NORTH CENTRAL REGION
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|The Woodburys allow grazed plants up to two and one-half months to recover from the cattle herd to resuscitate the prarie. |
Photo by Judy Woodbury.
On a foot tour of the Woodburys' eastern North Dakota rangeland in 1997, a neighbor observing the lush prairie vegetation shook his head in amazement.
"Didn't you guys graze this pasture this year?" he asked.
Larry Woodbury, who, with his wife, Judy, and the help of a SARE producer grant, had overhauled his grazing system to improve profits and protect wildlife habitat, answered in the affirmative. While the grass looked as lush and healthy as any ungrazed land in the wide-open range of eastern North Dakota, the couple had grazed that pasture twice.
It was obvious the long, hot hours the Woodburys had spent putting up nine miles of fence and moving cattle between 17 different pastures every few days had paid off. Even running 29 percent more cattle -- measured in "animal unit months," or the feed a 1,000-pound cow consumes in a month -- than the year before, the Woodburys and Larry's brother, David, were improving pasture and increasing the wildlife habitat on their 3,000 acres near McLeod, N.D.
"The best thing about this project has been showing the neighbors what potential we have here and to prove we can do it working together as a family," says Larry Woodbury, who has been a rancher his whole life.
In addition to their 3,000 acres of owned and rented cropland, hayland, pasture and native range, the Woodburys hold a grazing permit on the Sheyenne National Grasslands.
Before changing their traditional operation -- a 175-pair cow/calf herd, with an additional 270 yearling bred heifers -- to 958 yearling heifers who run the range under management-intensive grazing until they are ready for the feedlot, the Woodburys worried about the bottom line as well as the condition of the range ecosystem. Cool-season grasses and undesirable forbs such as goldenrod were invading the pastures, crowding out warm- season natives. Willows and other woody plants unpalatable to cattle were taking over low areas.
The change enabled the Woodburys to make a profit when cow/calf operations were losing money. Even with the increase in their livestock, utilization figures showed they were leaving enough grass to maintain and improve the prairie resource and increase wildlife habitat.
"We knew we had to do something different than what had been done for years and years," Judy Woodbury says. "But we weren't sure exactly what we should do."
At a range association meeting, Lynn Wolff, secretary of the local grazing association, signed the Woodburys up for a Holistic Resource Management (HM) course, which offered information on management-intensive grazing as well as more philosophical concepts, such as livestock's connection with the landscape. After attending the three-day course, the Woodburys were eager to try the non-traditional HM rotational grazing system.
"I went to the workshop not knowing what to expect," says Judy Woodbury, a registered nurse. "I thought 'This isn't about farming, this is about life. This is about how to make a better life on your land.'"
She applied for a SARE producer grant to help transform their rangeland into a well-managed series of pastures full of nutritious grass and legumes and plenty of shelter for wildlife. Though the Woodburys had never written a proposal before, their project was funded in 1995.
The Woodburys began fencing off the land and, by 1996, had created 17 pastures varying in size from 36 to 320 acres.
Cattle spend two to 11 days in each pasture, allowing grazed plants 60 to 80 days to recover before the animals return. When grass is growing rapidly, the Woodburys can quickly move cattle to new pasture so they won't graze the grass regrowth. This system not only lets the grass replace the food reserves in its roots, but it also gives other valuable plants time to grow and complete their life cycles.
Bernadette Braun, range specialist with the U.S. Forest Service at the Sheyenne National Grassland, shared their concern about native habitat. Braun, who taught the Woodburys more about grassland species and biodiversity, was excited by the discovery of prairie fringed orchids on the couple's leased land. In 1994, she found six of the endangered native orchids. The following year, Braun catalogued 300, and in 1996 she counted 1,200.
"The Woodburys have so many pastures, they can leave one with orchids in it ungrazed until the orchids have completed their cycle," says Braun, who speculates the mini-population explosion can be attributed in part to the Woodburys' rotational grazing system.
Rotations also can benefit wildlife, Braun says. Some of the Woodburys' land is prime nesting habitat for the greater prairie chicken. With rotational grazing, that habitat can be left undisturbed while the birds nest.
As a result of their HM education, the Woodburys also have converted 250 acres of highly erodible cropland to alfalfa and smooth bromegrass. After haying that acreage for a few years, the pastures will become part of the grazing system. Another 50 acres have been planted in native grasses.
"It's supposed to take five years or so of rotations to really see a difference, but we can already see our grass improving," Judy Woodbury says.
The Woodburys do not preach to their neighbors about their new system, but they aren't shy about sharing their ideas. In 1996, their operation was a featured attraction on a six-county summer range tour sponsored by the NRCS, the U.S. Forest Service, the Lake Agassix Project and the local HM work group.
