Viewer discretion advised, cow pies ahead!

Healthy looking cow pie in a recently grazed paddock.

Healthy looking cow pie!  Early April on a grazed paddock (stockpile forage and hay).

We all know cows communicate by mooing.  Cows also communicate through their “back-end”.  Note the caption under the cow pie photo above.  A “healthy looking” cow pie means the cows are healthy!  We, I mean Doug, spends a lot of time looking down (at cow pies).  A cow pie will tell you how the cows are doing nutritionally.

Want to learn more about how to “read” a cow pie?

Here are two posts from The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation (Oklahoma):

Let’s talk quantity

A cow will poop and pee around 4 times every 24 hours.  The cow consumes about 3% of her body weight in grass every day.  Remember a cow cannot digest grass.  That’s around 30 pounds (every day) a cow grazes to feed the microbes living in her special stomach (called the rumen).  The trillions of microbes inside of her convert grass into nutrients she can use.  It is her job to manage the microbes in her rumen by selecting the best possible diet.  It is our job to give her the right size paddock to be able to select the right balance of forages for those little critters inside of her.  In the end or should I say OUT the END we gain lots of manure (about 80% what goes in comes out!).  Manure is fine when grazing on pasture, not so good for feedlots you drive by with cattle standing around in mud or on dirt.

Nice manure distribution and trampling of stockpiled forage.

Nice manure distribution.  About 25 lbs of Nitrogen per acre.

After taking the photo above I marked out a 2000 square foot area and counted about 70 PIES.  That comes to about one pie every 30 square feet.  A quick estimate = 1,110 pounds of manure per acre!

Let’s talk quality (nutrient value)

Did you know you can have manure tested?  If you are interested in the process, visit the folks at Texas A&M University.  The Grazing Animal Nutrition Lab has the corner on the manure testing market with their Nutritional Balance Analyzer (NUTBAL) system (NUTBAL Facebook page).  Basically you take a scoop or two from a number of pies, put it in a plastic bag, freeze it and send it to the GANLAB.  At the lab, they slip some manure under a near infrared analysis machine and compare it to a database of known results.  Using the information they estimate the herds future condition based on a current cow pie test.  Based on the results, the herds diet can be adjusted to meet a limiting need such as energy or protein.  Let’s just say, sometimes the results don’t quite match what we see in our visual cow pie testing.  We are a little bit out of the norm for the database being used.

Collecting a sample for analysis.

Collecting a sample for analysis.

Total Output

Using the actual manure test results we find reported Nitrogen and Phosphorus values.  Running averages on our herd size and also checking against UN-L book values for feedlot manure, following are some estimates for our herd:

  • Cow herd was leaving behind ~1100 lbs. of manure per acre
    • (Refer to the distribution photo above)
  • Nutrient Value of Manure:
    • 15-20 lbs. of Nitrogen per acre
    • 2 to 4 lbs. of Phosphorus per acre
      • Note our Phosphorus value is low compared to UN-L book values
  • Urine Nitrogen (N consumed – N found in Manure – N in new animal growth)
    • 10-15 lbs of Nitrogen per acre
    • It takes 0.04 lbs of Nitrogen for 1 lbs of animal growth

Our overall estimate for Nitrogen per acre = 25 lbs based on our herd management and manure distribution.  Reading UN-L information, up to 25% of feed lot manure will be lost to the atmosphere depending on temperature and moisture.  For our pasture situation, we think our loss would be lower.

Summary

This post was mainly for Doug’s reference.  Thank you to the folks at the GANLAB for their guidance in running some of my calculations.  Feel free to scrutinize the estimates here and we will adjust this post as more information becomes available.  Our estimates are based on a specific herd size at a specific time and place using field and lab information.  To make some rough calculations for any herd size I would start with the following values:

For each 1000 lbs of animals in the herd:

  • 0.25 lbs of Nitrogen per day output
  • Subtract 0.04 lbs of Nitrogen for every pound of new animal growth per day
    • Consider a feed test to check total Nitrogen going into the herd/animal
    • Crude protein lbs intake / 6.25 = Nitrogen intake
  • Consider a percent loss to atmosphere
  • What is the distribution?
    • If manure is piling up in a lot, under a tree or next to a water source, we are not recycling nutrients properly.
    • We should always be looking at ways to improve animal impact.

Warning, poop photos!

