UHRICHSVILLE, Ohio — Grace Meadows Farm, in Uhrichsville, Ohio, has seen a lot of changes in the last five years. Kyle Henry, the third generation on the family farm, has taken the farm from a dairy operation to a beef cattle operation. He’s gotten into contract grazing, with as many as 600 beef cattle grazing the pastures around the farm each summer.
He’s experimented with new things that have gone well — like starting to sell his own freezer beef — to things that haven’t been as successful — like adding sudangrass to pastures on the farm. The sudangrass, for one, wasn’t worth the sleepless nights in the fall, worrying that the forage could become dangerous for the cattle if it frosted. But even that was a good learning experience, he said.
“I like to fail fast. … I guess you could say I would do that differently, but then I wouldn’t know,” Henry told attendees at a twilight tour of the farm Aug. 18.
The farm has been in Henry’s family since the 1940s, when his grandpa started a dairy farm there. After high school, Henry already knew he wanted to come back to the family farm. But the dairy farm couldn’t support another family, so he went to college and got an off-farm job.
But he still helped out on the farm, and started fencing in more pastures to graze as soon as he graduated from high school. He started grazing the dairy cattle in five different groups, moving them around the farm.
“I just fell in love with managing grass with cattle,” he said.
About five years ago, the family decided it was time to get out of the dairy business. That’s when Henry saw an opportunity to try contract grazing with beef cattle. He started reaching out to people, and eventually found another farmer who was willing to give him a shot.
The first year, Henry started out contract grazing 250 beef cattle, at a price of 35 cents for each pound he could put on them.
“I really wanted to get cows. He doesn’t know me from Adam,” Henry said. “One contract grazing cows is infinitely better than zero.”
After that year, his rates went up, and so did the number of cattle. This year, he’s been grazing 600 cattle, along with a few of his own, on about 800 acres of both rented land aind his family’s land.
They come in during the spring, graze through the summer, and start leaving the farm in August. By the end of October, all of the contract cattle are off the farm, and Henry grazes his own herd of about 30 cattle through the winter. As long as there isn’t ice, he can get through the winter without feeding any hay. In years where there is ice, he usually has to feed hay for anywhere from a week to four or five weeks.
Keeping that many cattle fed, watered and moving takes some planning. Henry does his best to keep the grass between 6 and 10 inches tall. That’s the range where it grows the fastest, so it can recover after cattle move onto the next pasture. The cattle typically move to a different pasture every two days.
“The top priority is to try to build topsoil here,” Henry said.
About half of the ground that he grazes cattle on was strip mined at some point. But after about 10 years of grazing cattle of some type, some of the strip mined ground has more organic matter than fields that have been in crops on the farm.
The first year or two, Henry had a difficult time moving the beef cattle from field to field. He was used to dairy cows, which spend a lot of time around people. Beef cattle, on the other hand, can be more skittish. He learned quickly that chasing them doesn’t work.
But four years in, he’s got a system worked out. He uses grain and temporary fencing to get the cattle trained to move to different pastures when they come to the farm in the spring. Once they get used to that, they know what to do for the rest of the year.
Other than the grain he uses to train the cattle to move, the cattle are entirely grass fed. He also gives them a mineral mix. One year, he experimented with giving his cattle a mix of 20 different minerals, so he could see which ones they favored and get a sense of what his pastures might be lacking.
“That was so labor-intensive … and expensive that I couldn’t do that again,” he said.
But it allowed him to figure out exactly what he needed — particularly boron and selenium — and to work with Gerber to get a custom mineral mix that provided those minerals for his cattle.
“What we’re doing over the last few years has been a lot of experimentation,” said Kristen Henry, Kyle Henry’s wife. “We’re finally kind of hitting the stride and figuring things out, what worked best. And so it’s been it’s been a lot of trial and error, but it’s been good.”
Now, the Henrys are also working on grass finishing their own beef to sell. For the first year, they sold six cattle as freezer beef, mostly through word of mouth. They have another 42 butcher dates scheduled with a processor in Millersburg.
They’re starting to work with a marketing firm that specializes in grass fed beef to market their cattle outside of their immediate community. They’re also learning how to ship beef safely with dry ice.
“The benefit of that is obviously a bigger market, but also that people are willing to pay more” in areas like suburban Chicago, for example, Kristen Henry said.
Kyle Henry still works off the farm, but is hoping to eventually be able to make the farm his full-time job. He is planning to expand the contract grazing side of the operation as well. With the amount of acreage he has, he could graze another hundred cattle through the summer.
“The ground is getting better every year,” he said. “So I think I could have grazed 700 on this farm pretty easily.”
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!