The Woodburys and other area ranchers who attended HM workshops have formed a work group to implement new ideas and discuss and monitor their rangelands. The group has sponsored three "Introduction to Holistic Resource Management" workshops, although the Woodburys remain realistic about the pace of change on the prairie.
"You can't talk anybody into anything," Judy Woodbury says. "I should just stand on a fencepost and take a picture. The neighbor's side looks like a golf course and our grass is really thick and tall. Seeing something like that is what will convince people to try something new." -- Monica Norby
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|Grazing livestock on well-managed pastures can increase average net income per animal. |
Photo by William Murphy.
When Travis Forgues left home for college six years ago, he had no intention of coming back to his parents' dairy farm in Alburg Springs, Vt. "My parents were on a dead-end road, and there was no financial way I could come back, even if I wanted to," he says.
Instead, he studied psychology, intending to work with emotionally disturbed youth. But after Henry and Sally Forgues switched from a confinement system to grass-based dairying, Travis, now 24, changed his mind. He makes no bones about why.
"Grazing management saved this farm," he says. "Without it, this farm wouldn't be here, and I definitely wouldn't be here. Grazing has been the real focal point of our farm's profitability and cohesiveness."
The catalyst behind the Forgues' new direction, as well as many other New England farmers, was William Murphy, University of Vermont agronomist and one of the earliest advocates ofmanagement-intensive grazing (MIG). Murphy believes MIG could help farms be more profitable and cause less stress for farmers.
"Farm-family quality of life improves drastically when farmers make the switch, and this is extremely important," Murphy says. "No matterhow environmentally bene-ficial a farming practice is, if it doesn't benefit the farm family, it won't be used."
In 1988, Murphy received one of the first SARE grants to study the profitability of grass-based farming. But when he started his research, he hardly knew how to begin.
Along with a few other Vermont farmers, Murphy had been grazing his own animals for a few years. But there had been little or no research into the effects of intensivelymanaged grazing on livestock production anywhere in the nation. Early in the project, Murphy had the opportunity to travel to Ireland -- where climate conditions are similar to Vermont -- to learn fromresearchers and farmerswho had been grazing for decades.
Most northern U.S. dairy farmers confine their herds in barns, harvesting and storing, or buying forage to feed the cattle throughout the winter. When animals are let out to graze, the pastures they feed on often are poorly managed.
"Farmers pastured, but they used very minimal management, and usually their feed would run out in July or August, and it was all done for the season," Murphy says.
University agronomists seldom included the effects of animals in their forage studies; instead, they clipped pastures mechanically to simulate grazing. No funding was available for research on grazing, and no wonder, Murphy says.
"Agribusiness can't be expected to fund research that will decrease spending on their products," he says. Most MIG research funding comes from government, foundations or farmers.
MIG rations out pasture forage according to livestock needs while protecting the plants from over- and undergrazing. Large pastures are subdivided into smaller areas called paddocks, which are grazed quickly by a high concentration or stocking density of livestock. As soon as the plants are grazed, animals are moved to a fresh paddock to prevent overgrazing.
Under this kind of management, pastures usually change to a nutritious mix of grass and legumes that grow well and reseed naturally. Fields that used to offer a few months of skimpy grazing now grow lush forage from May through October. They furnish livestock farmers with much more feed, reducing costs for purchased feed, labor, machinery and other inputs.
Farm families spend less precious time putting up forage and feeding cows and have more time for other farm chores or to spend with their families.
A two-year economic analysis showed that, among nearly two dozen pasture-based farms, the average net cash income per cow was $600, compared to $450 per cow for the top 25 Vermont dairy herds raised in conventional confinement systems. Those savings are mainly credited to lower costs for fertilizer, seed, machinery and labor.
Since Murphy began his research, the number of farmers intensively managing pastures, called graziers, has grown from just a handful to about 300 in Vermont alone. The tremendous growth of pasture-based farming hasn't been just in Vermont. In Wisconsin, partly as a result of some of Murphy's earliest pasture workshops, grazing has increased greatly.
One of the biggest benefits of the project has been the way MIG brings farmers together to share knowledge and ideas. Early on, Murphy formed a grazier support network of more than 50 farmers to hold discussions and pasture walks. The network now includes sheep, beef, goat and poultry producers, as well as dairy. It also helped spark formation of the Vermont Grass Farmers Association in 1996. Several grazing conferences now are held annually in northern New England.
Murphy and others want to persuade more Northeast dairy producers to consider trying the system. High-input farming makes no sense in an era of low commodity prices and high inputs costs, Murphy says, especially since the Northeast has ideal soil and climate conditions for pastured-based farming.
More pasture-based farms means less use of pesticides and fewer concerns about manure and soil erosion. Perhaps most important, Murphy says, MIG could help keep rural America vibrant.
"Farms currently in business would be better able to remain in business, and new people would come into farming, so more people would be living on the land," he says.
