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Livestock Grazing: The Organic Farmer’s Dilemma

By Gary Zimmer

Livestock grazing organically is one of the hardest things to do, and a dilemma for most organic farmers. Why do most farmers farm the way they do? Because it’s easy — easy to spray, easy to buy technology, easy to plant with a no-till machine.

But it’s not always easy to make money, provide quality food, or be sustainable.

And about the way farmers care for their livestock? Locking them in a small box, calculating the “perfect ration,” and keeping it “simple”? When problems do show up, grab a drug — that’s easy! It’s a routine that can be taught. It’s certainly easy to get production and volume, but what about the well-being of that animal? And if we are what we eat, we have a problem.

And then there is organic farming. Is it easy? Well, the “not doing things” part is easy. If I just stopped all the negative practices and things went great, then organic would be easy, too. But is that a sustainable system for feeding the world and producing quality food? Organic can produce crops that yield as much as any other production system, but in more sustainable, environmentally friendly ways, providing better quality food while using less energy.

To be successful is not easy. It requires intensive management. There are certain principles you can’t violate in the healthy, mineralized, biological farming system. It takes knowledge, it takes an investment, it takes doing as many things successfully as you can with the tools you have.

angus calf
An Angus calf grazes.

Being successful requires managing chemical, physical and biological properties. Managing chemistry means keeping an active supply of a balance of minerals in an exchangeable form in the soil. To do this takes soil biology, a diverse population of living creatures that are well fed and managed and are being fed a balanced, diverse diet. It also takes a well-aerated soil with lots of active carbon providing that soil life with an ideal home and the food they need. This system is more complex, and one size doesn’t fit everyone; there’s no box to put it into, no simple routine.

When this complete biological system works, for the most part we don’t need the drugs or the plant protective materials to grow that healthy mineralized crop.

And what about livestock? What principles can’t you violate there?

Cattle need minerals, in adequate amounts and in a balance, just as the soil does. If minerals are in short supply in the feeds (dairy nutrition starts in the soil), you will certainly need to add supplements to the diet. Ration balancing comprises knowing what the animal needs, what it’s eating, and then adding what’s short and diluting what’s in excess.

The problem with this simplistic system is that there are variations in mineral sources and availability. Are all mineral sources the same? Is there a difference between the nutrition coming from a healthy, mineral-rich, highly digestible plant versus that from stones taken out of the ground versus synthetic sources? Do we balance our rations as if all sources are the same? We all try to achieve the same numbers to balance the diet. Yet farmers can have success even when it seems like they are not following the numbers, but instead using other sources and amounts, by accident or by design.

For us on Otter Creek Organic Farm, mineral management starts with a soil test. Where cows graze, many farms have excess manure from the cattle and they don’t need to add more N, P or K. But there is a need for other nutrients — calcium, sulfur, magnesium and the trace elements — all are a part of the cow’s nutrition. She needs minerals and while you can buy them, the best place for a cow to get this is from the forages she eats.

What we supplement in the barn is what’s missing or out of balance in the forage/pasture. We need the right tools plus the knowledge of how much, when and how to use them. How do you recognize if the ration is out of balance and violating the principles of the cow? Production and health suffer. Cows get thin and won’t breed back because they are milking beyond your capability as a farmer and grazier. (Or conversely, you could downgrade your genetics to match your management.)

Feeding cows on pasture, and proudly surveying your herd out in the field, looks great and sounds easy. After all, cows get to be cows. But doing this successfully while maintaining milk quality and quantity takes time and the right situation, dedication and knowledge. Providing what the consumer wants is what makes farming fun and a challenge.

Key Livestock Grazing Issues

Identifying the two most common problem areas concerning fertilizers and the soil is easy: nitrogen and potassium. These are also the most commonly used fertilizer materials. They are highly soluble and get into plants easily, which means there are often problems with excesses.

MUN (milk urea nitrogen) levels, blood nitrogen levels, excess dietary protein, free nitrogen from too much N, combined with a lack of sulfur, are major issues for the cow. Soils low in active organic matter lack buffering capability and make problems worse, but no matter what, excess nitrogen is a problem. I don’t know very many graziers who don’t face these issues at least some part of the year.

You as a farmer are always dealing with carbon and nitrogen in the soil and achieving the proper balance is challenging. Cows are the same. We want to see highly digestible forages, which are also usually high in protein (N). But then the forage would be short of carbon, or energy, which means the cows will have health problems and get thin. (And I’m not sure how good the milk is with those high MUNs — that nitrogen can’t be good for us humans, either.)

