Prairie and Farm updates (2010)

I’ve been exchanging mail over the past few days with Roger at highland@rochester.rr.com. He is a small breeder of Highland cattle. I’ve been looking at Belted Galloway and Highland cattle as a breed that MIGHT do better of nature pasture than the Angus raised in the area. I found the letter below very informative and worth posting.

Why cattle? The prairie needs something to keep it disturbed. Bison are the natural choice, but they are NOT domesticated and I won’t expose my family to those dangers. Trying to establish dominance with a 1800lb bison bull is a losing battle, and every animal lower in the pecking order would try the same after you lost to the bull.

Highlands have the advantage of horns. Advantage? Horns? Yeah, at least for prairie management. Apparently they love to use their horns to knock down things like cedar trees – which they consider a treat.

So, more information to consider. Still under the impression this will only be doable after we relocate to the farm and can establish a direct marketing program. Still, the “Nature Friendly Meat Producers Organization”, if it receives its grant funding, might help.

Kevin, 1/14/2010

From Roger:

I and many of the people I know are small breeders. We calve 6-8 animals a
year.

We strictly grass feed and that is the niche market we sell to. We sell
split quaters locally to our customers. We only butcher spring and/or fall
after the flsuh of grass is dying down. So we don’t feed hay all winter
only to butcher – we wait until they eat the spring growth off. We don’t
butcher until they are 2 -2.5 years old a function of slower growth with
grass feeding and the Highland breed.

Grass fed is a popular market – do some searches on the internet and you
will find a lot of info. I don’t feel a little guy can compete in the same
market with people who shave 2 cents off a pound of feed and that makes a
difference in their feedlot profits.

Last fall our price was $3.65/lb hanging weight. We have build up a base of
enough customers who want what we sell.

Search for Grass Farmer on the net. Only periodical devoted to the subject
that I know of. Published in Miss.

BTW one of the requirement fot Certified Angus beef is not that it be Angus
but that it be a black skinned animal. I am told their are Highland
breeders who only raise black animals so they can sell to that market.

What really causes the ding is being different. If everyone raises Angus
then Charlois or Hereford are looked upon with suspicion.

– Feb 15th, 2010 –

Well… my Prius has been converted from a city car to a country car. Hmmm, perhaps I should back up:

As usual, we went to the farm this weekend. It had been three weeks, a week longer than usual, and Mama was not joining us due to a sore back (Evia’s mother has been visiting us from Russia since last December). So, given there were only 6 of us, we opted to take the Prius instead of the truck and save 3X in gas.

Now in the St. Louis area, we have had a bit of snow. Schools shut, but not work (which is good, since I’m currently working a hourly consulting gig), and its mostly melted off. Got a bit north of Columbia and saw more snow. By Kirksville we were seeing a LOT more snow. Still, the highways were good, even Highway 11 out to the farm. The gravel road turnoff was a bit more challenging, however the Prius has a limited-slip front-end (stability control, easy to do given the electric motors powering each wheel), and we didn’t have any real issues.

Got to the property and couldn’t see the little dip between the road and our driveway. Opened the gate and started up, and got about 6 feet. Bottomed out. Managed to rock it back and forth a few times and make a little progress, but it was clear we were not going to make the 900 feet of driveway to the house.

No problem. Nice warm night – must have been 34F with no wind! Walked to the storage shed, got the tractor out, and behind it, the Kubota RTV, and used the Kubota to shuffle the family to the house. Almost got stuck once, but stepped on the transmission lock and managed to back out. No way would the Prius have made it. By 10pm we were safe and warm in the house.

Next morning I got up fairly early, cranked up the tractor, and used the bucket (on float) to pack a path the Prius could manage. Got Nastya to her job without much fanfare, but was real happy we had that traction control (and relatively new tires!). Rest of the day went without much fanfare – the weather was great and we did a bit of sledding. Spent the evening preparing to do some tile work on Sunday.

