In our solar powered steer post we described how cattle will select the tips of plants first, grazing to capture the highest amount of energy available.  We call this grazing off the “ice cream”.  Here is a video link from this past weekend of the herd entering a new patch and grazing the tips off what some would call weeds (we call them forbs and our cattle love them) – Instagram Video – Grazing Plant Tips For Energy @dsfamilyfarm.

eastern gamagrass grazing

Cattle entering fresh paddock of eastern gamagrass (tripsacum dactyloides), aka the “ice cream grass”, early July 2015.  Steer on right side of photo tongue sticking out licking the ice cream!

Almost all plants have some part of “ice cream” (high energy) but one native plant has been nick named the “ice cream grass” – eastern gamagrass (tripsacum dactyloides).  I first became interested in eastern gama during the summer of 1985 while working in Falls City Nebraska for the Soil Conservation Service.  This area of the state still had small native stands of eastern gama.  The story goes that grazing ice cream grass by early settlers cattle almost wiped the grass out.   Since the 1990’s seed has become readily available and we have reintroduced this native grass in higher moisture soils that were previously invaded by non-native bromegrass and reeds canary grass.

grazing eastern gamagrass

Cattle have been in this patch of ice cream grass for about 24 hours late August 2015. Note tall giant ragweed stems stripped of leaves in front of closest steer in photo.

In the photo above the cattle are milling around waiting to move to a fresh patch.  Note this almost solid stand of eastern gamagrass has been evenly grazed to about cow shoulder height.  The herd has grazed the highest energy part of the leaves and left the rest.  We could “force” the herd to keep eating down the remaining leaves but if we move, two good things happen:

  1. The cattle move to fresh grass and eat the “ice cream” (high energy part) of the ice cream grass.
  2. The grass we leave behind as shown above, has good leaf area ready to capture photosynthesis and start regrowth.
Cattle moving to fresh patch of eastern gamagrass.

Cattle moving to fresh patch of eastern gamagrass.

In the above photo we have let down the temporary poly fence to allow the cattle to move into a fresh paddock.  A win-win situation for the cattle and the grass.

Grazing Tall

Stringing temporary poly wire fence through eastern gamagrass is a challenge. Here the cattle have moved into a fresh patch on the far side of the wire.

Greg Judy of Missouri has a chapter devoted to eastern gamagrass in his book “Comeback Farms“, which is worth the read.  He describes using a mob of dry cows to graze eastern gamagrass down further than what we show here.  It just depends on your goals.  In our herd we have cows with calves, yearling steers and grass finishing beef (2-year-old steers).  So we are now grazing with animal condition in mind.  This winter after the grass finished beeves are harvested, we will graze a little more with the land in mind.

As we have stated before our herd is 100% pasture grass-fed, no grain feeding.  One unique note about eastern gamagrass is that it is believed to be related to maize (corn).  The root systems are not similar at all.  The leaves of eastern gama are wide like corn and take a look at the seed head in the photo below.  Note that above the seed, the male portion of the plant is similar to a corn tassel.  The seed is large but harder than a kernel of corn.  None the less I am sure our cattle consume some of these ice cream grass seeds:

  • It helps spread the plant around the pastures
  • It is the closest thing to corn our cattle will ever consume!

easterngama_seedhead

Cows have been described as “starvation” animals.  Meaning that about every waking moment they feel on the verge of starving to death.  So their natural instinct is to eat like it might be their last meal.  When they can’t eat anymore they rest and chew their cud.  Then back to eating!

(Video: solar powered steer getting his ice cream just clipping tops of plants for sugar)

Like you and I, when given the choice, cows will eat the “ice cream” first.  Ice cream to a cow is the best part of plants.  The best part of a plant to eat depends on the individual cow.  Either Energy or Protein.  For the most part, our pastures have plenty of protein, so cattle are usually seeking energy when they graze.  Energy is found in plant parts closest to the sun.  Energy from ongoing or recent photosynthesis is a cows first choice, so they cream off the tops of plants first.

To sell beef we need cattle to get fat.  Before an animal will get fat, their basic requirements to live must be met (energy).  Most beef sold today is fattened on corn requiring large amounts of fossil fuel energy (see the link to NY Times Power Steer article).  Here at DS Family Farm we use Solar Energy through the miracle of photosynthesis to fatten cattle.

Some folks have even said they can “taste the oil” in regular beef.  I don’t know about that.  What about the taste of corn?  Personally I don’t know if anyone knows what corn tastes like these days.  Corn is in everything, just look at the ingredient label.  Everything tastes like corn and corn tastes like everything!

We urge you to TASTE the difference between an oil/corn powered steer versus a “solar powered steer”.

What created the grass fed movement of the late 1990s through today?

D S Family Farm cattle spend their entire lives on grass pasture.

D S Family Farm cattle spend their entire lives on grass pasture.

Prior to World War II, all beef and most other meat production methods had grass as part of the animal’s life cycle.  Today’s store purchased meats, only beef, lamb and goat have some type of green forage as part of their life cycle.  Beef purchased at your local grocery store will have consumed forage for the part of their life span that they were with the momma cow after birth and most likely for a while after being weaned.  Chicken and pork are just plain out of luck in today’s production methods to have had an opportunity to consume any type of green living forage during their life span.

What happened right after World War II?

In summary, excess war munitions were converted to cheap nitrogen fertilizer.  When unleashed to U.S. farmers, surplus corn production resulted.  The question became, where can we dispose the excess grain?  The “solution” was to confine animals and feed grain based diets.  For the chicken and pig, the grain was not a huge problem, they have simple stomachs, but the cow with her multiple stomachs and special rumen (designed for forage) took a health hit.  A diet high in grain results in high levels of acid in the rumen.  To counter high acid levels, low levels of antibiotics were added to cattle feed to keep the cattle growing and prevent further health issues.  As you can imagine not an ideal situation for cattle.

A return to common sense and the Grass Fed Movement, enter Jo Robinson’s Eat Wild website and book “Pasture Perfect”.

An early promoter of the grass-fed movement, Jo Robinson’s website is full of grass-fed information from the basics to the advanced.  Her information is well researched and documented.  If you would like a free copy of her book “Pasture Perfect”, just contact us for a farm visit and the book will be our gift to you.  WARNING: I find it extremely difficult to this day to eat fast food chicken after reading this book.  For an alternative to conventional raised chicken consider finding a local farmer that raises chickens with grass as part of their life cycle (pasture poultry post).

Grass Fed Movement goes prime time, with Michael Pollin’s“Power Steer” New York Times article  in 2002.

Pollin’s article follows the typical life of a steer (young male beef animal) from its birth place on the prairies of South Dakota, to a confined animal feeding operation near Garden City Kansas.  The “power” part of the article title stems from the fact that there is a large amount of oil consumed for each pound of beef produced in this manner.  The article does an excellent job describing the use of hormones, antibiotics and other concerns such as E. coli that are all issues related to store purchased beef.

So what’s the big deal about grass?  I will let you answer that question for yourself.  As for this farm, we have seen first hand the regenerating wonder of grass in our pastures, soils and with the animals we raise.  On the most basic level of life as we know it, there is profound truth in the following verse:

  • All flesh is grass, and all its beauty (constancy) is like the flower of the field.”  (Isaiah 40:6 (b), ESV, emphasis added)