These fields are meant for grazing…

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CAMBRIDGE, Ohio – It’s becoming more common to see a wide, open field – no sign of a tractor, no sign of a corn stalk, no evidence that anything other than an animal has been in that field for a long time.

These acres and acres of green, grassy fields aren’t going to be planted with corn next spring or plowed under when the ground thaws.

The fields will provide the livestock’s food, but not in the traditional way.

Much of this land is being used for intensive rotational grazing – a farming practice gaining popularity.

This type of grazing was the focus of the recent Eastern Ohio Grassland Conference held in Guernsey County.

Wallet and land. The principle behind rotational grazing is one of economics and environmental soundness.

Most farmers who practice rotational grazing keep their animals outside where they graze pasture paddocks on a time-based rotation.

Animals are moved to new paddocks as often as every 12 hours or as infrequently as every five days.

Most of these animals rarely see the inside of a barn and are only fed grain and hay when the weather conditions offer no other choice.

Lightening the load. This practice is attracting attention because livestock producers are realizing that they need to lower their input costs in order to be sustainable, said Steve Schumacher with Belmont County extension.

Grazing can virtually eliminate the cost of feed, and many of the tractors and equipment needed for farming row crops aren’t necessary when the animals are grazing instead.

To stay profitable, farmers need to increase their livestock herds, and grazing allows them to do that while keeping costs down, Schumacher said. They are also able to use the resources naturally available without investing in new equipment and facilities.

Steve Stratton is on Schumacher’s same train of thought.

Although Stratton – one of approximately 40 registrants at the conference – was raised on a farm in Belmont County, it has been rented out for many years. Stratton is now planning on buying the family farm and operating a stocker and sheep operation.

Despite never having practiced rotational grazing, Stratton is planning on adopting the practice.

He said his main reason for wanting to graze his animals is because he doesn’t want to invest in all the equipment and machinery necessary for a newly purchased farm.

Benefit basics. In addition to the elimination of machinery, there are environmental benefits to rotational grazing. By not plowing the land, there isn’t as much soil erosion and, because the fields are used for grazing, insecticides and pesticides aren’t typically used.

Another benefit of grazing comes with the feed bill, which often doesn’t exist.

Converting to grazing, cut producer Chuck Rodenfels’ feed bill to zero.

Rodenfels’ sheep are bred on his farm in Noble County and when they go to market, he said he typically only has $5-$7 in out-of-pocket expenses invested in each animal. This cost is usually in worming, he said.

In addition, he said the best thing he ever did on his farm was get the sheep out of the barn and into the pasture. By not being in the barns, the animals’ health improved and the land was replenished from the grazing and natural fertilizing cycle.

Grass geniuses. Although farmers who practice rotational grazing may call themselves beef farmers, sheep farmers or dairy farmers, they’re really grass farmers, said Daryl Clark, extension agent in Noble County.

“You take care of your forage and it’ll take care of your livestock,” he told conference attendees.

By understanding forage growth and practices, graziers will in turn be giving their livestock the forage necessary for growth and health, he said.

One important concept is making sure the pastures aren’t overgrazed.

The length of time livestock can graze in a paddock is determined by the number of animals, the amount of pasture available and how much residual the farmer is willing to leave in the paddock, Clark said.

Producer Earl McKarns of Carroll County, Ohio, rotates his cows and calves every 12 hours in the summer.

He prefers to move them twice a day because it reduces the trampling and damage to the pasture.

Clark said it is also important for the paddock size to be small enough so the harvest is complete before the regrowth can be grazed.

The danger of allowing the animals to graze the regrowth comes in the spring.

After harvest, the plants grow from energy produced in leaf residue and the reserves from lower stems and roots. If this regrowth is grazed too soon, there won’t be enough energy in the root system to continue regrowth for the spring.

Timeless tradition. Despite the positive aspects of grazing, many “traditional” farmers have spent a lifetime plowing, combining and planting late into the night to get the corn in before the weather breaks.

“What it’s really about today is being a grass farmer when we grew up as livestock farmers,” Clark said.

Most traditional farmers who are interested in transitioning to grazing have more to unlearn than learn, he said.

Reason for worry? One concern some traditional farmers have is that it stresses the animal too much to have it outside in the blistering heat in the middle of summer, however, producer Earl McKarns said the animals adapt to the conditions.

McKarns said his cattle get used to the heat and those that do not are culled.

He also recommended not planting trees for shade. If there are trees in the field, the animals will walk around the pasture and graze and drink water, but then go back to lay under the tree for the rest of the day. Here is where they will leave their nutrients – urine and manure.

This doesn’t do the pasture much good because the animals are replenishing the soil under the tree – an area not being grazed.

Because the animals are outside during the heat of summer, water is one of the most crucial nutrients in the grazing practice, said Bob Hendershot, grassland specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

McKarns recommends that water should be kept within 500-600 feet of the cattle.

Snowy season. In the winter, the animals continue to stay outside and graze. Most people who practice rotational grazing also focus on stockpiling, hoping the forage will last them as far as possible into the winter.

With good growing weather earlier in the year, some farmers can go all winter without feeding their animals hay; however, in years like this year where the growing season is poor, graziers are usually forced to supplement the diets with hay.

Surrender. Prior to the increased interest in grazing, these farmers would fight nature – if they didn’t like what was coming up in the fields, they sprayed it; if they didn’t like the ground, they plowed it up. Grazing is a more natural process, Clark said.

As McKarns says, the “intensive” part of intensive rotational grazing isn’t on the land; it’s in the head – it’s trying to think up the best ways to manage the grass.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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