Is year-round grazing possible in the rugged hill country of Steuben County? John Burns thinks so and is putting a lot of planning and effort to do so. John along with wife, Anne, and their children get this optimism from using a technique known as mob grazing. “We see it as a way to be truly profitable and environmentally friendly at the same time,” said Burns.
This method of grazing that mimics the high animal densities and movement of vast herds who used to roam the prairies was the focus of a twilight pasture walk by The Tri-County Graziers Group. A large contingent of farmers from around New York and Pennsylvania came to learn what it takes to implement a multi-species grazing regime on marginal soils. In introducing the Burn’s family, Schuyler County Cornell Cooperative Extension Specialist, Brett Chedzoy said, “I’ve always been impressed by John’s tenacity to try new things and figure out how to make it fit on the landscape”.
The operation centers around exclusively leasing 180 acres of pasture and hay-land from his dad and some neighboring fields. This is home to 30 cow-calf pairs, an equal amount of grass-finished steers, a flock of 120 Katahdin ewes and lambs, pastured poultry, hogs and vegetables that are sold locally and to the New Holland PA Livestock Auction. “We actually downsized the cow herd briefly and added more sheep because they are way more efficient in producing a sellable product quicker for our markets. Now we’re putting a lot of emphasis at rebuilding our cattle genetics from the Wye Angus bloodline that is an efficient, predictable gene pool which we purchased from Black Queen Angus farm, Angus Glen farm and Diamond D Ranch”, said Burns.
“The key to our goal of year-round grazing is to figure out the balance of grazing land to animal numbers and needs, said John. To many, it looks like we have a lot of wasted forage out there but we need this standing feed as our winter and early spring forage. We’ve found that by employing mob grazing, it gives us the potential to get through a season with limited hay feeding”.
John showed the group what he meant by the term, “mob”, when all the cattle and sheep bunched up in a “flerd” (Sheep and cattle grazing together). Farmers saw first-hand how a 1.6 acre paddock was divided up into eight daily, .2 acre subdivisions with what John figured was 425,000 lbs./bodyweight/move. “The idea is to give them fresh feed often which accentuates animal performance and tramples grass on the ground to armor the soil and feed the microbes”, said John.
He then brought the group to various paddocks so everyone could judge future grazeable forage based on grazing impact and recovery periods. One could see the effect on growth from one, two and multiple paddock shifts within a field. He then moved the flerd into the last slice of tall grass so fellow farmers could see the herd dynamic and grazing habits of 200 animals competing for grasses, legumes and forbs.
As the light faded, John shared his two ingredients for improvement. He did a “do over” on his perimeter fencing system so it would allow for maximum flexibility within a field so he could easily subdivide with portable fencing and adjust for animal numbers and recovery times. “It needed to be simpler and now with a central laneway and portable water it has reduced labor and brought us soil improvements” said Burns.
He touted mob grazing as the tool with the biggest impact. He complimented South African Rancher, Ian Mitchell-Innes and Albany County’s Winter Green-up Grass Conference for helping to focus on grazing for more energy by allowing the animals the luxury of only grazing the top third of the plants and trampling the rest. “Mob grazing saves us on hay feeding, eliminates the summer slump, and improves animal performance and soil fertility. I especially appreciate the explosion of grassland birds and wildlife that debug our pastures. When we focus on grazing management whereby the animals harvest the most energy, everyone blooms as a result”, emphasized John.
Brett Chedzoy added, “The power of livestock to improve land is very evident at this farm.” “This pasture walk showed me mob grazing is a viable way to build soil and confirms how to incorporate this method on my farm”, said Lori Thomas from Winding Road farm in Woodhull, NY.
Phil Race from Valley View Devons in Nunda, NY echoed the tips he gained. “I liked the way he had his water system set up and how he was moving animals without a back-fence. I thought you always had to move the water with the animals. It was well worth the 1 ½ hour trip”.
The Tri-County Graziers group is a grassroots network of farmers seeking to promote progressive pasture-based livestock production which is supported by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Steuben and Schuyler Counties, and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition. For more information about upcoming events, please contact Kerri Bartlett of Steuben CCE by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or at 607-664-2300.
Previously published in Country Folks West