MOUNT HOPE, Ohio — Most farmers have a mental image of what the perfect pasture should look like, but very few pastures, in reality, are anywhere close to perfect.
So said Jim Gerrish, a grazing expert who spoke to farmers Jan. 26-27, during the North Central Ohio Grazing Conference For Dairy, held at the Mt. Hope Event Center.
Gerrish, who works as an independent grazing consultant, has studied pastures across the U.S. and overseas. He spent two decades in forage research and outreach at the University of Missouri.
But he estimates only 5 percent of the pastures he’s seen are truly excellent.
One of the biggest indicators of a good pasture, he said, is the density of growth. The grass should be so thick that you can feel it dragging at your feet as you walk, he said.
“In an excellent pasture, we expect to see 90 percent of the soil covered by green, growing, living plants,” he said.
Good pastures should also be high in energy, adequate in protein and mineral rich.
He said the biggest problem with pasture management is usually grazing the grass too short, which hurts its chance at recovery, and the overall yield.
When pastures are over-grazed, “every bite becomes smaller and smaller, and as the bite becomes smaller, that means less and less energy going into the animal,” he said.
Gerrish said farmers also need to have good biodiversity in their pastures, keeping in mind that diversity above ground leads to greater diversity below ground. All of these things lead to greater soil health, which leads to better use of photosynthesis and energy production.
Pattern of life
He also reminded farmers that they need to be patient, explaining that the first role of grass is to feed itself.
“First, grass feeds the grass, then grass feeds the soil, and after that, grass can feed the livestock,” he said.
About 950 people attended the opening day of this year’s conference, a new record.
Leon Hershberger, a farmer and grazing supplier from western Michigan, said graziers need to be doing soil samples, and paying closer attention to the trace minerals.
He said pre-manufactured fertilizers may be ideal for maintenance, but if a particular nutrient needs built up more than the others, the soil will likely need a more specialized fertilizer.
An excellent pasture is defined by many things. Here are a few of the characteristics you should try to promote.
• Pasture density. Your pasture should be covered in growth, with very little bare ground. In an excellent pasture, at least 90 percent of the ground should be covered in growth.
• Pasture biodiversity. You should focus on a diverse mix of growth, and which adds diversity above and below ground.
• Excellent pastures should be high in energy, adequate in protein and rich in minerals. Conduct soil and forage tests to determine your levels.
• Allow plenty of time for your pasture to recover, and avoid the temptation to graze too short. Short growth results in less growth, and less feed for your cattle.
• Understand and respect the growth cycle. The pasture needs moisture and light to grow, and it needs time. The grass has to feed itself first, then the soil, and then it can feed your livestock.
• To learn more about the dairy grazing conference visit https://smallfarminstitute.com.
Hershberger said farmers also need to plan their pastures in a way that has the animals out in the pasture as much as possible, versus congregating at the barn, or barnyard. The more they can drop their nutrients onto the pasture, the more efficient and better for the soil, he said.
He said he sees a bright future for organic products and pasture-raised products. Big food companies are losing market share, because they have relied on packaged and processed foods.
The trend, according to Hershberger, and Fortune Magazine, is more shoppers shopping along the perimeter of stores where they can find fresh, whole foods. This trend cost big food companies $4 billion in 2014, the magazine reported.
“Big companies are losing market share and they are scrambling to try to keep it,” Hershberger said.
He said people are not eating any less, but their preference for whole foods is causing companies to search for ways to adapt out of necessity.
In a talk about farmland succession, Sugarcreek-area farmer and accountant Emery Miller said today’s land market brings a lot of opportunity and challenge.
On the one hand, farmers are retiring every day, and according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, about 573 million acres of farmland will need a new farmer over the next 25 years.
Miller said that breaks down to about 22.9 million acres changing hands each year, or more than 152,000 farms of 150 acres.
He encouraged farmers to seize the opportunity, but reminded them to be fiscally responsible.
“Hope springs eternal, but hope will not pay your bills,” he said. “So we’ve got to take a realistic look at this.”
There are many ways farmers can save when transferring their farms, such as setting it up through a trust or limited liability corporation, and keeping good records, so they can save as much on taxes as possible.
Miller said the financial aspect is a big part of buying a farm today, but he said there are religious and moral reasons for keeping a farm going, as well.
He said it concerns him the way Amish have drifted away from farming, and into industry and business. He said the change has also caused a shift in values, and he’s concerned of what will happen if the Amish become too far removed from the land.
“We have become an industrialized people with a minority of us trying to maintain an agrarian mindset,” he said.
But with good planning and record keeping, Miller said farmers can still buy at today’s prices and make a go of it.
“We can still do it, because people are doing it and they’re having fun doing it,” he said.