Graziers share experiences

Ray Mueller
Now Media Group


Whether it's with dairy or beef cattle, sheep or other livestock species, one of the hazards with pasturing those animals is not having enough knowledge about the practice before undertaking it.

That was the premise for a panel presentation that served as the kickoff for a grazing seminar sponsored by the Glacierland Resource Conservation and Development Council and the Natural Resources Conservation Service for landowners in the Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Lower Fox River basins in eastern Wisconsin.

Advisor's experiences

Among the hazards listed by Mike Gehl, who is a grazing technical advisor for Glacierland, are the purchase of seed mixes containing large portions of seeds of species that are not appropriate for grazing; failure to match the species with the soil type and growing conditions; and grazing practices that are not conducive to good production throughout a growing season or for the long-term health of the soil or the pasture stand.

Gehl speaks from experience, having devised what is now a successful rotational system on the farm operated by his son near Newburg in Washington County after a few years of trial and error that he admitted were 'the wrong way' or the equivalent of 'going backwards.'

Home-spun wisdom

The turning point came in 2010 with a matching of pasture species with the soil types, resulting in an impressive sward buildup by 2011 and the implementation of a rotational grazing schedule that moves the 50 cows in the milking herd up to four times per day and the 50 heifers twice a day, Gehl said.

Rather than buying a commercial seed mix that might contain Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, white clover or other species that are not likely to prove suitable for grazing, select and mix your own seeds, he advised. Along with grasses, the species that he has found to be very suitable for the grazing sward and acceptable to the cattle are plantain and chickory along with other clovers so that legumes will provide 30 to 40 percent of the biomass for grazing.

Gehl's other rule is to halt the grazing rotation when the plants have been reduced to an average height of 6 inches or to clip it to that height if necessary. He explained that this will not only accommodate quicker regrowth because the plants will still have some leaves to absorb sunlight but also to keep a canopy on the soil so it won't warm to the approximately 105 degrees that will kill the roots of cool season grasses and pave the way for the growth of weed species. 'You always want to cover the ground,' he said.

Adhering to a 6-inch rule, starting with the first grazing rotation or crop clipping, is important because it 'sets the stage' for the entire season, Gehl said. He promised that the cattle are not likely to graze below the 6-inch line for the remainder of the grazing season.

Beef grazier's learning curve

One of Gehl's clients is Paul Habeck, who bought land in western Sheboygan County in 2010 and started grazing in 2011 with 85 beef cow and calf pairs. With 100 cows on 60 acres soon after that, he proceeded to graze very tightly and had bad results.

Following Gehl's advice later, Habeck now leaves 4 to 6 inches of residual to stimulate regrowth and protect the soil. Moving the cows once or twice a day brings consistency to the grazing effort.

For annual grazing needs, Habeck plants, ryegrass and radish and then interseeds in the following year. He noted that some of the annual ryegrass has survived for two or three years and red clover is an important part of the pasture sward.

Habeck has been pleased with the size of the calves at the end of their first year. He feeds out many of his steers but also sells some grass-fed calves to another party.

Conversion from dairy

For Chuck Born, who sold his dairy cows in 2005, grazing began with some bull calves that he bought soon afterward. The next step on his farm in the town of Lima in Sheboygan County came in 2010 with the purchase of nine bred Angus heifers.

Born gradually built that herd to 35 head but has cut back now to about 28 on 45 to 50 acres, much of it highly erodible land, that are grazed. One thing Born learned quickly was that the cattle refuse to graze tall fescue, prompting him to establish festulolium and meadow fescue instead.

Another challenge was having too much grass for grazing in the spring and then running out of fresh foliage in July when the calves were weighing 300 to 400 pounds. That led Born to learn about stockpiling pasture foliage, rotate the cattle as necessary and leave 4 inches of residue to support regrowth.

In one scenario, Born was concerned that weeds would take over, but the seeded grasses soon took control. He was also fortunate to be able to buy a used round baler to harvest some of the excess early season growth baleage. 'They grow better than with corn silage,' he reported.

Support for dairy herd

For Tim Bohnhoff and his family on a dairy farm southwest of Plymouth in Sheboygan County, grazing dairy cows during the summer provided relief from overcrowding that resulted in health and other problems in buildings and with equipment that were old and showing their wear.