More snow Saturday night. No problem. It was light fluffy stuff. Took Nastya to work Sunday morning and felt like we were participating in the winter Olympics – snow was flying everywhere – and we were slipping a lot, but nothing to be concerned about.

Alas… it kept snowing, and now it was a bit cooler, about 17F and windy. Not nearly as much fun. Got home from delivering Nastya and decided it would be wise to read the owners manual and figure out how the Prius could be towed. A bit odd, but there is a screw hole for a tow hook in the front bumper behind a cover panel. More snow. Big drifts. No good. Decided around 2:30pm that we should clean and and go home. Lots of delays. Electric fence springs were tangled. Storage shed doors didn’t want to close. More snow. Kevin starting to get REALLY concerned. Unpacked the tow hook prior to packing the car. Made sure I had a shovel handy. Finally ready to leave.

Starting up the wind-swept ridge without problems, through the first gate and stopped to close it behind us. That was a mistake. Gate closed. Car stuck. Tried backing up! That worked, but going forward wasn’t. Tried pushing. Made it 3 inches. Frag! Walked through 18″ drifts to the storage shed, pulled the Kubota out. Pulled out the tractor (with the tow chains I located earlier), went back to the Prius, installed that tow hook, and (yes, with the Prius in Neutral to prevent transmission damage), towed it the 900 feet to the main gravel road. While going back to close that fence we opened while backing up, a neighbor showed up with a tractor. Nice. A bit late, but its the thought (and effort) that counts! Got everything restored and the neighbor lead us to the state highway, just in case there were some drifts. Pretty easy drive from there home. About 25 miles north of Columbia the snow was gone.

Think I’ll leave the tow hook installed. Makes it look like a “Country Prius” now…

– March 15th, 2010 –

From an e-mail exchange with Frank Oberle. Note NEMR – North East Missouri Region

1) I believe we established that NEMR grows grass well.

2) We both believe that native grasses should, without intervention, yield
higher levels of dry plant material than non-native cool season grasses
when viewed from a multi-year perspective (e.g. they are adapted to
survive in all of our glorious weather extremes).

3) Usage as hay would require replacing the lost nutrients exported off
the farm (classic farmer knowledge: its much better to feed your cattle
your neighbors hay than sell your hay to your neighbor. Doing so benefits
your fields at their cost. Kind of dog-eat-dog, but true.).

4) Conversion of solar power -> grass -> beef is pretty darn efficient and
yields a marketable product.

5) Left to graze more field than they need, cattle will selectively eat
what they prefer – benefiting the weeds (“weed”: Any plant not earning
its keep!).

6) Use of Management Intensive Grazing is complex and, well, Management
Intensive! There is significant cost in internal fencing, water supplies
(especially in my case where I might have to pump water uphill), etc.

7) Management Intensive Grazing does, however, solve the selective eating
problem, tends to evenly distribute manure, and minimizes fly and parasite
problems since all manure get a month to decay before the cows come back.
Soil disturbance is also minimized (the classic statement is that its not
the 1st step, or the hundredth, but the thousandth that damages the
ground). By rotating the cattle, the ground is given a break too -
including the fact that they will walk all over it to graze instead of
just going to the pond and hay stack.

8) Patch burn grazing sounds good on paper, works well for wildlife, but
is likely to have selective grazing issues.

9) “Making hay when the sun shines” is a wonderful tradition, but is also
a huge capital and labor expense. Minimizing the need for hay reduces
input cost, making for more profitable cattle ranching.

10) Fescue has serious poisonous fungus problems that peak in the spring
during rapid growth, and during seeding, but are pretty minimal in the
winter. Thus heavy fescue based fields work reasonably well for winter
“stockpiling” (and the dense growth helps for that as well).

11) Native grasses need grazing too to open holes, spread seed, provide a
bit of very natural fertilizer, etc.