Finding this balance is the primary job on grazing farms, and it’s not easy. It’s especially difficult in early spring when the pressure is on to get cows grazing as soon as possible, even though forages are young and high in nitrogen. We can add molasses, feed more grain, or supplement extra carbon, such as charcoal, which helps by holding and balancing the free nitrogen.

Adding dry hay to the diet is another good idea as cows need effective fiber. We want hay that the cows will eat and that they can produce on, but neither too good (too high in protein), nor too coarse, too old nor too rank, and certainly not moldy. For this reason, at at our own farm we like hay with grass in it and 15-17 percent protein. We use mostly balage (baled sileage), selecting feed that is drier (with 35 percent moisture) and saving it for early spring feeding. If this is not possible, then we’ll actually add straw to the ration — good, clean straw at a pound or so per cow. Some farmers like barley straw, but regardless of the kind, it should be good, clean straw. It provides the cow with the effective fiber she needs for cud chewing and is also a very low-protein, complex carbon source.

So now you have some ideas on the first problem, nitrogen, and some ways to deal with it. Remember, you cannot violate the principles of the cow – and for a grazier this is not easy.

The second issue, potassium, is again a problem of excess, especially for those close-to-the-barn grazing paddocks. Manure is dropped where the cow grazes, usually in limited areas around where the cows eat. Beef cattle which are spread out on large ranches probably don’t have this problem. What do you do about these excess nutrients, especially potassium, which interfere with the mineral balance? High potassium can lead to low energy and mineral imbalances in the feed; one symptom is grass tetany early in the spring. To compensate, cows will need extra magnesium. And always remember, such a high potassium pasture is not a good place to keep a dry cow — you’d better buy some low-potassium hay to counterbalance such feed. Dealing with potassium is not easy, but it’s a must if you want high-production, healthy cows that get pregnant and give top quality milk.

The Organic Grazing Standards

I’ve talked about two of the problems with grazing, but what do these two issues have to do with the new grazing standards for certified organic production? One word … success. If you don’t both understand these issues and have a plan to deal with them — now that you are being forced to graze — you have a problem.

My belief is that if you are going to graze (and in some cases, if you are being forced to graze), then you must become skilled at it. It’s not as simple as opening the gate and chasing the cows out into the field.

On our 200-cow organic farm, meeting the NOP grazing standard is not a problem. For years we’ve been doing all we can to graze as much as possible, starting early in the season with cereal rye and ending with stockpiled feeds and fall crops such as oats and brassicas. We have been learning, slowly at first, how to deal with grazing, growing crops for grazing and rotation management. It’s an art with some science thrown in and a lot of common sense, which unfortunately highly uncommon on farms where there’s no desire to graze or learn about grazing. This doesn’t mean that those farmers aren’t good with cows within their current system. But this new system, where cows must have access to pasture for 30% of their dry matter intake and where you must have a workable record keeping system to prove you’re meeting that standard, is a major change, and not an easy one.

For example, do you graze short, when pasture is 8 inches tall, or grazer taller, more mature plants? Plant height and density are also important, so that the cow gets significant value with every mouthful she takes. After all, she can only take so many bites each day, as she also needs time to rest and chew her cud. Remember, it’s not about what’s available in the pasture, but about the actual quantity of feed eaten. Every day is different when grazing, and it’s not easy to make all of these decisions, each of which is important.

As I write this article it’s raining, which presents new challenges. This 2 1/2 inches of rain meant the cows had to stay in overnight and be fed total mixed ratio, or TMR. Cows hate change, but as graziers we have to be flexible to changing conditions. Meanwhile, the main pasture is getting too mature, and in another field the sorghum-sudan grass we planted (after an early spring grazing of fall rye) is not yet ready for the cows. Even if it was, it’s too muddy and we can’t let the cows out there or they’ll ruin the field. Now because of the weather that field will get away from us. There are simply times — like right now during this rainy spell — that we need to cut and bale forages because grazing can’t keep up with the growth. We may even pre-cut (by four hours, allowable under the NOP rules) and lay the pasture out before turning the cows in to graze. Sometimes that’s what’s needed to keep everything working.

So the real question with the new organic grazing standard — which I’m convinced is a blessing in the long run — is whether you are going to try to make it easy and do the minimum grazing to meet the standard or whether you will become a real grazier.

At Otter Creek Organic Farm, we are graziers, and we absolutely will not have trouble meeting the standard of 30 percent dry matter intake from pasture, while maintaining our milk production and quality, too. We have been at this for ten years, getting better and smarter as we go along. Knowing when to change to prevent problems is not easy. It takes the eye of a master.

