Grazing conference inspires hope

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DALTON, Ohio — It didn’t matter that the winter roads were terrible, or that the outlook for milk prices is even worse — the atmosphere at the North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing Conference, Jan. 29-30, was positive, even revival-like.

The farmers — veterans and novice graziers alike — were definitely there to learn and soak up new ideas from neighbors and grazing gurus from across the country, as evidenced by the quote printed above the schedule on the conference proceedings: “What we already know is a great hindrance into discovering the unknown.”

The conference, held at the new Buckeye Event Center near Dalton, drew nearly 650 people on Thursday and more than 500 on Friday.

“We want inspiration,” explained Ernest Martin, who farms near Shiloh in Richland County and helped plan earlier conferences. “We don’t get together to whine about the milk price.”

Who’s who, and how-to

The conference speaker lineup showcased nationally known graziers like Abe Collins, who farms in Vermont with Teddy Yandow; Gary Zimmer, Wisconsin farmer, consultant and author of The Biological Farmer; certified organic dairyman Cheyenne Christianson of Wisconsin; and Ohio’s own Tom Noyes, retired Wayne County extension educator and grazier.

But the schedule also shared the how-to basics on weeds and finances and transitioning the farm to the next generation. A Friday panel split the stage between three beginning farmers who weren’t ashamed to ask “stupid questions” and three graziers who answered those questions based on 90+ years of experience.

That focus on young farmers is intentional, said conference planner Mike Gessel, who operates a seasonal grass dairy in Wayne County. The farmer-driven council that coordinates the conference has a charter to help beginning graziers, Gessel said.

Art and science

Managed grazing is both art and science, although there’s a lot more science to it than art, said speaker Gary Zimmer, whose rapid-fire talking pace kept the audience on its toes (and thankful that the conference proceedings included eight pages of Zimmer’s sermon so they could better digest it later).

“What stays is the good sound science,” said Zimmer, who operates a 200-cow organic dairy and also owns Midwestern Bio-Ag, a biological farming consulting company. “We test every cutting of hay on every field every year, because that’s my report card.”

Basic testing of soils and plant tissues is key to knowing the biological activity in your soil, Zimmer said. “Invest in a soil probe.”

Zimmer pays particular attention to four indicator minerals: calcium, boron, phosphorus and magnesium. “Grow or buy forages where these four minerals are high for that plant species and they will be the most palatable, digestible feeds you can deliver to livestock.”

Talking tall

Vermont grazier Abe Collins missed Day One of the conference due to the weather, but kept Friday’s crowd interested with his explanation of grazing taller grasses, “mob” grazing, and how he’s rebuilding soil carbon — with a little philosophy thrown in for good measure: “Soil organic matter sustains agriculture, which sustains civilization.”

Collins started grazing taller grasses four years ago. Instead of coming into a paddock when the grasses are between 6 and 8 inches tall, he’s waiting until the forage is over his knee (a grass pulled straight up), and grazing down to 6-8 inches.

“We’re leaving more than we used to go into,” he said, but added that they’ve shaved 15 days off of that paddock’s recovery period.

“People said ‘you’re going to have goldenrod and birch trees in every pasture by fall,’” Collins said, but they didn’t. He estimates the cows are grazing the grasses at early boot stage.

Afternoon emphasis

Collins also said he’s pushing afternoon strip grazing, because sugar levels in the grass are higher at that time of day. He said they saw a milk production increase of 5 pounds per animal per day when they restricted morning grazing and switched to frequent grazing moves in the afternoon and early evening (four or more moves between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.). He even fashioned a moving, portable mister to take hot days into account for this practice.

He called the farm’s mob grazing plan, which uses high density stocking rates, a “high return management strategy,” but warned “if you mess up with it, you really mess up.”

“Grazing is not simple; there’s a lot going on,” Collins added. “We’re not dumb farmers.”

Building topsoil

Collins’ “cream and trample” plan (cows pick the best of the forage and trample the rest) fits into a bigger farm plan to build the soil, he explained.

Collins says he’s converting subsoil into topsoil through organic matter (created by the tall grasses eaten and then trampled by the cows), following the “keyline” studies (fast flood irrigation of flat and hilly land, which they’ve got in place to try this spring) and philosophy of P.A. Yeomans of Australia.

And with that conversion, he’s increasing soil carbon, which has become such a passion that he’s helped form Carbon Farmers of America to train and provide consultation to farmers interested in building soil carbon, and to sell carbon credits to consumers or companies for that carbon exchange.

What’s right for you?

Retired OSU Extension educator Tom Noyes cautioned participants to sift through all the conference speakers’ ideas before putting any in practice. “Where are you at in your current farm operation? You need to choose the input that fits your particular operation.”

Wisconsin’s Gary Zimmer agreed. “It’s not who’s right. It’s what’s right for your farm.”

Read a transcript of Vermont Public Television’s interview with Abe Collins.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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