Rotational grazing helps family improve the health of soil, water and animals on their farm
SHAWANO, Wis. – Jerry and Sacia Mueller own and operate a multi-generation dairy farm east of Shawano that’s on both sides of County Highway BE.
The farm recently hosted a field day to demonstrate the benefits of rotational grazing in reducing soil erosion, enhancing water quality and maintaining the health of their dairy herd.
In welcoming the 30 attendees, Sacia explained that she is in charge of their 160 milk cows, calves and heifers, while her husband does cropping and custom work. “I deal with everything that has a heartbeat,” she said.
The site of the field day was a pasture across the road from the farm buildings. “Calves are transitioned from hutches, and once heifers are confirmed pregnant, they’re moved to this pasture through a tunnel under the road that was put in by my husband’s grandfather,” she said.
Reclaiming the land
Barry Bubolz, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), noted that a portion of the land had been dug out during construction of State Highway 29. “Then it was backfilled but is not real great; we’re not dealing with a lot of soil,” he said.
“About 15 years ago this piece of land, had cultivated crops, but kept having an erosion issue,” Bubolz explained. “NRCS worked with the family to put in a waterway as the land was basically washed down to rock before soil was brought back in. A couple of years ago we started talking about turning it into pasture because it’s a hilly piece of ground that’s tough to crop.”
Work is currently being done to establish a long-term grass rotation on the land, according to Bubolz. “We did no-till it this spring; it started growing really well, but then Mother Nature turned off, and I don’t think we had very much success with our interseeding,” he said. "Some parts look really grassy with sporadic alfalfa, but the goal is to get it looking more like the pasture where the animals are right now.”
To illustrate the importance of ground cover and keeping a living root in the ground through winter, Bubolz conducted a rainfall simulator demonstration where he put just over a half-inch of water on soil samples containing different cover.
One sample was planted to winter rye last year and harvested in mid summer, producing a really good crop. “When our soils are in good shape, when we have good structure and we have good infiltration, we can surface-apply manure very safely,” he said.
Another sample featured soybeans no-tilled into winter rye. “We still got a little runoff but that was the first year of no-till. As we continue no-till, infiltration is going to get better, and we’ll continue to build that soil structure,” Bubolz explained.
A sample from a field featuring full-width tillage with 3-4 passes had virtually no structure. “We have an extremely limited amout of infiltration, and mostly runoff,” he said.
The final sample came from a field that had been in alfalfa for four years. “We have a very limited amount of runoff, but alfalfa is not as good for pasture as grass because it’s a crown and stem plant that still leaves quite a bit of exposed ground,” Bubolz noted.
An ideal pasture will have a diverse mix of fescue and different kinds of clover. “When you pull this apart, there’s a lot less bare ground,” said Bubolz. “Putting cattle back on the land is also important in promoting soil health because in Wisconsin we’re blessed to have manure, which is the world’s best fertilizer if we use it the right way.”
As the field day attendees moved to the area where 20 animals were pastured, Derrick Raspor, NRCS conservationist and project coordinator for the Upper Fox-Wolf Demonstration Farms’ Network, explained that pasture paddocks are sized to match animal numbers with pasture production.
“We’re standing is some really good pasture,” he stressed. “The paddocks are approximately 4/10 of an acre, and are set up on a 31 day rotation, maybe a bit longer depending on how many acres are available and pasture conditions. We have to make sure there is adequate time for the pasture to rest and regrow without using up a lot of energy.”
Animals are often rotated five to seven times during the year. When grass is growing faster in May and June, and sometimes in September, rotation might be on a 15-day schedule.
Moving the cattle
Sacia Mueller concluded the field day by demonstrating how she moves the animals between paddocks daily in only about 15 minutes.
She first moves the water line and water tub to the next paddock, and plugs the moveable line into the main line with a quick coupler. An automatic float shuts the water off when it reaches a certain level. “The biggest challenge we seem to have is keeping the water tub level because of the uneven ground, so that it doesn’t run over,” Mueller said.
Finally, she moves the poly wire to let the animals through to the new paddock, and then reconnects the wire. She also supplies the cattle with mineral supplements while they’re on pasture.
Mueller says moving the animals helps her get to know them better. “I’m out here with the animals every day, and when I see them moving, I catch so much, and get to know the personality of each animal and their social order. I know the leader and the trouble maker. I can also see if any of the animals are having problems. At the end of the season, when I bring them home, they follow me all the way to the barn,” she said.
Stressing the low cost of grazing, Bubolz said, “We can come in pretty close to a dollar a day. The savings come from that in a matter of about 15 minutes they’re being fed, watered and spreading their manure – saving all those management operations that normally go into feeding an animal.”
Summing up the basic philosophy behind grazing, Raspor said, “What grazing boils down to is rest and rotation. We try to size the paddock so each cow has one or two bites off the top of the grass while leaving enough residue behind so the plants can recover and regrow without using up a lot of energy.”