12) Kevin needs to make money, but isn’t going to make a living from
cattle ranching 121 acres, so its just supplemental income. e.g. He
doesn’t need to maximize annual profit but does need to have a profitable
farm!!!

This leaves me with a few thoughts:

A) Shy of owning 10,000+ acres and letting buffalo do their thing, I need
to figure out how to manage cattle as a substitute.

B) Management Intensive Grazing has advantages, but the thought of mowing
everything down once a month has got to impact the life cycle of the
plants and provide a different, but no less impactful, selection pressure.

C) Patch Burn Grazing addresses the selection pressure, since most of the
ground (75% if using the recently recommended 4 year cycle) is left pretty
much undisturbed by the cattle. For that 1 year in 4 its being grazed,
the selection pressure is going to be pretty high.

D) Perhaps a combination is required, borrowing a bit from both: Define a
half-dozen or so fields: #1 is timothy/brome CSG for early spring and
fall feeding. #2-5 are patch burned 25% a year, with cattle allowed to
graze for 6 weeks or so (note fly problems after the first week), then
rotated. Doing so, starting in a different field every year would provide
a 16 year cycle (4 fields, 4 portions per field) from intensive grazing
minimize overall selective pressure. Field #6 is fescue, stockpiled for
winter feeding, supplemented with purchased hay as needed.

E) Doing so will restrict the carrying capacity of my farm, but might not
hurt the profit/acre since input cost are greatly reduced. Normally, my
roughly 100 acres of fields could support about 25 cow/calf pairs. Field
#1 wouldn’t have to be huge, since the spring growth is lush and it would
get the rest of the summer to rest. Fields 2-5 would need to be sizable
since only 25% would be targeted for grazing. Field #6 would need to be
sizable since the dry plant matter would need to feed the cows most of the
winter (November/December->end of March?).

What to do?

– March 15th, 2010 –

I’ve had a few follow-up e-mails with Murphy. Much MUCH to my surprise,
pasture management, at least with the inclusion of warm season grasses,
appears to still be under much debate.

Apparently my burn of last year followed by immediate grazing was most
unusual (side effect of nobody telling me not to do that!). It was also
rather successful.

My gut tells me that:

1) We need to burn WSG as part of its management
2) We need to integrate cattle grazing as part of the WSG management
3) QED: We need to figure out how to integrate cattle grazing with burn
management.

I fear that if we take the approach that WSG is just higher cost, but “hey
guys, you can charge more for the beef”, we will be fighting an uphill
battle… It doesn’t benefit wildlife at all, but I suspect I could raise
grass fed beef CHEAPER, or at least easier, on traditional pasture. After
all, if I only have fescue, I don’t have to worry about selective grazing!

Somehow, we have to figure out why having WSG as part of the program
reduces cost, offsetting any extra effort it might require.
Sustainability might be part of that. Maybe just wildlife habitat and an
improved eco-system is enough? Cattle ranchers care about quality of life
too… Maybe an improved ecosystem would result in healthier cattle,
fewer flies (since there would be more birds to eat them!), etc.???

– June 22nd, 2010 –

Well… I’m taking advantage of being between jobs to spend more time on the farm. We are making some serious progress on the house. Most of the drywall is up (one closet to go!), kitchen was rearranged for the new scaled down 1 floor plan, current master bedroom has all the cedar paneling up.

I’m getting a bit concerned about the bees. I seem to be reacting worse and worse to getting stung. This weekend they got me through my socks (boots next time!), 3-4 times in one foot, twice in the other. Both feet swelled and remain that way a day later. Last time I took a couple of stings to my hand and it swelled as well.

GRP program continues to progress, although it feels like it will take some time to come to conclusion.

We did lose power for about 2 hours after a storm went through. That’s making me think about a diesel generator.

– Jul 15th, 2010 –

After a year of contemplation, I opted out of the belted galloways and opted for their horned “cousin”, Scottish Highland.

We know own (4).

Please visit http://highlandcattleforum.org for lots of details.

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