Friday, June 21, 2024
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Regenerative Agriculture Pioneers: Tips from the Legends

This week’s article collection is a little heftier than usual. In fact, there are eight articles, all inspired by the featured video: Regenerative Agriculture Pioneers, Tips From the Legends. It’s the second in a series from the  Louisiana Grazing Land Conservation Initiative. (See the first here.)

The video is jam-packed with 200 years’ worth of lessons-learned. That’s a lot for a 15-minute video to hold and a lot to absorb. So to make it easier for you to catch everything, I included a transcript that highlights key points in green. And to add depth, I’ve linked to articles that expand on the topics these grazing legends speak about.

On Pasture author Don Ashford is one of the graziers featured in this video. His experience and advice are the basis for On Pasture’s Grazing 101 ebook. It covers the topics found in this video and a lot more. It’s free and you can download it here.

And with that – here you go!

Transcript

Many people in the agriculture industry will tell you that farming and ranching isn’t about chasing profit.

Cliff Vining, Pioneer, Louisiana Rancher: I ain’t never seen a hearse with an armored car behind it.

It’s a calling, a connection deep within their souls.

Cliff Vining: It’s just part of me.

However they also understand that in order to sustain their way of life and ensure a future for generations to come, financial ability is crucial.

Don Ashford, Ethel, Louisiana Rancher: If you ever going to make any money, it’s if the cattle is supporting itself.”

But forging a path to sustainability required more than passion these men had to innovate and rethink every aspect of their operations.

Right-Size Your Livestock

J.A. Girgenti, Amite, Louisiana Rancher: The larger Farms are going have the economy of scale, what economists call this economy of scale. You can lower your cost of production per unit by having more of it. Whereas a guy with, you know, half the size acreage, he has to be much more on his toes, Ps and Qs as far as profit and loss to make it. You know the great thing about regenerative agriculture is that a guy with smaller acreage can historic can make a lot more. You can run 1000 pound cows as opposed to 1400 lb cows. Case in point the South poll. You know that’s the optimum weight and it’s just basic, you know, Common Sense you can maintain a 1000 lb cow so much less expensively than a 1400 lb cow.

Greg Judy has spent a lot of time explaining this concept and encouraging folks to adopt it so they can be more profitable too. Here’s just one example:

Right-Size Grassfed Cows

Buy low. Sell High.

Wedge Barthe, Norwood, Louisiana Rancher: So the auctioneer one day, we in there buying cows, and the auctioneer says, “Whoa! Wait a minute! Hold the phone!’ Everybody stop. Go everybody go get a cup of coffee. Go out to your truck and get a beer. Go do whatever you got to do. Wedge come down here. Just what in the Sam Hill are you buying?!”

I said, “I thought I was buying little steers, a bull.”

He said “Do you realize that not one of them has been the same color, the same make the same model?”

I said, ‘Yeah. But I can also tell you that them six guys on the front row wasn’t interested in them. And I’m paying 15 cents a pound less than they are. And when I bring it back in April the 12th,” cuz I was buying them in August, “I’ll bring it back in here April the 12th and it’ll bring the same price that they were paying for number ones the day I sell it.”

He said, “You can’t do that, son.”

I said, “Well I’m trying.”

Well I did it for four years and every year I made money. Every year I pay my note off early.

And the people in the office said, “How do you do this?”

Well first of all I started stocking at 800 pounds of animals per acre. Everybody else in the business, “You can’t put over 350 lbs of animals per acre.”

Why not? The grass is there. Why can’t you put more of them out there?” (Kathy’s note – Wedge reminds us all that you can’t just put more animals out without the proper knowledge or planning. Scroll down to “Plan your grazing” where Don Ashford tells us how he does it.)

They realize that by reducing their inputs and optimizing their practices they could pave the way for profitability without compromising their love for the land.

Don Ashford: “Somebody named me a weed that has been eradicated by spraying,” I said. “Is there one? I can’t name one. So my next question is why you do it?” Pasture management will do as much to the weed control is anything you can do.

Their Journey began with the land itself.

Don Ashford: The whole secret to this thing is to make your paddocks big enough to do what you want to do as far as feeding your cattle and everything and giving [the grass] time to grow back.”

Pasture management and rotational grazing weren’t just methods they were philosophies that embraced the land’s rhythm.

