Drought affects pasture as well as crops. During these dry times, what are the considerations that graziers need to keep in mind to optimize forage, and what are the advantages that a rotationally grazed system gives us when we’re short on water? We talk with Mary C Anderson, Wisconsin DNR Grazing Specialist, retired dairy farmer, and current grass-fed/finished beef farmer and Kevin Mahalko from the Gilman, WI area, a grass-fed dairy farmer and president of Grassworks.
Will Fulwider 0:01
Michael Geissinger 0:02
Will Fulwider 0:03
How’s it going?
Michael Geissinger 0:05
Doing well, how are you?
Will Fulwider 0:06
Pretty good. What are we talking about today?
Michael Geissinger 0:09
I think we’re talking about rotational grazing.
Will Fulwider 0:12
What is that?
Michael Geissinger 0:15
Well, I’m not entirely sure on a technical definition. But if I were to just break down the word parts, I would say it’s probably grazing that rotates. So maybe like a pasture that’s on a swivel that kind of like moves with the underneath the cows or something like that. But we have some experts on so maybe we should ask them.
Will Fulwider 0:35
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense that answer, Kevin, you want to jump in and give us an actual answer.
Kevin Mahalko 0:40
For my, my years of doing this rotational grazing, what I really look at is this the all the time plan movement of the livestock are on a well managed pasture. So I mean, it’s there’s so many various ways to do it. Tons of different ways to fence. Some people can do it, you know, with absolute minimal fencing. Some people have set paddocks, so it’s really flexible movement and getting livestock where they need to be it’s right time and right growth stages.
Mary C Anderson 1:15
To me, rotational grazing is actually where my employees of which we have about 90 of them. They have all weather calves. They’re four wheel drives, they’re harvesting, digesting, manure spreading units, that will actually annually lay down and give you a stock split. And so essentially, rotational grazing is a controlled movement of livestock of any species through a system where they harvest their own forages.
Will Fulwider 2:01
Welcome to field notes from UW Madison extension. I’m Will Fulwider, and I’m joined by my co host, Michael Geisinger, we bring farmers experts and agronomist to the table to talk about research based approaches to the issues facing agriculture in Wisconsin.
Michael Geissinger 2:27
Joking aside and those good definitions ahead of us, I’m excited to be talking about one of my favorite agronomy and livestock topics today, which is rotational grazing with some of the best people to talk to about it in the state. So we’re joined by Mary C. Anderson and Kevin Mahalko. Today, Mary C is a Wisconsin DNR grazing specialist, retired dairy farmer and current grass fed beef farmer near the Whitehall, Wisconsin area. And Kevin is a grass fed dairy farmer near Gilman, Wisconsin, where he is also a grazing educator for River Country, RC&D. Kevin also serves as the president of Grassworks in Wisconsin, which is a grassroots organization focused on grazing. Mary C and Kevin, thanks for coming on today. Could you take a minute to share some background about your role and farms and what your rotational grazing setup looks like and Marcy C we’ll start with you.
Mary C Anderson 3:27
Okay, we have farm like you mentioned, we are in just about in the middle of perfect center all of Trempealeau County. So we are in the driftless area. We have two farms. One farm is about 115 acres, and that is set up in eight large paddocks, of which they are subdivided into smaller sub units typically acre acre and a half in size, where our herd is moved through their paddock rotation as well as we harvest forage, we’re 100% grass fed, grass finished. And then of course, our other property because it’s a little more remote. We actually just do seasonal grazing there. So the livestock come in the spring. They rotate around the property throughout the summer and then about deer hunting season, we we take them back to the home farm. My full time duties with the Wisconsin DNR is we are actually efforting doing managed grazing with a little bit of a twist because it’s more of a conservation grazing on public grasslands across Wisconsin. And those grasslands are under the care of the wildlife management. And we were working with our partner farmers to bring livestock onto the properties and rotationally graze them. Kevin do you want talk about your operation a little bit.
