Graziers cite benefits of well-managed pastures

Gloria Hafemeister
Barb Salas of Burnett has been grazing sheep on her farm for a couple of decades and says she is still learning tricks to the trade.

PORTAGE – When Barb Salas started raising sheep on her Burnett farm in 2000 she remembered her dad’s advice from years earlier: Never gamble more than you can afford to lose.

Speaking at a multi-county grazing conference in Portage recently she said she started with four ewes and did a lot of experimenting during the years that followed, gradually increasing the numbers in her flock.

She started out on a 70-acre former dairy farm and set out to gradually convert the land that had been in row crops to pasture. As her plan evolved she grazed her flock for a time on the neighboring Horicon Marsh but according to the marsh management plan, grazing was only to be done during the spring flush and that wasn’t what she needed.

That’s when she began meeting with other graziers and learning everything she could about pasture management.

When she began her business she set out to find a way she could operate her farm on her own and keep a grass buffer on the portion of the farm that adjoins the marsh.

“I chose sheep because they are animals I can handle on my own,” she says.

Like Salas, Ron Schoepp also found grazing a good way to protect the environment. 

Noting that his goal was to prevent runoff into nearby Lake Wisconsin, he said, “Everything should be conservation-based.”

He does no-till, cover crops and grazing to accomplish his goal.

Schoepp described what he terms “mob-grazing”. The practice requires holding cattle in a small area for a few hours each day, referred to as high intensity, short-duration grazing.

Once the cattle have eaten the plants on the ground and their handlers ensure waste has been put back onto the ground, the fence posts are moved.

Monitoring his progress, he has determined a yield of 5.25 tons of yield per acre with no additional fertilizer added. 

“With mob grazing the cows eat the giant rag weed and thistles too and over time it has ended up controlling the weed problems,” he said.

On photos illustrating his methods, swallows were visible eating bugs in the area.

In the winter, the schedule is a bit different. The dairy heifers are kept in a field of corn covered in snow.

“My goal is to provide 100 stalks per heifer per day,” he says. “I don’t want to have them take it all off. I want some left for the worms to break down for next year and I want a continual cover on the land.”

The cattle are kept comfortable using portable windbreaks, wooden fence planks affixed to wheels which stand at about 12 feet, when the winter wind takes a bad turn.

“A lot of days, they will not use them, they’ll just lie out and about wherever they want,” Schoepp said. “And that’s perfect. When it’s windy and cold, then they’ll go out by them.”

James Baerwald farms with his family at Columbus and also has an on-farm dairy processing plant and store – Sassy Cow Dairy. He says his dad was one of the first farmers in the area to bring the cows off of pasture and house them indoors with harvested feed.

He and his brother went back to grazing in the 1990’s when they took over the farm. He says their machinery and buildings were wearing out and grazing was more practical for them.

They started their organic farm in 2001 and when they began processing their milk on the farm they found that customers liked the idea that the cows get outside very day.

Ben Grove had been out of the dairy industry for more than 20 years but when he decided to begin raising beef on his farm he also got involved with grazing and cover crops.

“I had already been doing cover crops and by adding the beef I found the diversity improved soil health,” he said.

Like Grove, Jeff Gaska also raises corn, soybeans and wheat on his Columbia county farm and he too has found that grazing on the cover crops and corn stubble has helped to correct erosion problems and build soil health. 

Gaska has 30 Simmental brood cows, raising heifers for replacements and beef that he direct markets. He mostly grazes clover after winter wheat for 28 days on 20 acres. If the land is not over-grazed the herd can be returned again in fall.

He listed key elements for a successful plan:

  • Control weeds before clover on winter wheat.
  • Plant winter wheat as early as possible so it is established and can compete with the clover in spring.
  • Harvest winter wheat as soon as it’s mature to let the clover get going.

He frost seeds red clover with an ATV or he mixes the seed with fertilizer and spreads with a buggy. He seeds the clover in late March on frozen ground so the seed goes into cracks as the ground freezes and thaws.

“I prefer using the four-wheeler because it is light-weight and often the timing is not usually right for fertilizing and seeding at the same time,” Gaska said.

Establishing the clover with the wheat has not resulted in a sacrifice in yields. He says he still produced over 90 bushel of winter wheat along with a ton of straw that he is able to sell.

Laura Paine has been involved in Wisconsin’s sustainable agriculture community in a variety of roles for more than 20 years and also grazes beef on the farm she and her husband run in Columbia County. 

“We are not so much growing a crop as managing our animals to utilize what is already growing there," Paine said. "Well-managed pastures mimic the function of natural grasslands.”

She notes that ideally there will be less soil disturbance, more plant diversity and a constant supply of living roots all year which results in healthy soil.

She suggests, “There is a link between soil health, livestock health and human health.”