Our biggest problem will likely be the paperwork to show — and prove— what we’re doing. You see, the only easy thing I want on our farm is the paperwork and record keeping, so we are developing our own easy-to-complete, easy-to-follow forms to help us along. Everything else should require thought, consideration and knowledge.

Following the rules and meeting the standards, for the most part, isn’t difficult if you really want to be a grazier. Having a pasture management plan and managing the pastures as a crop is what we’ve been doing for years, but like many farmers, our plan is in our heads and not on paper.

Meeting the 120-day, 30 percent dry-matter-intake requirement won’t be a problem on our farm. We have our TMR and know the number of cows being fed and how much they eat. As pastures grow and more feed becomes available, we remove balage from the TMR. This gives us a pretty good record of dry matter intake (DMI) from the pasture. We also monitor body condition, milk production and pregnancy rates.

Eventually (unless a lot of rain shows up) we get to the point where we’re feeding no balage at all, just the corn silage at 8 pounds dry matter (DM), grains (mostly corn) at 12 pounds DM with 1 pound roasted soybeans and dry hay or straw at 2 pounds of DM. We’re feeding Holsteins and normal winter dry matter intake is in the low- to mid-50 pounds-per-day range.

Doing the math, we are over 50 percent DM coming from pasture almost the entire summer. We start grazing at only 10 percent DM intake, building up as the summer progress, dropping back in the fall and ending up back at 10% DM intake. And that’s with 180 days of grazing.

Our dry cows, heifers and even calves (except for the younger ones) are on pasture with 5 pounds grain/mineral supplement plus a 75 percent pasture diet with an occasional dry hay bale. If this doesn’t work for your farm, switching to fall calving makes it easier to meet the standards (and also helps with the spring milk flush). Fall calving keeps the dry cow on 75 percent forage intake for 60 days during peak grazing time. If land is short, move her to pasture elsewhere. I have seen this done successfully in both South Africa and Australia.

Because of the difficulty of knowing exactly what and how much minerals the grazing cow is getting, in addition to the highly digestible feeds high in minerals (which deliver minerals more efficiently), we offer our cattle free-choice mineral. The numbers nutritionists use for ration balancing were not determined using a pasture that’s in a highly mineralized, rich-forage farming system. We don’t precisely follow those set numbers because we operate differently. When grazing, there is no exact number for what that cow ate and what nutrients she got from what she ate, so a computer-generated “perfect” ration isn’t actually very helpful. We do the best we can, then let the cows help us see what they need through free-choice supplementation. If the cow lacks something, she will go for it, just like she’ll crave salt if her diet needs it. Her free-choice behavior alerts us to needed ration changes. Again, it’s not by-the-book easy. We also do like feeding our extras for health and digestion as well: kelp, yeast, direct-fed microbials, charcoal, Dynamin, extra vitamin E, and selenium. Prevention is key.

We also free-choice feed throughout the winter months providing the basics of calcium, phosphorous, carbon, salt, kelp and a clay buffer. We have a system and we know it’s working; our proof is our healthy, productive, pregnant cows.

There will be some farms, some places, and some situations where meeting the NOP grazing requirement will be difficult because of high cattle numbers, a shortage of land, or weather that’s too hot, too dry, or too cold. Farmers will have to develop creative ways to meet the standards. For those who are organic and not grazing or not wanting to, I believe that this rule may be a blessing in disguise.

The consumer, right or wrong, is paying higher prices for organics expecting things like quality foods and cow comfort. To satisfy them, we have to let that cow be a cow. Instead of doing little or no grazing as has been the case, everyone is now forced to enter the grazing game.

To be successful, get creative!

In conclusion, for successful farming and grazing don’t violate the principles of the soil or the principles of the cow:

  1. Have a soil fertility program, testing both soils and plants; farm to promote soil life; and deal with soil aeration.
  2. Pay attention to protein and energy; keep C:N in balance.
  3. Lower protein, highly digestible corn silage and/or summer annuals fit most farms, combined with excellent, highly digestible pastures.
  4. Provide effective fiber, dry hay or straw.
  5. Supplement minerals and free choice.
  6. Don’t forget the water.
  7. Get smart. Grazing is an art. You need the keen eye of a master.

Zimmer runs his own organic and biological consulting company, Zimmer Ag. His farm, Otter Creek Organic Farm, is in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. He is the co-author, with his daughter Leilani Zimmer-Durand, of the books The Biological Farmer and Advancing Biological Farming, both available at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore. He is a frequent and popular speaker at Acres U.S.A. events and annual Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show.