Intensive grazing system requires planning and dedication
DESBORO, Ont. — Neil Showers and Brenda Robertson have been grass farmers for only four years, but their efforts have been good enough to win this year’s Ontario pasture award.
An intensive rotational grazing program has set them apart from the neighbours. They have seen passersby slow down to check out what is happening when they drive past the farm on Sideroad 1 in Grey County.
Robertson grew up on a farm near Guelph and became interested in intensive grazing as a way to raise more cattle on a small acreage. Convincing her husband took some time.
“I kept showing him articles and he kept challenging me on it because he said, ‘nobody else does it,’ ” she said.
She had read about intensive pasture management in farm publications and had done her own research. She also received help from Jack Kyle, the Ontario agriculture ministry’s grazier specialist.
Robertson and Showers had moved to a 100 acre farm a couple hours north of Toronto, which was homesteaded in the late 1880s. The deal included an old house in need of modernization and a century old barn.
The benefit was the land had always been in pasture and hayland, even though it needed rehabilitation.
They seeded birdsfoot trefoil, clover and a forage mix into the heavy clay soil. External fences went in and they set out a cross fencing system with electric wires.
The 60 acre pasture is divided into four, 15 acre fields, which can be further split into 30 paddocks. Another 30 acres are set aside for hay.
All woodland areas are fenced off from the grazing area to protect the trees, which include hardwoods and evergreens.
Permanent pipelines have been installed along the fence lines to fill the troughs, which are moved ahead of the cattle so they always have fresh, clean water.
The cattle are moved every night from one paddock to the next for best use of the forage.
They studied the work of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin to learn as much as they could about good welfare and how to move cattle with low stress. Daily contact helps them get to know the stock.
“If there is anything wrong with them, you find out very quickly,” Robertson said.
The cattle are purchased from fall pre-sort sales at the nearby Keady market. They want a uniform group of black steers that receive hay and concentrates over the winter.
The cattle live in the barn over the winter because the snow is deep and it gets too cold and wet to turn them out. The plan was to turn them out to pasture in early May. However, heavy snow, cold and plenty of spring rain delayed plans this year because there was standing water in some parts of the pasture.
They turned out 14 head in the first year to see what would happen. Now they graze 50 with plans to increase the herd to 70 to 80.
Robertson, who calculates stocking density on the basis of one sq. foot of pasture per pound of animal per day, has determined that they can background a maximum of 80 head that finish at 84,000 lb.
The cattle are sold to a feedlot at the end of the grazing season.
“The land we are on should be enough to support 70 or 80 as long as we have enough hay,” she said.
Making hay while the sun shines can be a challenge. Last year it was so wet they only got one cut, but in 2012 they lived with drought and shortened feed supplies.
However, their pasture management meant they had enough grass and were not forced to feed their cattle expensive hay during the summer.
When the weather is ideal and can grow faster than the cattle can eat it.
Intensive grazing produces more beef per acre and improves soil quality, which adds value to the farm.
They ran a soil test when they first started but have not had time to do a comparative test to see how much they have improved the land. They believe they are doing it right because of the abundance of grass they grow each year.
The forage can also out-compete weeds such as buttercup, burdock and thistles.
Deer, groundhogs and coyotes live in the area, but the wildlife has not been a problem. Deer enter the hayfield in winter but cannot get at the stacks because the feed is stored in a Quonset to protect it against wet weather.
Intensive grazing takes planning, dedication and discipline, but they see it as a good way to work in a partnership with a common goal to build a profitable operation that could expand into a grass-fed beef program.
As well, they both work off the farm, and letting the cattle find their own feed and spread their own manure fits in with their busy lifestyle.