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Building pasture one grazier at a time

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Forage Published on 30 November 2017
Amy Fenn is a first-year farmer

Good fences make good neighbors, but they also can lead to a good contracted grazing setup. New farmer Amy Fenn is using contracted grazing for her neighbor Christopher Baird in southwest Wisconsin.

Fenn purchased 40 acres of land in November of 2016 after attending many pasture walks and learning as much as she could before taking the plunge.

This summer, she contract grazed her neighbor’s 17 Jersey heifers. “Crawford County Extension agent Vance Haugen introduced Christopher and I, and this has turned out to be the most fantastic way to start this farming endeavor.

The heifers are gentle to handle, Christopher is five minutes away when I have immediate questions, and we’ve both learned from Vance throughout the season. This year has been a great foundation for both farming and community-building.”

The acreage Fenn purchased had been hay ground for about the last 10 years. The soil had not had any improvements during that time. The site had a driveway, well, small solar electric system and toolshed when she purchased it. “That remained my only infrastructure over the summer, other than the fence I added,” she says.

Fenn needed, in her own words, to learn “Farming 101.” She had a lot of book learning but lacked the hands-on experience. Her neighbor needed a place to graze his heifers. They started a partnership that works for both of them.

“I have a very good neighbor who is willing to share his knowledge,” she says. “We have good communication between us, and that makes us both more comfortable.”

Why work with someone who knows nothing about pasturing? Baird replies, “It’s not that hard, and it is a good place to start. We need more small farms, and if I can help get one other than mine off the ground, why not?”

Looking back, Baird says it’s probably important to “have expectations spelled out beforehand, but we really didn’t do a great job of that, and I think it’s worked out fine.”

Fenn installed about a mile of electric fence

Baird, who milks 42 registered Jerseys, says Fenn used more cattle management than he was initially expecting. He says, “I’m in the habit of giving my cows a new paddock every 12 hours, but my heifers at home are continuously grazed, so the picture I had in mind was that she would fence a perimeter and make sure they got water.

I guess there’s a continuum between ‘rented pasture’ and ‘custom heifer-raising.’ If the first is 1 and the latter is 10, what I had in mind was maybe 2, and what ended up happening was more like 4 or 5.”

That has worked out fine for both of them, and that day-to-day experience has helped Fenn gain confidence in cattle management.

She experimented with using an app on her phone called Pasture Map, which helped to calculate water lines, figure out rotations and decide where to drop fenceposts. She is now trying out Map Plus, which is not farm-specific but imports GIS data and measures, draws and geo-locates within one’s own design.

She is still deciding how to best design paddocks on the rolling hills.

Robert Bauer, a grazing broker with Southwest Badger RC&D, has been one of Fenn’s resources as she has learned the ropes. When calculating fees for the contract between landowner and livestock owner, there are many things to consider, he says.

“Whether you are a traditional farmer, renter who owns livestock, landowner or contract grazier (raising someone else’s animals on your own land or rented land), you can think of the costs of a livestock enterprise in three roughly equal parts: overhead (land and facilities ownership: depreciation, interest, repairs, taxes and insurance), operating costs (livestock feeding, health care and manure management) and operating labor.”

Full-service custom graziers may cover all of the inputs for heifers in exchange for a higher fee.

Bauer added that, in some situations, a long-term lease contract might be the best setup, as it provides security to apply for financial assistance for fence and watering systems from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Fenn and Baird decided upon a flat rate per day per head. Baird supplied hay during the summer slump, so they reduced the rate for those days.

“We set a start/end date, but they’re flexible depending on what grass is available. When I ran out of grass, we discussed whether he’d rather take them back to his place for a while or send hay over to my place ... we made the decision together,” says Fenn.

Fenn installed nearly a mile of two-strand electric metal wire fence surrounding the pasture and then used step-in posts and polywire to make temporary paddocks. She joked, “I learned how not to make a paddock fence several times.”

Fenn’s long-term goal is to have a lifestyle that is self-sustaining. Ideally, she wants to have multiple species grazing on the land, including cows, sheep, pigs, goats and poultry.

Fenn is happy to have the cows directly fertilizing the soil. The ground was mostly growing orchardgrass and weeds, and she interseeded red clover and ryegrass. Next year, she plans on adding more forbs.

With managed grazing and frost-seeded clovers, most pastures improve in yield and quality over time, says Bauer. He recommended addressing remaining deficiencies by fertilizing according to soil tests.

Learning how much forage the animals need daily versus what is available is one of the things Fenn has learned to get a feel for over the summer. Bauer and Haugen have pointed out other things throughout the season, such as soil temperatures were 10ºF higher where the pasture was grazed to 3 inches compared to where it was 10 inches tall, which affects regrowth.

Fenn says she has also learned the need to keep better written records. “It’s amazing how much we think we know but still have so much to learn,” she says.

Fenn participates in area pasture walks, attends conferences held annually in Wisconsin. She has also learned from the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association and Land Stewardship Project.

Bauer says, “Landowners who rent their land for grazing benefit from steady cash income, abundant wildlife and soil conservation benefits, and use-value property tax assessment.” But in Fenn’s situation, her neighbor helping her learn the ropes might be the most important thing of all.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Amy Fenn is a first-year farmer learning the ropes of pasturing animals by contract grazing 17 head from her neighbor’s dairy operation. The contract grazing setup has proven to be beneficial for both of them.

PHOTO 2: Fenn installed about a mile of electric fencing this past summer and is still contemplating how to best set up paddocks. Her inclination is to follow the contours of the rolling hills that make up her 40 acres. Photos by Kelli Boylen.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.