Kevin Mahalko 5:15
Farm you’re looking at almost 30 years ago at this point. You know we started, you know, really getting, you know, some interest and what are these crazy grazier people doing and like, you know, we’ve always done some pasturing and it’s always been a part of our family farming history and Mary was actually one of the one of the leading kind of evangelists of grazing and even way back then. So we got in with a lot of really great neighbors and grazing networks, which is why personally, I still love being a part of that. But our farm it’s been like 30 to 50, cow dairy, you know, traditionally, all these years, and we’ve gotten into also doing some kind of grass fed beef sales, and then kind of more, more, about 20 years ago, we started transitioning to organic. So we’ve been, we’ve been with the organic side now for over 12, 13 years. So, it’s grazing has given us a lot of flexibility. Even right from the start, like, you know, a way to to do to do a successful dairy farm convention, you know, in a coventional market. I remember in those days, like, a lot of a lot of neighbors were, were doing this and a lot of people are really good at grazing are still actually in our in our network. So that’s that’s been cool. What I what I really like is the ecology part of neing a community. And just really the you know, just with the animals with our dairy cows, they’re they’re really you know, happy they grow well, they’re, we’ve just created a system or you know, it’s the cows will basically follow you anywhere you go, you get to be the shepherd in a sense. And, you know, it’s, it’s just friendly, it’s a friendly system, like we can go we know we know all the cattle and calves everybody individually and you know, the dogs like running out running out there the pasture have a pasture cat too, and they don’t it’s just it’s a fun, it’s just a fun way to to work in nature. So.
Will Fulwider 7:44
I like the idea of a pasture cat. I mean, it’s like it’s like the lion on the veldt or the savanna. But.
Kevin Mahalko 7:55
He is probably honestly worth 1000s of dollars because he patrols like the bales all that stuff. Keeps everything feed quality, high and amazing. It’s just Yeah.
Will Fulwider 8:09
Well, I definitely don’t have to tell either of you that it’s been a pretty dry year so far. We have had seen very little rain in May in June it here in 2023. In fact, it’s the second driest May June combo that Wisconsin seen at least here in southern Wisconsin, where I’m at. And I’m wondering kind of how does rotational grazing play into that? How can you use rotational grazing to help extend the grazing season as long as possible and keep your cows out on the grass? Or, you know, other livestock as well?
Kevin Mahalko 8:42
Well, you know, one thing about the weather climate, you know what, however people want to look at it, you know, it’s always variable and the best thing about the managed grazing system is the flexibility and you know, for whatever rain we didn’t get this year, every bit of it is gone to use. So, you know, we have we have cover like you know, even from fall you know, we have good ground cover living plants living soil biology. And, you know, this year we did have we had early snow cover and didn’t really freeze on a lot of the, you know, below that soil surface so we could put fenceposts in most places all winter. So when we did get rains that got into the soil, so the you know, the biggest thing is like we’re we’re resource based and we’re trying to, you know, always protect and, and maintain everything that we get on a farm like that. I think some strategies that have maybe for the future is looking at possibly doing like an irrigation pond. But with what what we have we’ve had a really good first round of grazing, our second round has been, it’s been, I would say good, but it’s starting to diminish a bit because of the dry. And we always have to have our backup plans, right. So like our, we have looked at our harvest window for our hay crop and how we kind of integrate that in with, with the grazing side of it to set up our just like the the pattern we do of moving the cattle across the, across that farm. So it’s always a balancing act like, you know, really trying to do the maximum amount of growth we can get when we have, you know, we start getting that solar energy available to us to convert this pasture into good quality forage. So a lot of strategies. Some of it is also like what we’re interseeded in over the years, you know, plants that are adapted a little bit better too, you know, these these variable conditions. And in kind of utilizing the things that the graze is what grows to our maximum benefit. So, and then, really sticking with the principles of of the timing, not overgrazing, that taking that say, when, when the when the pasture starts to regrow, we definitely want to stay off of that until it has a chance to really express itself. I think Mary’s got, she’s got a lot more to here.