In the economic and political climate of volatile milk prices, the farmers who survive will be those with little debt and a new outlook, says Travis Forgues, the young dairy farmer.
"I think graziers are going to have the only chance because they don't have the overhead," he says. "It's going to be a different future. But I think there still will be farmers. I'm not going anywhere." -- Susan Harlow
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|Sarah and William Rogers, ages 6 and 3, already know how to tally income and expenses associated with the family's livestock business. |
Photo by Gwen Roland.
Although it may seem like selling snowballs in Alaska, Laura and Ralph Rogers market and sell fresh chicken to other Kentucky farm families in their rural community. At $5.50 per bird, they get more orders than they can fill in their second year of pastured poultry production.
Theirs is not the first chicken success story from this region of small farms tucked around Daniel Boone National Forest. You can just about toss a plump pullet from their 4R Farm in Woodbine to Colonel Sanders' original restaurant in Corbin. After the Rogers raised their first flock of pastured poultry in 1996, Laura gave Ralph a watercolor print of the Colonel's restaurant in the 1950s to remind him that every big business was once a hometown operation.
Why do their rural neighbors buy chicken from the Rogers instead of raising their own or buying it from the grocery store? Taste and tenderness, says Laura Rogers, a savvy business woman who excels at moving a product.
The Rogers raise juicy, broad-breasted Cornish Cross birds developed by the commercial poultry hatcheries to reach slaughter weight in just two months. The broilers grow larger by two months than a Rhode Island Red or other common backyard breed would be at six months. But since Cornish Crosses are slaughtered at such a young age, they are much more tender than other breeds would be at that size.
While the Cornish Cross offer a tasty alternative to other breeds, the heavy birds are not built to range freely around the barn yard. They prefer hanging around a feeder and eating to scavenging like traditional breeds. Their sedentary habits also make them easy prey for dogs, hawks and other predators.
Pasturing them in large movable wire pens has proved very successful. Growing birds choose between the feed trough and a fresh salad of grass all day long. The pen, sometimes called a chicken tractor, is moved once or twice a day, depending on the birds' size. Unlike conventionally raised broilers, pastured poultry are not fed antibiotics since their clean grass and uncrowded conditions promote good health. Living most of their short lives in fresh air and sunlight, they are not fed arsenic compounds to stimulate their appetites. Most people who taste pastured poultry say it is the best they have ever eaten: more tender than backyard chickens and more flavorful than store-bought chickens.
In addition to contributing to bird health, the pasture diet boosts the profit margin. At current feed prices, it only takes $2.25 worth of feed to raise a bird to slaughter weight. The Rogers' retail price of $5.50 per bird provides a comfortable return, even though pastured poultry sells for more than $10 per bird in urban markets. "Farming people are our clientele," says Laura. "I can sell everything we raise because I know what people around here can pay."
Not only does raising poultry on pasture require fewer inputs than conventionally raised chicken, the Rogers appreciate the low output of waste. At the end of every grow out period, confinement chicken operations leave behind a mountain of manure -- a potential pollutant for local ground and surface waters. Since pastured pens are moved every day, droppings are evenly scattered over a broad expanse at the end of a growing season. Even the Rogers' children can point out the dark green rectangles of grass where last year's pens sat on newly cleared scrub land.
"With only seven acres to work with, all of our land needs to be in top condition," says Laura. "Those chickens will help it get there with less money and time from us."
The Rogers learned to raise pastured poultry as part of a Southern Region SARE project conducted by Heifer Project International to boost the incomes of small family farms. "By teaching these farm families how to include pastured poultry into their farm plans, we are actually teaching them to diversify their operations and see their farm as a whole system," says Steve Muntz, HPI field representative for Appalachia.
HPI will train 24 families in the three-year project. The Rogers and seven other farming couples were trained in the first year, 1996. They traveled to Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia, where they learned everything from pen construction to chicken processing.
The Rogers lost no time getting started after their training. They built a brooder house and movable pens for their first flock. At processing time, each customer was asked to fill out an evaluation form about the quality and flavor of the chicken. Heartened by rave reviews, the Rogers printed business cards and ordered more chicks. A year after their training, they passed on a gift of 100 chicks and helped train a new family. Nearly two years after training, they are expanding their market.
Once established, pastured poultry require little attention other than moving the pen once or twice a day, depending on the size of the birds. The Rogers found this left them time to develop other low-maintenance, space-saving livestock enterprises such as rattites, ducks, rabbits, bees and a fledgling worm farm. They transfer the sound management principles learned in the pastured poultry training to each new enterprise added to their seven-acre farm.
The livestock also teaches Sarah, 6, and William, 3, about responsibility, the food chain, nutrition, life cycles and money management. "They know when they get up in the morning that the first thing we have to do is take care of the animals," says Laura. "The rabbit business is all theirs. I show them how to keep expenses and income and how to tithe what they make. But best of all, they are learning that a family works best when it works together."
