The cool season pasture grass at my Osage County Kansas farm is alive and well, and growing so nicely that I rotated the Highland cattle onto their first new break of 2010 last Sunday. They performed very nicely through winter on the standing hay from one of my warm season, native grass paddocks (requiring hay due to deep snow only twice) but were beginning to put pressure on the fences. Although the farm’s pastures consist of mostly native warm season perennials such as big and little bluestem and Eastern gama grass, there are several sizeable patches that contain bluegrass, fescue, brome and some native cool season grass species. One reason that I like to keep the cattle on range all year is that it helps me select for thriftiness on grass. Another reason is that the cattle will work over small cedar trees and tear up various thickets that the farm’s previous managers allowed to grow and shade out the more valuable pasture grass.
Moving cattle to fresh pasture breaks is compelling work. In this case, I simply called the herd from deep in a thicket-filled draw to a gate they haven’t been through in about 6 months. Gus, my goofy, but ever so helpful, Border Collie circled the quarter mile behind the group and walked the animals up the slope and through the gate. No barking, no cattle romping, no muss, no fuss. And one by one as they passed through the gate, their heads went down – buried in fresh cool-season pasture grass. Another rite of spring accomplished for 2010.
The herd will move many times throughout the growing season. In a month or so, they will tell me they want to move long before it is time. But moving the cattle to fresh grass on a regular basis is key to producing grassfed beef efficiently, and in a way that improves soil, pasture and water quality on the farm. With each passing of the herd, the soil organic matter content increases, soil water percolation and water holding capacities improve, and the plant matrix diversity increases. When I began grazing in earnest in the early 1990s, people thought I spent too much time with my cattle. When they saw my weaning weights and tasted our beef, they wanted to know how to do it. Grassfed and management intensive grazing isn’t a panacea by any stretch, but for me, it works – I really like spending time with the cattle.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.