Mary C Anderson 11:44
Some of the strategies that we’ve begun to, you know, we always pay attention to what we get for moisture. And in the process, once the grazing starts in the springtime, we’re just keenly aware of where we’re going and where we want to be across the landscape within that 30 to 45 day period, we keep a very tight eye on how much the herd is actually taking down. And so if we go in and the grass is like 20 inches tall, and we know that we’re headed for a deficit with moisture, instead of taking it down to six inches, we’ll probably leave 12 behind so that there’s adequate photosynthetic area for that plant to not really have to pull out of reserves to grow photosynthetic area to then begin the regrowth process, which typically takes about four to six days depending on the species of the grass. Once it’s been harvested or bitten off by the cow. We also we don’t want to get into stored feed too early. And so we may pull in a hay field or two, so that we stay with that longer rest period, which gives the forage plants an opportunity to take care of themselves. And so we’ve gone to slightly larger paddocks our grazing time has been typically in that 12 to 24 hours per rotation per movement across the paddock. But we want to really leave a good base of residual material. A) it protects the soil from you know 95 degrees, you can take a thermometer and put it in a grass stand at six inches tall, and the soil temperature will be 10 to 15 degrees cooler than bare soil right next to it. And that’s important because then we’re not losing soil moisture by it radiating off by keeping it in the shade.
Michael Geissinger 14:10
Yeah, and Mary see you and you’re talking about moving those livestock like every 12 to 24 hours is are you keeping those stocking rates higher during a dry period than you usually would or what kind of stocking rates are you thinking with that? Per paddock?
Mary C Anderson 14:31
We’ve added because our paddocks we’re making our paddocks larger primarily we use polywire. Some folks will use polytape. We do the poly wire, it’s lightweight, it’s mobile, geared reels, pigtail posts, so mobile fencing is critical. We’re making our paddocks larger and giving them less time in that individual paddock. So they’re not overgrazing it, you really want to be sure to leave a lot of residual material. And so our stocking rates per acre are actually lower during drought times than they are in a normal moisture cycle.
Michael Geissinger 15:17
Sounds good. Yeah. Both of you have seen a ton of different grazing systems around Wisconsin. And so what are a couple of the most common ways that a grazer can maximize their forage utilization while maintaining their stands? And Mary C, you already started that conversation with talking about residuals there anything you wanted to add to that before? Seeing what Kevin has to say,
Mary C Anderson 15:47
You really want to run your stock calculations, you want to be accurate. The book work tells us that an Animal Unit is 1000 pounds. And I’ve seen a number of producers that well, you know, they say, an Animal Unit, you know, is 1000 pounds, and it’s like, well look at your livestock, I know that my animal units are not 1000 pounds, my animal units, a cow is going to be 1.4 If she’s got a calf at side, that’s going to be another, you know, that’s going to add a couple tenths back onto that. So when you do your stock calculations, you want to be really accurate on your weights. Because if your weights are too low, then you will always overgraze. And so knowing your stock weights, and your stock calculations, what is appropriate per acre on your farm based on your soil types is critical. And Kevin, do you want to add a little bit to that?
Kevin Mahalko 16:58
Well, I think that’s, you know, the whole thing about planning and looking at your soil type, kind of your temperature zone and there’s so many factors into this also, you know, the type of stock you have beef, you know, beef animals are different than dairy, we’re talking specifically with cattle. I have almost two different styles now with my youngstock. And, you know, say like I have, I have like calves that can go from you know, calf size up to like 1600, or whatever pounds steer, they have different forage requirements, both both this daily calculation of how much dry matter plot and the quality and type of dry matter you’re looking at. So, like for one thing I’m doing with this drought management is I’ve basically stockpiled you know, I have a lot of I have about probably about 70 acres that hasn’t been hayed or grazed yet this year, and I’m, I’m going into some some pasture that’s even, like, you know, the grass part of it will be four to six feet tall. And the basically, the legumes are just starting to flower, you know, so we had kind of a delay on legumes, but the grasses got off pretty fast this year. But I’m, I’m giving them like, tighter, tighter breaks, but then I, which means I give them a little bit smaller area, but then two or three times they move moves through there. And then they have about eight, eight inch residual that gets oftentimes kind of like matted down a bit as a cover. And then, you know, we have to have a chance to, like Mary said, like this armor on the soil to protect it from, you know, too much too much direct sunlight, and, you know, something there to capture even if we get dews in the morning. So, there’s, um, with with managed grazing, it’s the roots of the management, right? And there’s so many, so many variables than I think that’s where, you know, the experimentation, you know, basically monitoring and seeing, you know, what’s happening. And always, always remembering that whole the, the rest period on the on the pasture is like that, the rest is the absolute key, I think to any of this, like when we’ve traditionally thought of pasture in Wisconsin, it’s been this, you know, farmers traditionally would put cattle out and they just stay out on 40 acres and had a wander around, right. And, you know, we had some people that did actually break it down into, you know, maybe five acre fields, historically, and then they’d rotate every two weeks or something. But you know, getting getting down to this intensity, where we can use polywire and, you know, now even it’s, it’s kind of on the forefront of this, but even the possibility of, you know, like, the virtual fencing, you know, it’s, there’s just more, there’s just more options. And I think we’ll have even more more options as we as we go. But setting up setting up fence to me is like a, it’s fun, it’s like, I’m out in working where I want to be working with the cattle. And it’s good exercise. For me, it’s, there’s just, there’s a lot of side benefits with it the too. So,
Will Fulwider 20:59
There’s that factor as well. Right?