One of the many benefits of having the herd always on the move is manure distribution.  A cow herd in a tight group, on the move, will evenly distribute nutrients (poop) throughout a pasture.  In season long grazed pastures (cows left in a pasture for weeks at a time), nutrients will not be evenly distributed.  Manure will accumulate near water tanks and shade.  These ‘loafing areas’ will have high nutrient and pest loads that result in health and water quality problems.  In our “herd on the move” system, cow pies don’t pile up in a few locations.  We mimic natures pattern of herds grazing, trampling and pooping and then moving on.  Where in nature do you find animals standing around for days in their own poop and pee?

Nice manure distribution and trampling of stockpiled forage.

Nice manure distribution and trampling of stockpiled forage.  (~one pile about every 30 sq. ft.)

This early April photo shows excellent ground cover and manure distribution.  The herd has grazed and trampled the standing stockpiled grass, left their “calling card” and moved on.  Left over grass flat against the ground with a dose of manure and pee wakes up soil microbes.  Soil microbes and other critters will do their magic to create a new lush prairie.  What a wonderful cycle.  While the herd consumes their current harvest of grass, they set the stage for a future harvest!  How can man improve on this system?  Unfortunately man in many cases has complicated this process.

“The cattle business is a simple business; the hard part is keeping it simple.” Tom Lasater, Colorado rancher.

Not all paddocks will have the excellent manure distribution shown in the photo above, but many do.  I did a quick count of piles in the area shown above.  With some math we estimate about 1,450 piles per acre!  Prior to our herd arriving on the farm in 2011, the pastures were nutrient starved, remember we need the poop!

Warning, close up photos!

So why did I call these cow pies, calling cards?  Have you herd of dung beetles?  Unfortunately I do not have a photo of a true dung beetle, but below you can see what kind of activity these “calling cards” result in.

Fresh calling card, less than one-half hour old, has attracted lots of activity.

Fresh calling card, less than one-half hour old, has attracted lots of activity.  Note the numerous holes.  Beetle at yellow arrow.

Sphaeridium Beetle

Sphaeridium Beetle, not a true dung beetle, is starting the process of breaking up the pile (holes).

An old dried out cow pie doesn’t do much good.  Old cow pies will actually smoother out grass causing “dead” patches in a pasture.  By keeping the herd tight, many piles are physically broken up as the herd moves around.  Critters like this little beetle are an important step in decomposition.  This little beetle is a sub-aquatic critter that can fly along with the herd.  What an amazing cycle, critters that live predominately in a moist environment are able to travel far up the landscape to dry hill tops or wherever they find the cows “calling card”.

We are thankful for the patterns established in nature by our Creator.  We are happy to help orchestrate the natural process in our pasture.  Please give us a call if you would like to visit the pastures and see the herd in “mooootion”.

Grassfed beef requires grass, we are grass farmers first.  For grass to grow we need water and we will take it in any form; rain, dew, ice and snow.  This time of year we start to think about a few things:

  • What is our current soil moisture levels?
  • Are we ready for snow?

In a previous post from 2014 we wrote about how important soil moisture is at this time of the year.  Soil moisture now, has a big impact on the grass (and beef) we grow next year.  We are going into the 2017 “water year” in good shape.

Are we ready for snow?  This summer we have been “stockpiling” grass in our pastures for the approaching non-growing season.  Do you see a problem in the photo below?

stockpiled pasture grass

Stockpiled grass in our pasture. Think of this as hay we left in the field for our cows to harvest this fall, winter and next spring.

Grass looks good in the photo.  Pasture soils are covered to protect the stored moisture and ready to capture more moisture through the coming months.  The problem?  The photo shows one of our few permanent fence lines (red arrow) that is all grown up in grass.  We construct daily paddocks using electrical poly wire and we count on these few permanent fence lines to supply the power.  The stockpiled grass will accumulate snow and bury this fence line making it unusable.

Cows to the rescue.

cattle grazing fence lines

Cattle preparing our pasture fence lines in anticipation of snow issues this winter.

The photo above shows how we are currently going around all of our permanent fence lines concentrating the herd to stomp down and eat the grass along our fence lines.  The cattle love their work of preparing the fence lines that protect them year round.

preparing fences for winter

The right side of this fence line has been prepared by the herd and they can’t wait to work on the left side of the fence.

Once the cows complete the job, if we do get that big snow storm, our fences will not be buried.  The fence lines will continue to  function, keeping cattle where we plan to move them.

What about the cows and the stockpiled grass if we get lots of snow?  We do have some hay in the barn as “insurance” and to supplement as needed.  In addition, take a look at our previousl post about cattle grazing snow.  Our cows live in our pastures 24/7/365, snow is something they have no problem dealing with.

Feel free to contact us if you would like to see our cattle in motion.  Cattle properly grazing grass is the best way to grow more grass!