August 2013
Farm & Field

Grazing Gurus Fascinate at Forage Field Day

 
Teddy Gentry talks grass.  
   

Note to my friends who work in the ag services: Next time you put on a forage conference, call the folks at the South Poll Cattle Association and ask them how it is done. At Randy Whisonant’s Merritt Farm in Warrior, the South Poll Cattle Association put on a forage field day (actually two days) that was the most information-dense ag education meeting I have ever attended, and I have been to a lot of these things.

At an event put on by a cattle breed association, one would expect the main emphasis to be on the cattle breed itself, but these folks seem to feel that the grass comes first and the cattle are the tool for harvesting it. I guess this really should not be surprising since South Poll cattle were developed to do just that. Their goal was to create cattle that can produce beef on grass as efficiently as biologically possible.

 
  Teddy Gentry talks about what to look for in a herd bull.

At the event, grazing guru Greg Judy gave a fascinating talk about how he has turned around several farms he owns or rents from being very low producers into highly profitable grass farms using only inputs such as portable water systems and portable electric fencing.

Judy warned that cattlemen should make it their goal to never have to feed hay, but, if they do, it is far cheaper to purchase it than to cut it off your own farm even if you own the equipment. When he feeds hay, it is an indication that he has made a mistake (and he readily admits to making them), but cutting the hay off your own farm just compounds the mistake.

Judy said the cattle and the grass have a symbiotic relationship benefiting both parties as long as the cattle are harvesting the grass themselves. He believes that by using mob grazing techniques the grass benefits from the kinetic action of the hooves pushing the ungrazed grass into the soil to feed the insects and microbes that enrich the soil for the next pass of the cattle over that area. The action of the pull of the cow as she grazes gives the plant a little stress causing it to react somewhat like a muscle to exercise. It will be a little stronger the next time.

Of course, the manure and urine return very valuable groceries to be consumed by the soil’s fauna. The cow’s nose has microbes that, when placed on the grass, stimulate the fauna’s production.

 
Kathy Richburg demonstrates how to use ultrasound to determine rib-eye size and tenderness.  

We have all seen what happens to land used as nothing but a hayfield. Over the years its decline is noticeable even to the casual observer. The nutrients have all been hauled off. Judy said, if someone is willing to sell their farm’s most valuable commodity then you should buy theirs if you need to feed hay, but it is still better to use the power of your farm as a giant solar collector to turn it into a profitable enterprise.

Judy once focused way too much on getting all the grass before moving his cattle. He now realizes the grass left behind is "money in the bank" because the litter stomped into the dirt is as important as the grass the cows ate.

Another mistake he once made was keeping the grass too young and vegetative. This was not good for the cattle, the grass or the soil. Grass that is very young is too high in protein for brood cows and more mature grasses have more carbs that these cattle also need.

His mentor is world-renowned grazing expert Ian Mitchell-Innes. Judy visited Mitchell-Innes on his farm in South Africa and came back determined to copy what he saw there. He said there was so much soil life there that in the morning they passed a fresh, 30-pound elephant manure pat that was all but gone by the time they passed back by just 4 hours later. It had been eaten and buried by the dung beetles and other insects thriving under the farm’s management. He noted he has often seen cow pats on farms as old as two years because the farmers have chemically destroyed the workers of the soil by over-using wormers. Mitchell-Innes learned how to graze cattle by observing the wild herds in South Africa and came to realize there was a good reason for their patterns of movement.

Many conventional cattlemen will doubt whether these results are achievable with so few inputs, but everyone I have met who has seen Judy’s farm tells me all you have to do is look at the neighbors’ farms to see what he has accomplished. "Astonishing" is the adjective most often used.

I also had the great pleasure to meet with Ralph Voss, whose articles I have been enjoying for many years. Voss said we are on the verge of a revolution in industry and agriculture because of the rising cost of inputs. "Amen," I thought as I remembered the cost of my last tank of diesel. He said we must cut inputs or just get out of business because what we’ve been doing since World War II just won’t work anymore. He also discussed an interesting practice increasingly being used of spraying small amounts of raw milk over pastures in order to stimulate the soil microbes and the grass. According to him, it is very cheap and it works.

John Lyons, on whom this magazine earlier published an excellent article, gave a good talk about what he was doing on his farm. He wanted to also mention that Calhoun Farmers Co-op in Jacksonville was especially helpful to him. Tommy Thomas, the manager, always helps him to get good prices on anything he needs.

Dr. R. P. Cooke, the Jerry Clower of the grazing world, is a vet who entertained the audience as well as informed them of the science backing what they were hearing.

The most well-known speaker was Teddy Gentry of the mega-successful band Alabama. It was Gentry’s efforts that began the development of the South Poll cattle to start with. I asked him why he had invested so much of his time and money into this project. He said he wanted to create a breed of cattle the small farmer could use profitably to produce food that was reasonable in price and healthy for the consumer. He obviously has a heart for the small farmer.

"I had a pretty good night job that allowed me to turn my farm into what is basically a research station," he said.

Gentry also said this project was the most important work of his life, and that was why he was so committed to it.

Gentry emphasized that cattlemen need to focus on the traits of fertility and longevity, and, if they did that, many of their other problems would be solved. He has cows in his herd that are over 20 years old and are still producing calves. He also said that producers in the Southeast need to be focusing on cattle that will produce on grass without the crutch of grain. The cattle the South Poll people are developing are not only far more economical but also much healthier for the consumer. For information on the benefits of grass-fed meats, visit eatwild.com and westonaprice.org.

Most cattle today must be finished on grain or the eating experience is awful. Finishing cattle on grass alone is an art and a science, but the right kind of cattle is a must.

The consensus of the speakers at the field day was that Southeastern cattlemen have a huge advantage in their ability to produce grass, and, by sending their cattle to the feedlots in the Midwest, they are shipping out their profits with their cattle. Why not utilize all that grass to produce a more economical, healthier and profitable product? Why not, indeed!

Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.