We soil tested 35 acres that we transitioned from crop land to rotational grazing in 2008 and then again in 2013. I was astonished that all the tests came back having moved from the 2-3% organic matter category to the 3-4% category in just five years of managed grazing,” notes Hundt.

Building organic matter through managed grazing is the simple process of plants using the sun’s energy to pull carbon-dioxide out of the air, then hanging on to the carbon and releasing the oxygen back into the atmosphere. The carbon-collecting capability of rotational grazing has many scientists calculating it as a possible key to reversing climate change. While that calculation remains open to debate, there’s no debate on the ability of rotational grazing to build healthy, profitable pastures.

“With rotational grazing a cow walks along, eats the grass, leaves most of the carbon behind in the form of manure, and moves on to the next paddock. With the cow gone for the next 30 days or so, the fertilized plant now has even more vigor and a rest period to regrow and build an even larger root system that is made up of even more carbon.” explains Hundt.

Underground, the pasture plant community is building a monster root system and a powerhouse of diverse biological activity.  “It all starts with carbon,” adds Hundt. “It’s the key to the kingdom. If you want the soil on your farm to be resilient and able to handle any weather, you need to elevate the carbon content, biological diversity and organic matter, and the best possible technique to do that is rotational grazing.”

The importance of mobile shade

With an increasing number of days with high temperatures, the ability to put shade where you need it is becoming more and more valuable. Mobile shade allows for uninterrupted grazing, even on the hottest days, even in managed grazing systems that include paddocks with no trees. Utilizing movable shade structures such as the Shade Haven results in even distribution of nutrients throughout a paddock, while also minimizing production losses associated with heat stress.

“A lot of us in the past have used trees. If we knew it would be really hot, we would put the animals where they have access to the shade of those trees,” explains Munsch. “But with more and more hot days, it restricts where you can put animals. With the Shade Haven you are actually moving shade onto a pasture that may not have natural shade, so you can now use that pasture or paddock.”

That sentiment is echoed by other leaders in the rotational grazing realm. In the December 2017 issue of The Stockman Grass Farmer, grazing expert Joel Salatin calls mobile shade “far superior to shade trees because we can place the urine and manure on precisely the spot where it’s most needed.” In that same article Salatin discusses the profitability of mobile shade and predicts, “I’m looking for the day when shademobiles dot the countryside with every herd of cattle.”

As weather challenges the agriculture industry, Shade Haven is happy to be part of the solution for farmers throughout the U.S. and the world.

A Perfect Fit

 

Hidden Creek Farm in Delaplane, Virginia, is gaining a reputation as the place with the Shade Haven. Farm owner Andrea Young welcomes that connection. “For us, the Shade Haven is more than an investment, it aligns with our vision of innovation, quality products and quality of life for our animals.  It’s cool, its innovative and it provides real value.”

Passersby might catch the Youngs’ Red Poll cattle enjoying the Shade Haven mobile shade structure. You might even see their Katahdin sheep, chickens or a combination of animals hanging out there.

The mix of animals at Hidden Creek Farm is part of the vision the Youngs had for their farm when they purchased it in 2015. Since the farm was in a conservation area, Young says, “We wanted to create a place that respected the attitude of conservation and reverence for what the land could do with us, and what we could learn from the land.”

“With our commitment to conservation, we wanted to focus on at least one or two heritage breeds. So we talked to the livestock conservancy, did research and decided to get Red Poll cattle, which are a threatened breed.”

This fall the Youngs are breeding some of their heifers for the first time and will breed the rest in the spring. They plan to sell breeding stock to others interested in the preservation of Red Poll cattle and will eventually sell the meat, which is known to be flavorful and tender. Additionally, the farm markets its pigs, sheep, chickens, herbs, mushrooms, fruit and honey.

Andrea and her husband Dendy have dedicated their professional lives to helping startups and encouraging entrepreneurship. Young says that working with an innovative young company such as Shade Haven LLC fits perfectly with their philosophy of both farming and life in general.

Practicing rotational grazing, Young has observed an improvement in pasture health with the Shade Haven. “We move the Shade Haven every five days, and we have noticed amazing fertility, health and vigor. There are round patches in the pasture where ever we put the Shade Haven. The grass that comes up there is so lush and vibrant. It’s phenomenal.”

Animal health and comfort is important to Young, and she is pleased to find her cows under the Shade Haven instead of out in the hot sun. “I can tell you that the cows prefer the Shade Haven, that is just a fact. Even on a cool day, they will go under and just hang there. It’s like a gathering place.”

