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Winning AFGC forage essays: Year-round grazing, pasture management and soil health research

Progressive Forage Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 05 February 2019
cow grazing

There’s a bright spot on the horizon – the future of forages will be in good hands. Youth from 10 states entered the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) 2019 youth essay contest, with prizes awarded at the annual convention in January in St. Louis, Missouri. Winners in the three categories are:

CATEGORY 1 (under 14 years)

  • 1st place: David Greenhalgh from Guide Rock, Nebraska
  • 2nd place: Hannah Greenhalgh from Guide Rock, Nebraska

CATEGORY 2 (14 to 18 years)

  • 1st place: Ryan Porter from Deer Park, Washington
  • 2nd place: Marie Knepper from Cascade, Iowa

CATEGORY 3 (19 to 22 years)

  • 1st place: Savanah Hortsmann from Stewartville, Minnesota
  • 2nd place: Mason Blinson from Stillwater, Oklahoma

The essay entrants had to demonstrate a knowledge of forage concepts, as well as meet other entry requirements (see the AFGC website for details). Thanks goes to R.L. Dalrymple and Dalrymple Farms of Thomas, Oklahoma, for sponsoring the essay awards, and with a grateful heart, AFGC recognizes his support of this contest since its inception.

Here are the first place essays from each category.

CATEGORY 1: Keeping Our Cattle Well-Fed

By David Greenhalgh, Guide Rock, Nebraska

Once when I was moving Herefords with the hired men, I noticed that we were moving them from grasses to crop residue. Interestingly, the forage that cattle graze is very important because if they don’t graze, then my dad would have to pay for the hay.

We run our cattle on grazed forages year-round. Our cattle graze warm- and cool-season grasses, cover crops and crop residue. We graze warm- and cool-season grasses in the spring and summer. May and June is when we calve; then our cattle stay on grass until the A.I. project in August. After the A.I. project, the cattle will graze grass or cover crops until crop residues are ready. We graze cover crops and crop residue during the winter. Thankfully, our grass gets water from God and his rain.

Our cattle normally stay in the same pasture or paddock for anywhere from three days to two weeks unless we are grazing large fields of cover crops or crop residues. Crop residue is what we get when we harvest corn and the stalks are left over. Most people supplement their cattle with protein while on crop residues, but we only provide salt and mineral. We only feed our cattle hay when we are doing projects. Because of the different kinds of forage, we are able to keep our cattle well-fed all yearlong.

CATEGORY 2: Poor Pasture Management – My Expensive Mistake

By Ryan Porter, Deer Park, Washington

Every day for four months during the winter of 2016, I had to feed an extra 200 pounds of hay daily due to a series of poor pasture management decisions. Of course, it also happened to be the year that it didn’t stop raining. This meant I got completely doused in water whenever I had to feed my cows.

At the time of this story, I lived in Tillamook on the Oregon Coast, a place that is known for dairy cattle grazing on abundant grassland. My parents were both raised on dairy farms, and my dad was employed in the dairy industry. We had a small farm where we raised my show heifers and two Angus cows.

I have always heard my grandfather talk about how and when he was putting the cows out on pasture each spring. He always says that pasture management is critical for the field’s health. I didn’t understand this until the year that I was 11 and I had to make my own pasture management choices.

We had a 4-acre pasture that was comprised of fescue, perennial ryegrass, orchardgrass and a clover mix. Since this was the coast and we lived close to the ocean, the soil was a sandy loam and drained easily in normal winter conditions.

The winter of 2015, in addition to my beef cows, I had asked to keep my show heifers at our property rather than to send them to a nearby dairy. This was the first bad decision.

We didn’t have enough barn space that year to keep all of the animals in the barn without crowding them. So, we let them roam the field while still having access to the barn. My second bad decision was to let them have the whole field instead of just a portion at a time.

My third mistake was underestimating the weather. This was the year that we saw record-setting levels of rain. By the time spring came, the whole field was just plain mud. The grass hadn’t had a chance to grow back because the heifers were constantly on the field. There was no time for rejuvenation. The grass had had no time of dormancy.

As the year went on, even with summer and part of fall for rejuvenation, the grass still didn’t grow very well. The pasture eventually came back, but it took until the next spring. This meant buying feed the whole summer, fall and winter.