Kevin Mahalko 21:01
I mean, you’re just taking a hike and walk through nature all the time. So that’s cool.
Will Fulwider 21:06
There are a lot worse jobs in that one, that’s for sure. I kind of want to go back to something that you’d mentioned earlier, Kevin, when you talked about interseeding different species, and how that can you know, change management or whatever, we’re in an adverse condition as far as a growing season goes, we’d like we’ve been talking about with drought. And I’m wondering other than, you know, using rotational grazing as a tool to maintain those residuals in order to have continued grass growth when we have very little rain, you know, what other management strategies can you do for your pastures, like species selection, in order to make them more resilient to kind of extreme weather? Like what we’re seeing right now?
Kevin Mahalko 21:47
You know, we we kind of started off like with the idea of graze what grows was, right? And that does work very well. You know, there’s, there’s definitely huge potential there. But also, like, we’ve also learned, you know, like through through these years, you know, seeing what’s working on other farms and now some seed companies and the researchers looking at you know, different varieties and coming up with these these different pasture mixes. And you know, if actually, you know, some imported species from you know, primarily Europe, cool season grass, a lot of it they do fit in pretty well and mesh well with, with with our particular environments. And we’re I’ve done that as like, we have sites where we outwinter the cattle and we have a little bit of hoof traffic or damage and we might replant it, that’s where we’ve we’ve primarily done a lot of this and we’ve done some no-till also into existing pasture, but I’ve seen really good results with things like meadow fescue, and you know some better clovers going to the more diversity like you know, getting things like you know, plantain, chicory, you know, just the a wide variety of grasses. Trying for other other legumes weren’t, we can’t necessarily replant alfalfa and into an existing alfalfa stand, obviously. But getting, having that diversity just seems to promote better resilience, whether it’s wet or dry, because there’s hopefully a different root profile, you know, some, some differences there, like alfalfa will definitely tap into deeper water soil waters reserves. The kind of locally adapted things that we’ve been able to plant in Wisconsin, we have this meadow fescue, that’s looking pretty good. If we can get more research and more, there’s just an incredible amount of potential in the genetics of of a pasture that I would like to see, you know, studied and developed. And I think we have just a huge amount of gain that we can we can do there.
Mary C Anderson 24:19
And I think Kevin, the point you’re really trying to get get right down to is you got to have diversity. And monocultures put you in a very precarious situation. Because one species may or may not do well in certain conditions and another species the more species of legumes, grasses that you have in your paddocks’ sward benefits you on a multitude of levels. We graze a lot of alfalfa because a percentage of our property is sandy very droughty. Pod irrigation works as well, you can use, you know, adding water always helps. On the public land side what we’ve experienced, especially when we’ve been grazing warm season grasses, that they do have a place within the grazing system. Why? Because warm season grasses, they like it when it’s hot, they grow well when it’s hot and dry. Some of the issues with the warm season grasses is it takes a number of years to get them established. And unless you’re, I’m going to say land rich, it’s hard to plant, you know, plant a group of seeds and wait for three years before you really get a productive crop out of it. And so diversity across your pastures will help manage drought situations, excess of water situations. And it’s really the art of grazing tied in with the species of what you have. If somebody’s attempting to start a grazing farm, where there’s been extensive corn and soybean production. Don’t graze what grows, because you won’t be happy with it, you’re going to need to put seed into the ground to get a good sward that’s a good nutritional mix. Because we’re also looking for nutrition, right? To keep the livestock whether it’s goats, sheep, hogs, beef, cattle, dairy cattle, young stock, older stock, we really want to provide them the best feed possible. And having a good eclectic mix will help kind of armor you against some of these drought conditions that we’re experiencing now.