“When I know my cattle and my sheep are protected and more comfortable, that comes back to us both in peace and in terms of dollars,” adds Young. “For us, the Shade Haven was very much on top of the priority list. It is essential.”

Young is excited about the future as they move ahead with their plans for Hidden Creek Farm. Those plans include the livestock as well as agritourism and education. The goal is to offer others a chance to spend time on the farm and enable beginning farmers to learn through a young farmer internship program.

“Starting Hidden Creek Farm has been an amazing experience,” says Young. “Nobody is ever bored, and we are all learning a lot. It is where we want to be and how we want to live for the rest of our lives.”

Check out Hidden Creek Farm’s website to find out more about this happy customer.

Rules and Tools for Rotational Grazing

“At the heart of rotational grazing is a replication of the way nature has formed an interaction between ruminants and plants – mainly grassland plants,” notes longtime Wisconsin beef farmer and rotational grazier Jim Munsch.

Munsch likens managed grazing of modern day cattle to the movement of their predecessors, the buffalo on the Great Plains or ruminants in Africa. “That structure involved a ruminant eating a plant off in one area and then moving on to another area where the plants were delicious and plentiful, allowing time for the initial plant that was eaten off to regrow.”

The movement and herding behavior was driven primarily by predators. Today electric fences replicate that effect. “We put animals in a herd on a small piece of land, have them eat the plants down so there is still leaf left, and then have them eat another piece, so the original piece can regrow.”

Allowing for regrowth is key to rotational grazing. In the spring in the upper Midwest, where Munsch grazes his beef, regrowth typically happens in about three weeks. In fall, it takes up to five weeks depending on moisture and length of daylight.

“With some grass and legume species, regrowth starts in 24 hours; therefore, it is best to move the cattle out of the eaten area, so they cannot graze on the immediate regrowth,” advises Munsch.

He aims for his animals to eat half of what is available and leave half to generate new growth and keep plants healthy. Manure distribution and hoof action also contribute to pasture health. Stock density for a healthy pasture on Munsch’s farm is approximately a pound of animal per square foot.

Tools for successful grazing

“Everything we do in terms of tools—fencing, water, shade— is to enhance that biological relationship between the plant and the animal,” notes Munsch.

Fencing – Managed grazing starts with a sturdy perimeter fence consisting of four to six strands of high-tensile or barbed wire. Next single-strand electric wire is used to form large paddocks within that area. Within those large paddocks, one to three days of grazing is enclosed with temporary fencing or polywire.

The size of those areas is determined by the number of animals and the amount of dry matter on the paddock. “A ruminant consumes about 2 ½ to 3% of their body weight daily in dry matter of the plants they consume,” explains Munsch. “You can estimate in a moderately thick stand, there are a couple hundred pounds of dry matter per acre of the sward eaten.”

Water – Providing access to water within each paddock differs for beef and dairy. While most dairy graziers rely on the cows drinking sufficient water in the barnyard, with beef, it’s a different story. “If you are a beef grazier, there is a large return on investment from animal gain if you can put water in each paddock,” says Munsch.

“Additionally, if you have water on the paddock, all of the nutrients the animals eat during the day will then be distributed there. So you have a better nutrient balance on the paddock.”

Shade – The Shade Haven mobile shade structure is a valuable tool for managed grazing. Before Shade Haven, graziers kept animals on paddocks that included trees on the hottest days.That put a restraint on our ability to match animals to where the grass was best for them that day,” notes Munsch, who appreciates his ability to move the shade.

“With Shade Haven, on those blistering hot days, I can put shade on the paddock with the best grass for those animals for that day.”

Rotational grazing vs. continuous grazing

“When plants are eaten off in a managed system, they are eaten off when there is as much plant material below the ground as there is above the ground,” explains Munsch.

Roots draw nutrients and moisture from the soil, while above ground photosynthesis takes place. “When those solar panels—the leaves—are eaten off, there is a huge energy store in the root system, so the plant can regrow,” says Munsch.

With continuous grazing, the animals eat the tender regrowth almost immediately. “The plant’s defense mechanism is to reduce the amount of roots it has, because it wants a balance between the ability of the plant to get energy from the sun and the ability of the plant to get nutrients and moisture from the soil.”

Eventually those plants die and all that remains on the pasture are plant species that grow very close to the ground. “From a production standpoint, you dramatically reduce the yield of dry matter when you continually graze, because you are reducing the ability of the plant to grow,” says Munsch. “And it is dramatic. A managed pasture system, where you allow the plant to regrow, can yield twice as much dry matter.”

