Articles on forages, animals, and grazing systems
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Extension Forage Specialist
University of Kentucky
Phone: (859) 257-3358 Fax: (859) 323-1952
Extension Beef Cattle Specialist
University of Kentucky
Phone: (859) 257-2853 Fax: (859) 257-3412
Greg Brann, owner and operator of Big Spring Farm, emphasizes overall diversity on his farm which is located on the Kentucky/Tennessee boarder. His efforts to increase farm diversity not only apply to forages, but also to livestock. Greg rotationally grazes cattle, sheep, and goats in one large herd. A large variety of forages including both cool-season and warm-season species are strategically seeded for grazing and land management. No fertilizer is applied to pastures and forages are only harvested by grazing. Fertility is monitored by soil tests and all fields are maintained in medium to high level. Lime is applied as needed to maintain a pH of 6.2 or higher. Greg strives for his operation to be “an easily managed, low input grazing operation that improves production and improves the environment while being consistently profitable.”
The multiple livestock species are stocked at an approximate rate of 70,000 pounds per acre. The 16 permanent pastures on the property are split into 45 paddocks with the use of temporary fence. Watering locations, which are available in each paddock, are often moved to promote more intense grazing in areas of a paddock which are being under-utilized. The herd is usually moved every 3 days depending on current conditions and paddocks are given around a 60 day rest period. Typically the grazing height is maintained at 4” or higher.
Each paddock has a large variety of grasses and legumes which allows for high quality feed to be available throughout the year while reducing overgrazing. Cool-season species include orchardgrass, ryegrass, tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, timothy, prairie bromegrass, ryegrass, chicory, vetch, Australian winter peas, alfalfa, red clover, white clover, and the native species Virginia wildrye. The variety of prairie bromegrass seeded on the farm is Persister bromegrass which is known to establish easily and grows where manure has been deposited heavily. Warm-season species include bermudagrass, crabgrass, corn, annual lespedeza and native grasses including eastern gamagrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indiangrass. Cereal rye and oats are also grown for fall and winter grazing. Much of the plants reseed themselves and Greg also broadcasts and drills some seed. Greg has the highest success when broadcasting annual ryegrass and prairie bromegrass in September, October, November or February, March. He only drills in the fall in areas that have less than a 50% stand of grass. In perennial grass stands with 50% or more ground cover, clover is overseeded by broadcast in February. Warm-season grasses are drilled into in cool-season annuals and/or thin stands of tall fescue in May and June. In July and August German millet or browntop millet are drilled. Greg explains that it is best to drill these species as he has had minimal success with broadcast seeding.
He explains that he keeps seed in his truck at all times and always scatters seed on any bare spots he notices in the pastures. Greg attempts to turn the herd in when plants are in the early boot stage. Some hay is fed in September while pastures are allowed to stockpile for winter grazing. When necessary, Greg utilizes one paddock as a sacrifice paddock attempting to use a different paddock each year as the sacrifice paddock.
The idea to add goats to the operations stemmed from the many briars and bushes on the property which goats prefer to browse. After researching, Greg discovered that two goats per one cattle can be grazed without negatively impacting the cattle performance and the possibility that it may improve grazing for the cattle. At the start, Greg did not have any knowledge of raising goats and lost several head to Listeria and other adaptation disorders as well as dealing with parasite issues.
Over the years of trial and error and gathering knowledge and experience, Greg successfully grazes multiple species with low cost and low stress.
Greg explained how multi-species grazing has increased his production, reduced his stress load, and has provided other benefits to his land and operation. Grazing sheep, goats, and cattle allows for a larger use of forages as each species is unique in how they graze and what they choose to graze. This practice also largely contributes to weed control as the small ruminants prefer to graze weedy forbs. Greg rarely applies herbicides and only does so in critical situations. He occasionally sprays along fence rows or spot sprays. The reasoning for grazing one large, mixed herd includes, “longer rest periods for pastures (reduces internal parasite load), one stop for feeding guardian dogs, one stop for feeding hay, more power on less fence, less fence to check, and a higher stocking density for a shorter period of time.”
Greg discussed the obstacles he has faced with multi-species grazing. When adding small ruminants to the operation, fencing alterations had to be made to accommodate these species. A good, high tensile, perimeter fence was of utmost importance. On this farm, 4 inch woven wire with one strand of hot wire on top is used for permanent fencing in holding areas or where long term animal containment is needed. Cross-fencing is usually a three wire temporary fence. When grazing sheep and goats, the possibility of loss to predators increases. To protect these livestock,
Greg keeps multiple guardian dogs with the herd as well as a donkey. Having the cattle with the small ruminants also contributes to predator control. One occasional threat Greg has faced is lambs being trampled by cattle when animals are moved into new pastures. This is a fairly rare occurrence. When grass is too tall for small ruminants to see over it, they will often avoid going far into the thick growth which can cause spot grazing. To reduce this, several trails or “access strips” are cut throughout the paddock. The sheep and goats will follow these trails and graze a few feet into the thick growth. Another obstacle is supplying necessary minerals. This can be difficult as sheep cannot tolerate the amount of copper that is included in cattle mineral supplements. Greg raises Katahdin hair sheep which have a higher tolerance than wool sheep and he takes his chances with allowing access to mineral supplements with 100 ppm copper. The type of waterers used can also create a problem. If ball waterers are used, goats and sheep, especially goat kids, may not have the strength to push down the ball. Leaving a gap around the ball or keeping the ball depressed helps. Greg has many different types of waterers on the farm including ball waterers, tire troughs, open goat troughs, and rubber maid 50 gallon troughs but prefers to use tire troughs.
Greg warns that it is important to keep the water level high and have something like concrete blocks in tanks so lambs and kids can escape if they fall in. This is particularly important in troughs deeper than 12”. Lastly, erosion problems in gullies and drains are a problem in some areas. Greg explained that these areas serve as a “playground” to the goats as they often tend to prefer rocky, sloped topographies. Greg is in the process of trying to reduce this impact by reducing the time animals have access to these areas.
Greg explains that every time he enters a pasture he evaluates the impacts and improvements of management and determines what is needed to improve the economics, environment, and community dynamics of the operations. He finds working with the land and nature to be fun and rewarding.
Greg will host a pasture walk on Big Spring Farm on September 28, 2012 starting at 9:00 AM central time. For more information contact Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org.