During the past five years, the grazing option has allowed the Bohnhoffs to increase their milking herd up to 220 head during the summer after being about 130 since the mid-1990s. They established 127 acres for grazing in 2009 with assistance from the NRCS but, as was the case on Born's farm, quickly learned that the cows would not eat the tall fescue that was in the seed mix that they purchased.

Following Gehl's advice, the Bohnhoffs seeded plantain, chickory and a mix of clovers with a cover crop of oats and peas in the spring of 2015. They bagged some of that crop as ensiled forage, finding it to be 'a great feed' that significantly boosted dry matter intake and milk production by their cows, Bohnhoff reported. Baleage was made for heifer feed.

Dairy and beef distinctions

With dairy cows, 'it's tricky' to match grazing with high milk production, Gehl observed. He views a lush pasture as a protein supplement to the remainder of the ration that needs to provide the cow with a minimum dry matter intake of 3.5 percent of her body weight.

For a goal of high milk production, don't count on dairy cows to obtain more than 30 percent of their daily feed intake to come from grazing legumes and grasses, Gehl said. Beef cattle and sheep can fare well with obtaining 100 percent of feed from grazing during the growing season and that the plants can be quite a bit more mature and have lower protein content than is appropriate for dairy cows.

Whether it's dairy or beef cattle, be prepared with some sacrifice acres on which to place cattle during extreme weather and to feed them there, Gehl advised. If necessary, buy forage bales for feed to withstand a summer slump of fresh foliage and realize that any wasted feed can easily be converted into nutrients and organic matter on the sacrificed lots.

Establishing stands

Although the seedbeds could range from existing sod or stands that need a replenishing via an interseeding to starting on open soil following a different crop, Gehl said some principles apply in all cases. Rather than being content with straight rows from one planter pass, he recommended a minimum of a cross planting to generate a thicker plant sword.

Expect to spend $250 to $275 for a bag of seed, and don't be reluctant to plant at up to 50 pounds per acre. He explained that not all of the seed is live seed and that some seeds will not germinate for other reasons.

Within five years, a proper seeding and good grazing management should have produced a full stand, reductions in thistles and other weeds, large plant roots, and accompanying benefits such as more organic matter in the soil; better water infiltration and holding capacity; and a boost in nutrients supplied by nature, Gehl promised.

Planting timetables

Whether in the spring or later in the growing season, interseeding should be done every two years to maintain thick swards, Gehl advised. He noted that this should be geared to the species and to the particular needs and goals, such as seeding in sacrifice areas to take advantage of the nutrients and to provide foliage from annual crops late in the season.

Don't rush to graze or clip a new seeding because up to 90 days should be allowed for the roots to firmly establish themselves, Gehl warned. Let a May planting grow until well into July and follow with August plantings to provide foliage well into the autumn.

Fencing practices

On his home farm, Gehl said he has been reduced to moving fences and general oversight on how the pastures are faring. Regarding fencing for rotational grazing, he said it is crucial to back fence in order to keep cattle out of the areas that have been grazed most recently so they're not tempted to eat the new growth.

Gehl also mentioned the Batt-Latch, which is an electronic solar powered unit that automatically opens gates to allow cattle into a new paddock. Being able to set the timer saves having a human present to move the cattle.

However they're carried out, proper techniques and timing will have cattle leaving their manure and urine well distributed in the paddock where they've just completed grazing shortly before being removed from it, Gehl said.

For cattle lanes, don't rule out total widths of 20, 40 or even 60 feet to distribute the traffic or the possibility of placing temporary fences within them to reduce the concentration of damage during wet conditions, Gehl advised. Those practices should not be seen as a waste of land but rather as measure to save grass stands, allow for interseeding and even accommodate a bit of grazing.

Watering protocols

To a question about watering and the concern about water becoming too warm as it reaches or sits in tanks in the paddocks, Gehl suggested burying distribution lines at a depth of 6 inches to keep the water cool as it flows.

Bohnhoff acknowledged that the water sometimes is warmer than preferred after flowing through a surface line to hydrants spaced 300 feet apart to provide drinking water in 70-gallon tanks with a float. Born mentioned plastic water pipes and the challenges that accompany providing water on two very differing types of landscapes and at different times of the year.

On another point, Gehl does not like having different livestock species grazing together. He suggested having followup grazing if different species need to be accommodated.

Gehl can be reached at 262-689-6689 or