Now looking back, I realize exactly what my grandfather had meant when he said that pasture management was important. This was very costly for me, but I only have five cows. Imagine my grandfather making the same mistakes I did with 350 cows.

CATEGORY 3: Teaching an Old Farm New Tricks

By Savanah Horstmann, Stewartville, Minnesota

I have been lucky enough to grow up on my family farm and have been even more fortunate to have an increasing role in managing it as time goes on. One aspect that I love the most about our cattle operation is that it’s always been a family, even from fixing fence and knocking down weeds to moving cattle from the home farm to the pastures. Our pasture ground has been fairly easy to manage. As many other farmers have also endured, we’ve had our share of thistles, but thanks to some hours put in with the corn knife, it seems we have gotten rid of the problem. The grass in the pasture grows well; the only problems that we typically see are the common ones: summer slump in our cool-season grasses and limited growth in high-traffic areas.

Over the past few years, we’ve put in a lot of elbow grease and time to revamp our fencing to extend our grazing pasture space, and what perhaps is more exciting is to incorporate rotational grazing. It was a long process, but we are now grateful for the extra 5 acres that we set aside for grazing. It took some convincing to get everyone on board with rotational grazing; however, we’ve been able to iron out the wrinkles.

When the cattle first go out to pasture, they spend about three weeks on the first half. We then move the cattle to the second half for the following three weeks, and then open up the smaller 5-acre section when it looks like they are getting low on grass. Since implementing this best management practice, I have observed that our pasture ground tends to last a little bit longer because we are able to limit excessive plant stress. We also reduce the pressure on the pastures by supplementing a small amount of grain daily. Throughout the winter months, we bring the cattle back to the home farm and fence off the two fields that are behind the barn. This satisfies the cattle’s need to graze and increases the farm’s bottom line by reducing feed costs.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the Olmsted County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). The district had a small, unused plot of land on their soil health farm, which they offered to me for the summer to do a research project on. I wanted to find an idea that would incorporate both the SWCD’s goal of improving soil health and my family’s goal of maximizing our beef grazing operation. The main crop rotation around me consists of corn and soybeans, and additionally, most of the farms are all conventional tillage. After doing some thinking and conversing with professors and colleagues, I decided to do research into different cover crops that can be utilized for grazing and other forage options.

Cover crops have many benefits to soil health. It takes 500 years for nature to replenish 1 inch of topsoil. One of the benefits of using cover crops is holding that topsoil in place. If we think of nature, there is never a time that the soil is bare. With the grazing plan that I have come up with, there is never a time that the soil goes uncovered.

Here is how you would implement my research. Go about your rotation normally with corn the first year and soybeans the following year. For the soybean year, plant a shorter variety so then you would be able plant winter rye after you harvest your soybeans with enough time for the rye to establish before the first snowfall. The following spring, after the rye has had time to grow, you will be able to take a cutting for dry or wet forage. After you take your cutting, you would then want to kill off the rye. After killing off the rye, then you would come through and seed it with a grazing mixture.

A crucial point for your grazing mixture is to make sure that you have a good plant species representation of each family. For example, the mixture I used in my research plot had four legume species, four brassica species and three different grass species. The point of having so many different species is so that your roots are at all different depths in the soil. Each plant species has a different root depth. The multiple lengths in roots will help break up the hard pan from soil tillage.

After letting your grazing mixture grow for about a month and a half, you will be able to finally graze it. This timing lines up very well with what I call the dog days of summer, or the end of August. Then when your main pasture is not producing as much, you would be able to move your cattle over to your grazing field for the rest of the summer months. After your pasture year, you go back to your corn year and start the process over again.

As a producer, I am always looking at ways to improve the family farm. My summer experience has helped me realize how important research is and that there are multiple ways to accomplish the same goal. Being a college student that is studying agriculture has also given me more say in the family farm. My dad, grandpa and uncle take my opinion and thoughts into consideration. The past three years I have been trying to convince my family that we need to implement a practice that will help with replenishing our soil. This research project that I did over the summer was very convincing to them. It was finally a practice that they could see getting behind. I am happy to say that this past fall we seeded winter rye on one of our fields and we will be testing out my grazing research on a larger and functional scale.  end mark

Lynn Jaynes
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PHOTO: A Jersey cow grazes a pasture in Ipswich, Massachusetts. This photo was entered into the 2019 American Forage and Grassland Council photo competition. Photo by David Cawston.