Why I Graze

This article was one of four winning entries in a writing contest sponsored by the New York State Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI).  GLCI is led by a Steering Committee of farmers and agricultural professionals to promote the wise use of private grazing lands, and is funded by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.

I care for open and short bred dairy heifers for a friend of ours. He may own them but they are “mine” while they are here. I consider myself an environmentalist and value prescribed grazing for the good environmental benefits.  I know how much healthier cattle are that graze in a carefully managed system. But the real reason I am so enthusiastic about being a grazing farmer is because it is so good for me. I love dairy cattle, but my days of milking them are all over. By boarding heifers I have to take walks up and down hills; be out in the fresh air and sunshine (or rain, freezing rain, snow, whatever.) Otherwise, it would be too easy just to hang about my porch and gardens and lose touch with the wonderful place that I live in.

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I don’t measure anything, but I pay attention to how my heifers look. Are their bellies full? Do they seem happy?

If dairy farming continues to be part of the agricultural base in Upstate New York it will be because prescribed grazing has been adopted by many farmers. It makes economic sense to have cows harvest as much of their forage as possible, especially with today’s high energy costs. But you need to be a top manager to get top tier results. That is why it is so important to have help available.

In 2011, we had a cool, damp spring that was good for lush grass growth.  One of the biggest problems in intensively managed rotational grazing is understocking. My usual carrying capacity is about 22 – 25 open heifers on my hilly, thin-soiled 25 acres of pasture. My numbers around mid-spring were well below that. I had to be careful not to let the grass get ahead of me and wind up with hay – very poor grazing!

I hate cutting hay on my pastures, but with so few heifers it is my only way of preventing the ungrazed grass from getting too mature. Most of our pastures are too steep to be mechanically harvested efficiently and safely, so we tend to harvest the same one or two every time we get in this bind. When I give over an area for harvest it means fewer passes through with my heifers, therefore not enough animal impact, not enough manure deposited. Whining isn’t my usual way, but I hate to see good pasture go to waste.

Our water system is above ground with miles of black plastic pipe hugging the stone walls, taking the water from a spring on the top of the farm (over 2000’) to the many paddocks below. It is so steep we have a couple of tanks that serve as reserves, but whose real purpose is to break the pressure so the pipes are not blown apart. We placed the pipelines through wooded areas as shortcuts.

In the fall I open all the valves and drain the system; in the spring I put it all back together. The springtime part is one of my favorite jobs on the farm. I count on those hikes to bring me closer to the woodsy environment that surrounds my pastures. I’m on the lookout for Dog-toothed Violet, and Early Blue Violet, which could be a sign of not enough lime. Seeing the Violets reminds me of the summertime perfume of wild thyme in certain places – that definitely means not enough lime.

I usually move my heifers every day. That’s quite intensive management for rotationally grazing open heifers. It is one of my ways of dealing with understocking. By taking an area out of the grazing rotation early to be harvested, I am forced to better utilize what is left. Also, I feel that I need to check them daily just to be sure everything is OK.  I’ve been at this long enough (about 18 years) to have had lots of problems, but most of them of my own making.

While understocking can be a big problem, my biggest worry is a drought. I can do a lot of things, but I can’t make it rain! My success as a grass farmer has been built on adequate rainfall. Here in the Catskill Mountains we can count on that nearly every year. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch between thunder showers in July, but plan a picnic and you can usually attract an afternoon soaking. During those dry times I try to extend my rest time by feeding some hay. I think I’m doing the right thing, but the heifers aren’t impressed, nudging a bale until it rolls down the hill into a fence, and then grubbing the sward a little closer.

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By changing paddocks often, I maximize my grass and protein yield.

By changing paddocks often, I maximize my grass and protein yield. I then add some (very expensive) low protein grain, fed on my daily trips to the pastures. I don’t try to get technical about ADF and all that stuff. I don’t measure anything, but I pay attention to how my heifers look. Are their bellies full? Are they getting bigger?

Gaining weight? Do they seem happy? If they are not happy in a pasture, they are not full and there is a lot of uneaten grass. If heifers are not happy, you can leave them in there for several days and they still won’t eat what they don’t like – they’ll keep chewing on the good stuff and really hurt its potential for regrowth. I’ve learned: if they won’t eat it, mow it and leave it. Better stuff is encouraged to grow through the mulch that you will have left behind.

I’m getting old enough (Social Security is only a year or so away) that I can choose how I spend my time. I blend grazing heifers with watching my grandkids’ softball games, babysitting as needed, volunteering for the organizations that really matter to me, lots of flower gardening, other farm chores and of course, spending time with my hubby of 40 years. I’m a happy person, living on a farm surrounded by green pastures, sparkling streams, and clean young dairy animals. A bit of heaven in the Catskills.

For more information on the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative please contact Karen Hoffman at 607-334-4632 x116 or karen.hoffman2@ny.nrcs.gov.  For assistance with planning or starting up a grazing system contact your local USDA-NRCS or county Soil and Water Conservation District.

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Sally Fairbairn

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