My initial experiences with farming over the past 12 seasons can be summed up pretty easily. Not knowing anything about farming back in 2004 when I first began researching some potential enterprises to begin, in everything I read I was looking for a “how to” manual. In short, nearly everything I’ve started on our farm is the result of reading material from someone who went before me and said “here’s how to do this, it works”. So in short, my experiences have been that either this “how to” advice worked or not.
By and large, the “it works” part has been the norm to some degree or another thus far. When you read information from authors and publications that have a good track record of proven results, that should be expected. This has been especially true with mob grazing and building soil. Back in March of 2012, we took back a piece of ground from our tenant farmer that had been in row crops for decades. I’m currently 43 and can not remember a time when it wasn’t in row crops. At some point according to my Dad, my Grandfather had pastured it with cattle but that was before my time (or at least my memories). I took back this particular piece of ground because it was the highest point on the farm, and for drainage purposes we wanted to have our chicken tractors up as high as possible. For those of you who don’t know from first hand experience, standing water and chickens don’t mix very well. Secondly, I wanted this piece of ground because it was surrounded on all four sides by trees which would help provide shade for our cattle. Lastly, I wanted to function stack off of the cattle fencing we were building so that we could build pig fencing into the wooded areas surrounding this ground.
Before I ever did a thing to this land, which had been in conventional soybeans in 2011, I had a soil test analysis performed in February of 2012 by Logan Labs in Lakeview, Ohio. (As an aside, I really like the job Logan Labs does and highly recommend them.) While Logan Labs performs a very in depth, high quality soil analysis for about $25, I was mostly after one piece of information that I could measure over time to see just how effective rotational mob grazing would be. And while this isn’t the only thing to look at in terms of overall soil health, it is my understanding that the higher this particular number, the healthier your overall soil is. That one crucial piece of information is “percentage of soil organic matter”. My goal was to establish a baseline before we ever did a thing so that we could measure our progress via a third party testing facility. The biggest advantage that organic matter in the soil gives us is the ability to hold water. Holding water in the soil is of paramount importance when you are essentially growing grass for a living! So just how effective has this rotational grazing been for us? The proof, as they say, is in the proverbial pudding.
First, let me qualify what is to follow by pointing out or reminding you that 2012 was an extreme drought year in most of the nation. In Central Indiana, it was simply devastating. After planting this pasture in mid March of that year and watching the seeds take off like a rocket, we watched the rain stop in mid April. June brought us exactly .09” of rain at the Indianapolis Airport, but zero on our farm. By mid July, the young and delicate plants were all near death, and in fact quite a few died. If not for a significant rainfall on July 23rd, 2012 the pasture would have been lost completely. Thankfully that rainfall saved it, but we didn’t dare try and graze it that fall. Instead, we allowed the plants to grow as much as possible to provide some much needed organic matter and additional seeds on top of the ground for the following Spring. As such, we did not place any animals on the ground until June 9th of 2013. The soil comparison should take that into account, noting that we had a less than desirable stand of grasses and legumes to work with in 2013 and 2014, and have been working diligently to fill in the holes ever since then by grazing and knocking down stands that we have intentionally let go to seed. This strategy has been very effective but we still have room for improvement. The results of our “experiment” have taken place in a 24 month period of time.
Our first test showed a soil organic matter content of exactly 1.0%. Not exactly thrilling, but completely understandable when you realize that the soil has been tilled and pillaged for over 40 years. It had been beaten to death and sucked dry, producing a crop solely because of the expensive chemical inputs brought in from off farm to make it viable. What started doing in 2013 and 2014 was to begin grazing our beef cattle on this ground and running our poultry (chickens and turkeys) over about 65% of the available ground (logistically, 35% of the ground is rather difficult to use for our chicken tractors). During those first two years, we grazed the ground three to four times and frankly pushed the grasses to their limits once we got into late fall of 2013. That’s important to point out, because I openly admit that my management decisions with the grass were not that best. As such, they were a detriment to getting the pasture closer to where we wanted it to be. Sometimes you run out of grass and make bad choices. The good news is, by making good choices in the future the grass can be very forgiving!