The increased yield allows twice as many animals to graze on higher quality forage, resulting in more rapid weight gain. “I joke with people that if a seed corn salesman came onto your farm and said, ‘I can teach you to grow twice as much corn as you grow now,’ you would think he was crazy,” says Munsch. “But with pasture management, you can say that.”

 

Grass-Fed Galloways Love Shade at Weil Family Farm

Geoffrey Weil and Galloway calf, Weil Family Farm, Greensboro, NC

When Geoffrey and Tess Weil first encountered their 111-acre farm in Greensboro, North Carolina, they saw lush green rolling hills and a property they could restore to a working farm. They also envisioned an opportunity to raise cattle on grass without growth hormones or antibiotics.

The Weil Family Farm raises a hardy breed of Galloway cattle. The couple discovered the breed while on vacation in the Scottish Highlands. “When we came back, we did some research and discovered that not only are the Galloways a heritage breed, they are also on the conservancy watch list as a threatened breed,” notes Geoffrey Weil. “So, we’re also helping a threatened species establish its numbers.”

Thirty-two Galloway cattle, both black and white, graze the farm’s four 15-acre paddocks. Committed to sustainability and rotational grazing, the Weils use a Shade Haven mobile shade structure to get maximum impact from their pasture. “There are trees on the east side of the pasture, and no trees toward the west,” Weil explains. “In the morning the cows, luxuriate in the shadows created by the trees on the eastern part, and then in the afternoon they gravitate to the Shade Haven on the western part of the pasture.”

To prevent distress of land under the Shade Haven, Weil moves it sometimes two or three times daily. “It is very easy to re-deploy. In fact, the cows like it so much that when we move it to another area, they follow it as if it were a bucket of feed.”

The ease of moving the Shade Haven allows Weil to control the distribution of nutrients throughout the pasture. “I would recommend the Shade Haven to anyone interested in rotational grazing,” notes Weil. “At the same time, I’d recommend the Shade Haven to anyone who is trying to spread manure around the pasture and control where the cattle are eating.”

Weil disagrees with feeding grain to fatten cattle and hasten their time to market. “Integral to our vision of raising cows is that cows are not supposed to eat grain. We raise our cows on pastures of clover, fescue, and ryegrass.”

Galloway beef has won awards for its superior flavor. Ultimately the Weil Family Farm will sell its high-quality, grass-fed Galloway beef to individuals and local restaurants. “Since our cows can only eat grass and supplements that conform to AGBA standards, our cattle will take an extra year to get to market,” says Weil. “But it will be worth the wait.”

While grass is a must on Weil Family Farm, so is the Shade Haven.

“It’s funny the way our cows tend to gravitate toward the Shade Haven,” says Weil. “We leave it out all the time – unless we are expecting severe storms. Even when it’s cloudy, you find our cattle under the Shade Haven. It’s a comfort zone for them.”

Shade Makes Big Impact on Ohio Farm

Drausin Wulsin is in the midst of his first season with a Shade Haven on his farm, Red Stone Farm, in Cynthiana, Ohio. And he already wants another one.

“This is one of the tools that can lead to sustainability on a farm,” says Wulsin. “It gives one the ability to micromanage the land. It is a very effective tool.”

Farming for about 20 years, Wulsin left a career in the financial industry to farm full time. Today 150 bovine units, a couple hundred sheep, some hogs and laying hens graze the fertile lands of Red Stone Farm. Certified organic since 2013, the farm added organic dairy to the mix two years ago.

Wulsin and his wife Susan operate their farm, about 85 miles east of Cincinnati, and a business, Grassroots Farm & Foods, that sells their grass-fed meats and milks to restaurants and people in southern Ohio. They also sell their meats and Susan’s hand-prepared foods on the Grassroots Farm & Foods website.

Wulsin adheres to grass-based, sustainable farm practices, including rotational grazing. “We are constantly moving the animals to fresh pasture and fresh grass,” he says. “We have long rest periods of 30 to 90 days. We move them slowly when the grass is growing slowly.”

He says one of his biggest challenges as a livestock farmer is winter feed. “There are a number of ways to address that. One of which is building organic matter in the soil, so that you grow more feed and have a longer grazing season.”

The Shade Haven is an effective tool for building organic matter. “The beauty of the structure is that it allows you to surgically address issues of shade and issues of infertility,” says Wulsin. “You can place the structure where you want in order to get the greatest impact. It gives me ultimate mobility and flexibility to focus on a small scale on a piece of land. That eventually is going to build organic matter. We move manure away from the trees and into the pastures, that is going to help our pastures and help our organic matter, and ultimately help our bottom line.”