Michael Geissinger 26:55
It’s always fun to talk about all these different ways that grazing systems can hone in on their resilience and adapt to different conditions that we’re faced with in different years and how well livestock can perform on that. But I do want to start kind of wrapping up and bringing us home. So I’ll ask you guys a question that we tend to ask a version of in every episode of field notes. And that is just, if you had one piece of advice for someone that might be interested in adopting a grazing system or improving their current grazing system, what would it be? And then Mary C you will have you answer that first.
Mary C Anderson 27:35
One Piece, only one piece?
Michael Geissinger 27:37
On piece, maybe two.
Will Fulwider 27:40
That one piece can have a lot of parts. Yeah.
Mary C Anderson 27:43
Yes, definitely. There’s two things I really want to hone in on. One of them is soil sampling. Just because you’re entering a managed grazing system. It’s not like the pasture systems of old, where it’s wasteland. It’s maybe too steep to farm, maybe too wet to farm. If you’re putting your pasture system on good, productive ag land, that is going to be your ticket to win. Pay attention, manage your soils, don’t forget good soil science is good soil science, right. Also get linked up with a grazing network. Because there the mechanics of a grazing system are relatively simple. There’s fence, there’s electricity, and there’s tools to move the livestock, right? Water systems laneways. The mechanics are very simple. But there’s art involved in managed grazing. And that’s where having that peer support from a grazing network, a farmer in your neighborhood who’s a seasoned grazier can really help you avoid some of the stumbling blocks that you may encounter. Because graziers love to talk about successes, and they love to talk about failures. And it’s a great way to ensure that they can improve their existing or really get off on the right foot and development of a grazing system on their property. Kevin, what was what is that? The one piece of advice that you want to share?
Kevin Mahalko 29:34
The one piece, you know, let’s think honestly with the way farming is the absolute number one best thing I love about grazing is just the people, you know, meeting meeting somebody like Mary in the grazing networks and you know, getting getting all these great pieces of advice and I think having a this attitude of just continuous learning in you know, listening and seeing, observing everything that’s that’s what makes a really a great farmer and a great grazier. And then, you know, we have that. And I think it’s, you know, when I think back to like, say 30 years ago, there’s been, you know, markets are developed, there’s just so much more knowledge, and just a ton of people that we can we can visit with. And I think that’s, that’s the number one thing I would, I would say, in, in on the farm on the grazing farming side of it, the way that you can make it to some of these meetings is absolutely develop a good efficient fencing system. I don’t care how like, like how fancy or expensive it is, but it has to be effective. And it has to get done in time so that you can do all these other things. That’s, that’s just an absolute key. Working, I think you really also have to have a love for the livestock that’s on my my side is working in dairy. I really do like to dairy cows that I liked the equipment, but it’s, you know, it’s kind of that’s not the driver. I love hay equipment. It’s I The more the more time I don’t have the tractor the better at this point. So that thing like an ATV or whatever bike that things, things that just make all of these movements easier. I consider that as part of my fencing management tools.
Will Fulwider 31:46
Yeah, well, words of advice from the experts, and a shameless plug for Kevin’s organization talking about grazing networks. If you’re interested in connecting with your local grazing networks, you know, go ahead and visit grassworks.org to find out who’s grazing in your neighborhood and who you can talk to asking advice or just contact Kevin. Well, Kevin, and Mary, C. Thanks so much for coming on today. We really appreciate it.
Kevin Mahalko 32:16
Happy grazing everybody
Will Fulwider 32:26
Thanks for listening. This has been field notes from UW Madison extension. My name is Will Fulwider regional crops educator for Dane and Dodge counties. And I was joined by my co host Michael Geissinger outreach specialists in Northwest Wisconsin for the nutrient and pest management program of UW Madison. A big thank you to Joe Ryan for creating our theme music and Abby Wilkymacky for our logo. If you have any questions about anything you’ve heard today, about your farming practices in general, reach out to the extension agriculture educators serving your region.