Pasture Grass: Rotation Is Key For Grassfed Beef

| 4/20/2010 2:14:00 PM

GRIT Editor Hank Will at the wheel of his 1964 IH pickup.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.

Hank's Highland Cattle get down to business.

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.

Pasture rotation is required for making grassfed Highland beef.

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.

Nebraska Dave
4/22/2010 1:40:32 PM

Hank, you always have such cool toys to test out. I always enjoyed operating the tractors and driving the farm trucks in my youth years. I’d still love to do that but my property isn’t big enough to even park your Cadet. I did acquire a Spring Flower delivery seasonal job last year that had me driving a 26 foot straight truck around town to supply the plant displays. It’s not that I needed the money but just the thrill of driving a big truck. Well I know it’s really not a big truck but it is bigger than my Ford Ranger truck and it gave me some much needed exercise. However it did cut down on my home Spring projects. Have fun playing with your manly toys.

Hank Will_2
4/22/2010 10:15:29 AM

Hey Dave -- For a while the big dairy farmers on either side of me make fun of the grazing rotations. By the time I sold that place, they asked me for help setting up such systems for their replacement heifers. I just did it because it made sense to me biologically and gave me some quality time with the animals. I've mowed part of the lawn twice already and it needs it again ... might let the sheep crop part of it next week. Just for kicks. And I do like seat time with the old Cub Cadet garden tractors I usually mow with :)

Nebraska Dave
4/21/2010 9:47:54 AM

Hank, I thought it quite interesting that folks thought you were spending too much time with your cattle and until they tasted your beef. My neighbors, I’m sure, thought I was a bit odd last year until I started carrying baskets of tomatoes out of the one little patch of garden from four plants. The kicker was that none of my plants had the bottom rot experienced by all the other neighborhood tomato plants. Imagine that. They have learned to watch and learn instead of smile and snicker. Of course not every thing works out the way I would like but that’s what plan B is for. We had a nice .8 inch rain over night with …. No wind. I so love the fresh air smell after a Spring rain. I expect it will bring lawn mowing to the todo list in a couple days. It’s nice to get some green into the compost. The dry leaves from last fall have not done much over the Winter. The green mix from the lawn clippings should activate the process a little more. It’s nice to hear about happy content free roaming cattle management. Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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