Pleased with the performance of his first Shade Haven, Wulsin anticipates ordering another. “I think it is very well-designed, good looking, mobile and durable. We have had some high winds and it is not affected.”

Casting Shade on Nutrient Management


For beef and dairy farms, crop fertility is ranked as a leading expense, second to the cost of the land. Rotational grazing practices address the pasture fertility issue, moving animals from paddock to paddock every three days. Through this practice, the animals return nutrients to the pasture by grazing, drinking water and depositing the nutrients back on the paddock. A blazing hot sun presents challenges to rotational grazing practices.

“The issue then is not the addition of nutrients, it’s the distribution of nutrients,” explains Wisconsin beef farmer and managed grazer Jim Munsch. “There are university studies that say without shade, most of the nutrients tend to gravitate toward the water source in the paddock. On a hot day, if you have no shade, the animals will either stand on the highest part of the paddock to get the breeze, or they will stand around the water point.”

If there are trees in a pasture, animals will congregate there and deposit minerals primarily in that area. Munsch adds that “true converts to rotational grazing” considered trees as weeds, for that very reason. On a hot day, animals migrate toward them, resulting in unequal distribution of nutrients in the paddock. The solution, eliminate the trees.

Yet, without shade, the animals suffer, and any farmer raising livestock is concerned about animal comfort. Dairy cows are especially susceptible to heat stress, which impacts production and ultimately the bottom line.

Enter Shade Haven

“This in my view is a movable tree,” says Munsch. “Wherever you need nutrients, wherever nutrients have negative migration…a way to get nutrients back into that place is to bring shade there on a sunny day. Shade Haven allows you to move nutrients where you want them. For instance, in my paddock I move cows every day. Here in Wisconsin you can occupy a paddock five or six times during the year. So you have five or six opportunities to move nutrients where you want them.”

The standard time animals stay in a paddock is three days. If all three of those days are sunny, Munsch moves the Shade Haven structure within the paddock daily. “It’s like parking your manure spreader in a place. So if you have a high concentration of animals under there for a good part of the day, you are going to want to move it.”

It’s also wise to move the structure after heavy rains that have saturated the soil. “If the ground is soft, after a couple inches of rain, they are going to beat that little piece of land up pretty bad.”

The nitrogen dilemma

Nitrogen is a typical add to soil by many conventional farmers. Purchasing nitrogen can be expensive. Munsch argues that nitrogen can be added to the soil by encouraging legumes to grow in your pasture. Legumes fix nitrogen from the air. “In fact there is a net positive on nitrogen simply by encouraging legumes to grow on your pasture,” Munsch says. “The economic trade off is legumes for nitrogen, so you don’t have to buy nitrogen, and animals take care of the distribution of nutrients within a paddock for phosphorus and potash and trace minerals, needed to maintain the health of the legumes.”

“On our farm, we have not applied purchased fertilizer to our grazing land in 25 years,” adds Munsch. “This is a product of managing animal distribution and selective out-wintering.”

With dairy cows, who are very susceptible to heat stress, Shade Haven is effective with the distribution of nutrients that keep the pasture healthy and fertile. “The thing that keeps them [dairy cows] in the barn is the shade,” notes Munsch. “By facilitating the animals to spend time in the paddock by providing shade you are moving nutrients out of the barn, out of the lanes, and onto the paddocks.”

Serious about rotational grazing? Get serious about shade.

Shade Haven from Above

Earlier this year, the Agriculture Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced $150 million in funding would be available to agricultural producers through the Conservation Stewardship Program.

“The Conservation Stewardship Program is one of our most popular programs with producers because it results in real change on the ground by boosting soil and air quality, conserving clean water and enhancing wildlife habitat,” Tom Vilsack said.

One of the activities funded by the program is intensive rotational grazing. According to a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) activity sheet, intensive rotational grazing enhances the “harvest efficiency of grazing livestock to increase forage harvest, and to improve forage quality and livestock health.”

There are differences in methodology and infrastructural design on any farm implementing rotational grazing, but the shared trait is the rotation of cattle through a subdivided pasture. Subdividing pasture into paddocks forces cattle to graze more evenly, increases pasture rest periods, and prohibits habitual congregation around resources. Through rotational grazing, a farmer can maximize the health and productivity of two commodities: pasture and herd.

The three basic management tools are fencing, water, and shade. The use of the first two has been well documented, but the effect of shade access cannot be understated as an essential element of rotational grazing best practices. As more farmers and ranchers look to reap the benefits of rotational grazing, portable shade may be the tool that ensures return on investment.

