This month we started a farm email newsletter to keep our customers up to date.  Feel free to subscribe by using the form on our Contact page.

Among other items in this past email newsletter we asked the question, can cows live on grass alone?

Most cattle can live on grass alone, but the challenge is to raise healthy cattle that get to a level of “finish” (fat enough) to harvest and provide a quality eating experienceUltimately it is about YOU, providing YOU our customer, with a healthy product.  Many cattle today are no longer able to do this on grass alone.

Over the past 75 years cattle have been bred and managed to consume high starch (corn/grain) diets.  If you have not yet read Michael Pollan’s NY Times 2002 POWER STEER article, you really ought to take the time to do so.  This is an excellent story/explanation of how conventional beef reaches the supermarket.

grass type bull

BUDDY! Our herd bull thrives on grass. 75% Red Angus and 25% Devon.  100% Pasture Grazed!

In the uphill battle to find grass type cattle to start our herd, here is a review of the path we traveled:

  • Pharo Cattle Company
    • Hearing Kit speak back in 2002 opened my mind to what we now call DS Family Farm.
    • Sign up for Kit Pharo’s newsletter, excellent info!
  • Terry Gompert
    • Past UN-L Extension agent and HMI instructor.
    • Check if any recordings are still available from UN-L in Knox County such as:
      • 2007 Ultra High Stock Density Event
      • 2009 Holistic Grazing Management
  • Stockman Grass Farmer publication
    • Excellent resources, CDs, DVDs, Books.
  • Grassfed Exchange
    • All things GRASSFED.
    • Recordings of their past events are a wealth of information.
  • Hidden Valley Ranches in the Nebraska Sandhills
    • We met Gary and Cathie Morris at the first Grassfed Exchange in 2010.
    • In 2011 we brought 10 heifers and a bull from their Ranch to our farm.
    • Previously Gary and Cathie had worked with grass cattle guru Gerald Fry.
  • In addition we visited and learned from a number of great local farms.
There are a lot of cattle herds in the vast ALL GRASS Nebraska Sandhills, but most of those herds produce cattle that end up in feedlots and finished on corn.  The Devon cattle influence and breeding program that Gary and Cathie implemented provided us with a great starter herd of cattle that thrive, reproduce and finish on an all grass diet.
With that said, here at DS Family Farm we are still learning and improving.
  • We are starting to add cows raised on our farm to the breeding herd.
    • Animals born and raised on our farm will out perform cattle raised elsewhere.
  • Our forages are improving:
    • Cattle were a missing part of our farm.
    • Cattle cycle nutrients, improving the soil and future grass.
    • Improved soil holds more water to grow more grass.
  • All with a goal to improve the level of “finish” on our harvested beef!
    • Our Ultimate Goal, providing a better product for you our customer.

So yes, it is possible for cows to live on grass alone.  Do your research and enjoy the journey!

Planned pasture grazing requires orchestrating cattle movement.  Yep we think of our cattle moves like making music but we are really trying to get some desired effect applied to the land.  Here is an animal impact example from this past spring.  In an area invaded by reed canary grass our cattle were able to “open up” the land and allow broad leaf arrowhead (a native wetland plant) to express itself:

Broad Leaf Arrowhead

Broad Leaf Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) a native wetland plant expressing itself due to planned animal impact. Multiple insect species found in this diverse area first week of July.

So what were the steps to make the above effect on the land?  It began in March with a trail setup through this area to move cattle to stockpiled pasture on the other side of the wetland area.

Cattle trail through wetland (marsh) area last week of March, looking West.  Cows didn't mind the walk when they wanted fresh water from tank.

Cattle trail through wetland (marsh) area last week of March, looking West. Cows didn’t mind walking through this area when they wanted fresh water from frost proof tank.

When the trail fence was first setup, the wetland was frozen.  Over the next week the wetland thawed and the animal impact started to appear.  The cattle trailed through this area before “green up” for a couple of weeks.  The area looks kind of nasty in the photo above.

First week of April, looking East.  Cows moved on to different stockpiled pasture area.

First week of April, looking East. Cows moved on to different stockpiled pasture area.

With our continuous move pasture grazing system, we knew this area would “bounce” back in some altered state.  Note in the trail photos above we have “open water” areas predominately in the trail.  This open water provides a “habitat” as a result of cattle impact.

First week of July looking West.  Reed canary grass (non-native grass) has brown seed heads.  Very few brown seed heads in cattle trail area.

First week of July looking West. Reed canary grass (non-native grass) has brown seed heads. Very few brown seed heads in cattle trail area.

