CLARION, Pa. — Build soil health through managed grazing practices, and productivity will follow.
Glenn Elzinga found that out by accident. The Idaho rancher spoke about his diversified livestock operation at the Western Pennsylvania Grazing Conference, March 11, in Clarion, Pennsylvania.
Elzinga runs Alderspring Ranch, with his wife, Caryl, and seven daughters. Their bread and butter is raising grassfed organic beef cattle and selling it through direct marketing, but they also raise hogs, sheep and chickens.
“We were doing OK and paying the bills,” he said during his keynote speech. “It was mostly OK because we got this direct marketing business. But the ranch was not really producing a lot of our income. A lot of times it was negative. Things changed when we changed our point of view. Our real inventory is soils.”
Elzinga bought a 145-acre ranch in 1992. They had seven cows at the start. Now, they run about 400 head of cattle on a combination of 1,600 acres of ranchland and 46,000 acres of public lands.
Elzinga said they were making over $1 million a year through direct marketing their beef, mostly online, but the ranch was still losing money. That’s when they began grazing their herd more intentionally on their ranch, eventually taking up a system called adaptive stewardship grazing.
Adaptive stewardship grazing is not one thing. It’s a bunch of things. It’s a flexible system of grazing livestock that allows producers to adapt to changing conditions and encourages farmers to be good stewards to the land.
They noticed a difference over time in the productivity of their herd. The average daily gain was increasing. It went from 1.6 pounds in 2009 to 2.6 pounds in 2019. They began testing the soil with purpose and found that during that same time, the organic matter in the soil increased significantly, from 2.45% organic matter in 2009 to 6.7% in 2019.
“It’s just because we came up with a grazing system. We weren’t even intentional about soil,” he said.
Now, how does Elzinga’s success story apply to people grazing livestock in western Pennsylvania? More than you might think. Many of the native grasses in Idaho’s High Pahsimeroi Valley are the same or similar to ones found in this area.
He attributed nine things to the success on his ranch. The first two are to mimic nature and diversify. That means think about how grazing animals native to that area used the land. Did buffalo or deer graze in large herds or small herds? What was the diversity of plants like? How can you build that up again if it’s been depleted?
The third is adaptive stewardship grazing. Fourth is to take a side on ’cides, meaning insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. To go organic, the Elzingas went cold turkey and stopped using conventional chemicals. Productivity of their pastures dropped initially, but they’ve recovered and now get a premium from selling organic meat.
Number five is to import biomass. For Elzinga, that means feeding hay on pastures and spreading it out, rather than letting it sit in round bales and rot into the ground. The sixth rule is hire animals. For example, the Elzingas’ pigs and horses dig up and eat invasive quackgrass roots.
Seven is enterprise stacking. Alderspring Ranch doesn’t just rely on its beef to pay the bills. Eight is to minimize iron, of use as little heavy equipment as is needed to do the job. And, last, cultivate relationships with fellow farmers, scientists and educators.
Alderspring Ranch sells 18-ounce ribeye steaks for $61.90. They market their beef as “artisanally raised wild protein” because of how they graze their herd on native grasslands. He challenged those at the grazing conference to think about how they market their products.
“You don’t have to be in the Rocky Mountains to do this,” Elzinga said. “You can be in western Pennsylvania.”
This was the 23rd year for the grazing conference, hosted by Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Council. There were 140 people signed up for the two-day conference.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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