Grass goes ‘mainstream’

Nick Wallace has been on the forefront of the grass-fed beef movement. He says rotational grazing has been an essential part of his operation.

Wallace’s family has been farming in Keystone, Iowa since 1894. His 160-acre farm raises grass-fed beef about 30 miles west of Cedar Rapids. Wallace Farms products — including his famous Nick’s Sticks, a staple of the Seattle Seahawks diet — are the result of his “back to the land” pursuit of better health for his family, his cattle, and his customers.

Wallace was diagnosed with cancer when he was 19. His dad, Steve Wallace, spent significant amounts of time researching potential causes and concluded his son’s poor health was the result of consuming low-quality food. What began as an effort to grow their own food quickly evolved into a family business.

“When we started, we were one of the few grass-fed beef companies really pushing it,” Nick said. “Now, flash forward 12 years, everybody knows. They look for the grass-fed beef logo on snack sticks. It’s very mainstream.”

Wallace said his rotational method has been a catalyst in enabling his family to raise healthy grass-fed beef. To him, the difference between rotational grazing and confinement grazing is like the difference between chess and checkers.

“With checkers, you know what the game is,” he said. “With chess, we come out every day, it is a chess-match; every day is different.”

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to raising cattle. Wallace’s “chess-match” approach to farming gives him the flexibility to optimize productivity and mitigate a wide range of weather conditions, pasture growth rates, and cattle behavior.

Shade ‘very valuable’

The Wallaces were not always raising grass-fed beef or practicing rotational grazing, though. Like their neighbors, the Wallace farm had been raising grain-fed beef for decades before the family decided to switch to grass in the early 2000s.

Eventually, the family settled on a method that worked for them and their land: A 40-acre pasture is divided into four 10-acre paddocks which are each subdivided into roughly 10-15 moves with movable high tensile electrified fencing on fiberglass posts. That gives the cattle 400-600 moves in a 40-acre field, or three-to-four daily moves. (Wallace estimates he’ll have about 75 head rotating in his pasture on the Keystone farm this summer.) If the cows aren’t keeping up with the growth of the grass, Wallace puts it up in hay.

Almost any pasture can be adapted to rotational grazing, Wallace said. He recommends farmers use what they already have before planning projects. In addition to movable fencing, Wallace had to figure out a way to move resources like water and shade through those hundreds of possible moves. For water, he uses 70-100 gallon water troughs. For shade, he uses a moveable Shade Haven unit.

The Shade Haven is a 1,200 square-foot portable shade structure designed and made in Viroqua, Wis. that can be deployed and closed by a single user in minutes. It is easily moved with a truck, tractor, or ATV. Shade Haven was designed for and by farmers to bring shade to all corners of the pasture to increase cattle productivity.

Wallace said his Shade Haven has been a “very valuable” management tool because his farm had no existing shade. He said he has seen direct benefits in his cattle in milking and calving, and weight gain. The Shade Haven has also helped him manage the pasture since it deters cattle concentration that creates pockets with a high density of urine and manure.

“When it gets hot, (the cattle) stand around the cattle tank and stand there for half a day, week after week, month after month,” Wallace said. “At the end of the season, that spot is toast. You can’t get anything to grow there.

“With the Shade Haven, you can put that in the middle of the pasture and they’ll go there and go to water and go back. It keeps them moving.”

Fundamental shade

Funding opportunities through the USDA and the NRCS signify a national growth in the popularity of rotational grazing. Whether rotational grazing is done out of concern for conservation or profit, the role of shade in maximizing pasture and herd productivity cannot be overstated. As more farmers and ranches look to implement forms of rotational grazing, portable shade will prove to be an essential management tool on any existing pasture.

Shade tools will be especially important this year as the National Weather Service is predicting above-average summer temperatures extending well into autumn. Access to shade during periods of high heat has been shown to increase cattle weight gain, milk production, and fertility rates.

A study by the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas found that milk production can drop by 20-50 percent when dairy cows are exposed to temperatures exceeding 90 degrees. Another study from Texas Tech University discovered shaded heifers had an increase of 17 pounds carcass weight compared to those in an unshaded feedlot.

The benefits of rotational grazing diminish without shade to protect cattle from heat. Whether driven by the pursuit of resource conservation, cattle health, or farm profitability, shade is an indispensable management tool that will allow farmers to meet their goals. If a farmer wants to get serious about rotational grazing, he needs to get serious about shade.

Author: Ryan Matthews, Freelance Journalist