But by 2015, things had really started to change in a positive and dramatic way. First we were able to graze sooner due to having a more normal Spring warm up. With healthier pasture and grasses, that quicker warmup lets us get a jump on things. I broadcasted some red and white clover back in early April of 2015 and “flash grazed” the entire 18 acres with the herd in order to get good soil contact with the seed. The hoof action provides the soil contact required for good germination if you don’t perform a “frost seeding” in February or early March where the freezing/thawing action of the ground pulls the broadcasted seed into the soil for you. By flash grazing – grazing large swaths of ground and moving once or twice per day – the cows can perform the same function without damaging the young plants. This also gets them off of hay sooner (helping our bottom line) and spreads all of that free fertilizer (manure and urine) onto the ground that desperately needs it. By mid June of 2015, we had grazed the entire pasture twice which in and of itself isn’t that surprising given the early start. But one 6 acre area which receives a single application of chicken manure each year has just gone bonkers. As of the middle of June in 2015, it had been grazed three times and had chickens already pass over it.
Two weeks after being grazed a third time it is nearly ready to be grazed again! In reality, I need to be back on that ground within the next 14 days from when this photo was taken, but realistically know we won’t make it thru the rest of our paddocks that quickly given what time of year it is. Too much grass is a good problem to have!
I don’t think it is any coincidence that this rapid regrowth has a lot to do with the mineral cycling and organic matter put onto the top of the soil from our rotational grazing. Mob grazing at first glance appears to create a lot of “waste”, caused by the high concentration of cattle knocking down so much forage instead of eating it. But this “waste” in turn feeds the soil microbes, and the soil microbes in turn leave behind their own waste which builds up our soil organic matter. This soil organic matter not only feeds the grasses, but retains rainfall, which obviously allows the grasses to grow. Of course the grasses feed the cattle, which then starts the whole cycle all over again. It is a vicious cycle but in a very positive way!
I’m not a soil scientist and I don’t fully understand how all of the soil biology works. And I’ll readily admit that I don’t even find animal biology all that interesting (I’m just being honest). But what I find fascinating (and this is the engineer in me coming out) is that by simply managing the grass with the cows and some infrastructure, we are bringing the soil back to life and in doing so just barely into the third grazing season, and I had a hard time keeping up with that grass. What makes this so interesting for me are the “systems” we use to manage the grass and produce what is undoubtedly the most efficient, sustainable, environmentally friendly form of restoration agriculture there is: 100% grassfed beef. And that “game” of efficiency is what makes me tick!
Just how much beef can we produce on an acre of ground? How efficient can we be? How many calories can we produce per calorie of energy expended? Once our systems are in place, no other food source is this sustainable. I spend less than 30 minutes a day managing our cattle herd that is currently generating (on average) nearly 60lbs of high quality, nutrient dense, great tasting meat protein per acre/per day with no outside fertilizer inputs. And this is just over two years into using what was a genetically modified soybean field in March of 2012 that had that whopping 1% organic matter.
So what’s that soil organic matter today? Well that’s the real tell if this rotational mob grazing stuff really works or not isn’t it? With absolutely zero outside inputs except for some grass and legume seed (and I do mean zero!) as of March 2015 our soil organic matter had increased from 1% to 2.21% in just 24 months with only two seasons of use on the pasture. And while that is nothing to shake a stick at, I had hoped for better. I think what we’ll see in the future is an exponential increase in the soil organic matter because we’ll be able to increase our stocking density and graze more frequently as the pasture health increases. Of course that assumes better management decisions on my part as well, but after a few years of grazing I really feel like I’m becoming a fairly decent grazer. As a result, we’re already seeing thicker stands in our pastures and quicker recovery times. By increasing our grazing, we’ll increase our pounds/acre of gain which of course increases our profit. But the neatest thing we are doing is restoring the health of the ecosystem thru agriculture, which is paying us back in spades. This is true sustainability!
In conclusion, I want to encourage you that rotational mob grazing really does work. When you can convert a burned out row crop field into lush grazing areas with no outside inputs and have results like we have here, the proof is right before your eyes.