Along with training 24 farm families in pastured poultry production, the SARE project also has helped finance the startup of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA). APPPA and its newsletter, Grit, share information among farmers about pastured poultry systems. -- Gwen Roland
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|For ranchers to stay in business without use of public lands, they need to cut their cattle numbers and manage for higher returns per calf. |
Rancher Lee Wood feels at home on the cold desert ranges and high mountain meadows of southwestern Utah, working cattle on horseback. The Cedar City cattleman is a sixth-generation rancher, and the fifth generation to ranch in Utah, where his great-great-grandfather settled in the 1870s.
However, Wood knows that with shifts in public opinion and policy, ranchers and cattle may not always be welcome on public lands in the West. "Ranching is a great way of life, and I want to hang on to it," he says. "That's why I'm willing to make some changes and try some new ideas."
Wood is helping a SARE-funded researcher test an alternative to traditional cow-calf production that could help ranchers stay in the cattle business if grazing on public lands is curtailed. Randall Wiedmeier, a livestock researcher at Utah State University, has devised a strategy for raising -- on privately owned land -- calves that reach slaughter weight in under one year, instead of the usual 18 months or more
"This is a management-intensive approach that won't work for everyone," Wiedmeier says. "But we believe it can offer a way for ranchers to stay in the cattle business, with the same kinds of returns."
Besides keeping ranchers like Wood in the business they know and love, the approach also could help sustain rural communities whose economies depend on the range livestock industry.
In Utah, where about 70 percent of land is federally managed, an estimated 70 percent of ranchers depend on public lands for some grazing. Most cow-calf producers run cattle on 10,000 to 20,000 acres of public land for five months of the year. Most producers also own a few hundred acres of irrigated pastures and meadows that supply hay.
To stay in business with little or no use of public lands, Wiedmeier says typical producers would have to cut their cow numbers from about 300 to 130 and manage for higher returns per calf. Moving cattle onto private land would reduce hay production, but with fewer animals, less hay would be needed. And having cows in pastures rather than on the range would eliminate the need for daily 50-mile drives to check fences and water.
In small-scale research trials and on-ranch demonstrations, larger-frame, high milk-producing cows were bred to bulls with superior growth and meat characteristics, using artificial insemination (AI). "We're stacking the pedigrees for rapid growth," Wiedmeier says.
AI is unpopular with many producers because it means handling cattle several additional times. Researchers want to investigate whether other breeding methods can achieve similar results.
In the long term, raising all calves for rapid growth would leave producers without suitable replacement heifers for their herds. In general, heifers produced under this system are overly large and lack desirable maternal traits, Wiedmeier says. To produce acceptable replacements, he recommends breeding cows to bulls with strong maternal traits in their early and final years of production.
Under the accelerated beef production schedule, nursing calves receive cereal grain-based feed to boost their growth, starting at 100 days of age. Though feed costs are higher, results are dramatic. "We have a yearling-weight calf at weaning time," Wiedmeier says.
For the final 90 days, ranchers themselves put the calves on a finishing program instead of selling them to a feedlot, a task they were able to take on thanks to a smaller herd size. By retaining ownership of calves until they're sold to a packer, ranchers become their own feedlot managers.
"Calves sold at weaning change hands an average of two times before reaching slaughter weight," Wiedmeier says. "This eliminates the commission ranchers need to pay for resale and allows the cow-calf producer to benefit from superior genetics."
Accelerated growth means calves are ready for market in early February, when slaughter cattle prices usually reach their annual peak.
A critical question is whether beef from the young calves is acceptable to packers and the public. To find out, Wiedmeier sent 10 steers to a packing house, without mentioning his research. "We wanted to know whether these calves would have to be sold for a niche market or whether they would be sold through normal marketing channels. They marketed just fine."
Researchers followed up by feeding the beef to a 50-member consumer tastingpanel that compared the meat's tenderness, juiciness, flavor and acceptability to USDA Choice cuts. Beef produced in the rapid-growth system equaled the competition in all respects. Because the calves were young, their meat was leaner than traditionally raised beef, a trait that may appeal to health-conscious consumers.
Both biologically and economically, the slaughter-weight calf production system is efficient, though it requires more investment and more intensive management from ranchers. Wiedmeier's research over several years suggests it is possible to produce slaughter-weight calves in under a year, with returns comparable to those of a range livestock operation with approximately half the cows.
When compiled, the ranch demonstration project results will offer another measure of how the system works on real ranches in varied locations with different management styles.
Though the demonstration project isn't over yet, Wood is encouraged by what he's seen on his ranch. "This is not a cure-all, but it has potential," he says. "I plan to try it again in the future."
Will Wood's children be the seventh generation of ranchers in the family? He laughs aloud, pleased at the thought. "I'm hoping." -- D'Lyn Ford