The red arrow in the photo above points to the location of the broad head arrow leaf plant photo at the top of this blog post.  The photo below is a close up of reed canary grass next to the trailed area:

Solid stand of reed canary grass next to trailed area.  Very little insect life in this low diversity area.

Solid stand of reed canary grass next to trailed area. Very little insect life in this low diversity area.

Wetland sites are very forgiving when it comes to trying animal impact scenarios.  As we move to upland (drier) sites, animal impact becomes a little more scary.  The main difference is planning the recovery time or how long we have before we can bring the cattle back to the area.

Take another look at the photos above.  What was the difference in total production?  Obviously the solid stand of reed canary grass produced higher forage levels.  What was the benefit provided by the higher diversity of the affected area?  From our observations, cattle enjoy diversity in their diet and wildlife prefer the diversity in habitat.  Feel free to give us a call if you would like to stop by and see our cattle herd impacts… we are always happy to listen to other ideas!

Our grass growing season is coming to an end.  The cattle are now grazing “stockpiled” forage.  Stockpiled forage is pasture that we have not grazed for several months.  The grass grew all summer long and left un-grazed as “stockpile”, for grazing during the non-growing season.

calves in stockpiled forage

Calves moving into “stockpiled” forage.

While setting up portable fence in the pasture today we noticed a number of gopher mounds.  We have seen a few gopher mounds over the past few years, but in just a small area today we noted three different mounds.  Gophers dig tunnels under the soil surface feeding on roots and who knows what else.  At first glance one may conclude the gophers are bad.  Feeding on grass roots and making soil piles will reduce the amount of grass available for the cattle to graze, right?  From an ecological point of view, increased gopher activity in our pasture maybe a good sign.  Aeration of the soil will increase water infiltration.  The freshly tilled soil may allow new forage species to grow.  Diversity of life is always a good sign of a healthy prairie in our opinion.

gopher activity

Gopher “soil” mounds.

So while others may see gophers as bad and consider poison to reduce their numbers, for now we will accept the increase in gopher activity as a good sign that our prairie is moving in a positive direction.  More diversity will help our pastures become more resilient in the future.

 

Well I guess it is actually New Years Eve of the Water Year.  October 1st marks the start of a new water year.  As grass growth slows down and becomes dormant over the next few months, the moisture we have in the soil now and what we get over the winter will greatly influence what kind of grass growth we can expect next spring and early summer.

With that said, our area has very good soil moisture at the beginning of the 2015 water year.  Below is a map of the 48 states showing the actual rainfall from September 1 to September 29 COMPARED to the 30 year average (1981 to 2010).

precipitation anomaly

First 29 days of Sept. 2014 rainfall compared to the average rainfall for the same time period over the 30 years 1981-2010.

Our farm is located in an area that has received around 150% of the rainfall we would receive compared to the 30 year average.  When I downloaded this image on September 30th, we were getting another good shower, over an inch total for the day.  Grass needs moisture and sun for growth.  We are always sure of the sun light, moisture is more variable.  One always needs to be an optimist to farm/ranch.  At this point things are looking good for being a perennial vegetation (grass/forb) farmer going into 2015 based on where we are starting the 2015 water year.

Source of information: http://prism.oregonstate.edu/

For current weather information that includes long-term average data in an easy to view format try: http://weatherspark.com/

 

With fall approaching, will share some recent photos from our farm.

Through the summer we noticed a few Monarch butterflies.  Our pasture contain a nice stand of milkweed which Monarchs need to complete their life cycle.  Just this past week the number of monarchs have increased.  They are preparing for migration?

purplecone flower monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly on purplecone flowers (Echinacea purpurea). Actually a photo from early August.

prairie restoration new england aster

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), this is in an area seeded to a prairie restoration.

dotted gayfeather

Gayfeather, maybe dotted (Liatris punctata)?

Sagewort (Artemisia frigida) white plant and Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota).  Brown burs are on the wild licorice.

Sagewort (Artemisia frigida) white plant and Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota). Brown burs are on the wild licorice.

roundhade lespedeza

Roundhead lespedeza (Lespedeza capitata). Not much color but our cows will nip the flowers off.

Goldenrod

Since we are in Nebraska, here is our State Flower – Goldenrod (Solidago).

stiff goldenrod

Another goldenrod, stiff or rigid (Oligoneuron rigidum). These flowers were covered with mating lightning bugs.

easternti ger swalowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, a dark female. We did see some males earlier in the summer.

We hope you enjoyed these photos displaying different colors from our pasture.

Feel free to stop by if you would like to stroll the grasslands.