Producers learn how to get ‘back to basics’ in pasture management

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Grazing Conference Panel
The North Central Ohio Grazing Conference offered dairy producers the opportunity to improve their grazing operations by hearing from fellow dairy producers and experts in the industry at the two-day event, Jan. 28-29, at the Buckeye Event Center, Dalton, Ohio. At the conclusion of the conference, producers had the opportunity to ask any remaining speakers about conference topics or questions about their own operations. (Catie Noyes photos)

DALTON, Ohio — Farming in the public eye and getting back to basics in pasture management were two of the hot topics dairy farmers came to hear at the North Central Ohio Grazing Conference. The two-day event, which attracted over 800 producers and vendors, was held Jan. 28-29 at the Buckeye Event Center in Dalton.

Along with producers, the conference hosted over 60 students from the Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute’s forage class and sustainable agriculture program as well as students from the Mohawk Parochial School in Glenmont, Ohio. The conference featured local and out-of-state experts to help producers improve their grazing techniques.

An open book

“We have an amazing industry that we are a part of. We can’t hide it in the Back 40,” said Ernest Weaver, a forage consultant from Illinois, who kicked off the conference presentations Jan. 29. Weaver encouraged farmers to embrace farming under the watchful eye of consumers.

“Many of us are involved in ag because we don’t want to be in the public eye,” he said. “We must accept the fact that we are in the public eye … and make it better.”

Today, more than ever, consumer perceptions of agriculture are important to the industry, Weaver said. He encouraged farmers to embrace the curiosity of the traveler taking the back country road and invite them on to the farm.  “All of us, in one way or another, are going to have the opportunity to be a representative for agriculture,” said Weaver.

“If I am doing something on my farm that I don’t want anyone else to see, I need to stop. There is no reason our farms shouldn’t be an open book.”

Changing perceptions

By opening up the farm, public perceptions can be changed, he said, and encouraged local farmers to hold school field trips or host the neighbors and local businesses.

Farmers, especially those living in predominately rural communities, assume that everyone knows what goes on at a farm, but the reality is they don’t, he added. School tours and general farm tours allow people “to connect in a way they never could have before.”

Weaver also said by opening up your farm to outsiders, you can change your own perspective on the farm. Watching someone touch a cow for the first time and make those connections between food and the farm or comment on the beauty of the landscape can give a farmer a new appreciation for something he/she is used to seeing every day.

Grazing Conference Trade Show
In between sessions at the North Central Ohio Grazing Conference, producers explore over 100 different vendors from around the state Jan. 29, at the Buckeye Event Center, Dalton, Ohio.

Lingering club

Troy Bishop, grazing specialist, Madison Soil and Water Conservation District in New York, continued those sentiments before giving his presentation on pasture fertility.  “As farmers we need to linger more,” he said, encouraging farmers to carve out some time just to walk across the fields.

“It’s important to look down,” said Bishop. Farmers could ultimately save themselves some money on things like soil tests by getting on their hands and knees and observing what is going on with the soil.

Have a plan

Bishop also encouraged farmers to have a grazing and fertility plan. He showed a spreadsheet where pasture rotations and fertility applications can be mapped out for the year. Farmers can monitor what they are doing and see if it is really benefiting their pastures.

Put in the work

“Hard work and good management will trump luck every time,” said Jerry D. Miller, an Amish dairyman from Walnut Creek, Ohio, who challenged farmers to take a look at what they are putting into the farm and how it is benefiting them.

Miller said farmers need to stop relying too much on inputs and “get back to the basics.” The inputs Miller referred to were: cash costs, foliars and fertility products, somatic cell products and labor.

“If we get the basics right, the inputs will take care of itself,” said Miller. And in order to get the basics right, Miller said farmers have to forgo the shortcuts (which are often enabled by inputs) and put in the hard work.

Timeliness is key

During hay season, Miller said he often hears producers say they made dry cow hay this year, which loosely translates to, “you didn’t get your hay done on time,” he joked.  Miller knows there are plenty of factors that can get in the way of getting the first cutting of hay out of the field, but it all comes down to priorities.

Get that first crop of hay off in May so regrowth can begin sooner rather than later, the cows will get a good quality feed and in return, turn that hay into quality milk that turns into cash, said Miller.

Timeliness is all about getting the farm on a schedule. The schedule should benefit the farm and the farm family, so everyone knows where everyone is and everyone is held accountable. “Being where you are supposed to be and being timely sets the dynamic for the small farm family,” said Miller.

Next generation

Miller said he is not opposed to using inputs like foliars and fertilizers to help the pasture along, but when more money is being put into inputs to save some time on working the ground by hand, the expenses could outweigh the bottom line. And profitability and the bottom line can go a long way in encouraging the next generation to stay on the farm.

“There is a way to romanticize our children into wanting to farm,” said Miller. “But we have to have the profits to keep up with the market or the best and the brightest will leave the farm.”

Part of keeping the farm profitable comes from good management and knowing where the farm stands.  “A farmer has to know where his farm is going in the months of May, June and July in order to make decisions for the farm in September,” explained Miller.  “The old shoebox mentality does not work today,” he said, referring to bringing a shoebox full of receipts to the tax man to find out how the farm did for the year.

“Sometimes we need to look at things to tell us where we are at,” said Miller.  Whether that means taking a step back and lingering in the pasture, mapping out a schedule for a year of pasture rotations or calculating if certain inputs are worth the expenses, the overall message from Miller and many of the other presenters for the day was good management.

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