Don Ashford: And that time is the thing that most people don’t understand about this. It takes time. I can’t decide that I want to graze this pasture next Tuesday if there’s no grass here. So I got to wait. I got to have this thing set up to where I know there’s going to be grass.

Wedge Bathe: The manure that we keep in the paddock the cows stay in that paddock for specified amount of time they drop them manure in there and we’ll say that that cow will probably defecate at least three times in a graze period and then all of the microbiology that we’ve learned is in the soil and feeds on all of these things.

Build good fences and train your animals to respect them.

Electric fences became more than mere enclosures they were tools that enabled strategic grazing patterns and improved the health of the land.

Wedge Barthe: (You can watch Wedge demonstrating these fence building techniques at 4:50 in the video.) All right you go over the top underneath it like that come back through this hole and pull that tight. When you pull that tight you set it on your post you slide it up and you lock it right here. And then you take and go this way and you see I’ve bent a handle here you go around here five to six turns and when you finish you finish at the top right there like that. This is a donut insulator and I use them. I take this, I’d put it in the vise and I’d tie two wraps around and tie it. And that’s what I put my cross pieces on to hook my gate breaks into. So I’m not going to use that one. But I’ll show you one in a minute. To do this you come in here. You take and put that insulator here. You put your index finger right there and then you do this you pull it to that point right there. You see how it’s right in the center of the wire and then you twist it, put your handle in it [and break it off]. A lot of people tie these wrong they tie this one into this one and this one into this one right here and that’s stretching that insulator rather than compressing the insulator together and they break like hens teeth. [Kathy says, “Thanks for this, Wedge! I’ve done this wrong for a long time and, sure enough, those donuts break easily and often, even when they’re plastic!]

If you’d like to learn more about fencing knots, here’s an article with a set of videos:

Fencing How-Tos and Tips

Don Ashford: (You can see Don’s drawing of his training set up at 6:39 in the video.) To keep the cattle from ganging up in a corner like this I run the wire across here from this gate to this gate. I run the poly wire across here. Do the same thing here. All right this is the catch pen up here. When I bring those cattle from the sale barn I put them in this pen and I leave them there all night. The next morning I walk down there and I open the gate that comes out of the catch pen right here. Open this gate and I walk off. I leave. The water is here. The hay is here. This is this is poly wire right here with an opening right here. That’s the end of the wire right there. I’ve got everything else on the place shut off so I’m getting max out of [the energizer]. I’m getting seven-and-a-half and maybe eight. I’m getting everything I can get out of that energizer. All right there’s several things that’s happening. First thing, if you take cattle and turn them out, you bring them from the sale barn or out of the pasture or wherever, and you put them in a pen, what they going to do? They going to walk the fence. So I put this hay pretty close to where they can’t pass it (the fence). I put the water the same way. They walk the fence. But if they want to go to that hay they can’t go here because they got to go around here to to get it. And they’ll learn because nobody’s crowding them. They just walking on their own so if they want to come from the water and cut across here and go through that they going to walk up there. And when they see that wire and they stop and they get this for from it, if that thing’s maxing out, it’s going to shock them. It’s going to be a shocking experience. And you leave them in here for 24 hours, 48 hours until you go down there and watch and pay attention and see that they pretty much quieted down and they used to this. They know that wire will shock them. They know everything in this place will shock them. So they hesitant about getting close to a fence.”

Don describes more about his training process in this article:

Teaching Livestock to Respect Electric Fences

Cliff Vining: A lot of our fences are single wire fences. We do not have a gate in them. Just turn them off, unclip them, and then snatch them little white posts out. Just drive through there and snatch them out of the ground and lay the wire on the ground. Let the cows go and they’ll go over it. Now my cows when they come to one up in the air, “oh no uh-uh we ain’t doing this no uh-uh.” I had a bunch one time that they spent 4 days looking at that wire up there. Hay and waterers on the other side, ain’t nothing where they at, but they wouldn’t cross under that water. Uh-uh we ain’t doing this. But you take it throw it on the ground, they walk right over it. But they would not go under.”

“So you train them.”

Yeah they got to be trained. They just like anything else. It’s got to be trained. That’s like a kid. Kids got to be trained. Dogs got to be trained. Cows got to be trained. Biggest problem with cows, in a system like this, is not training the cows. It’s training the man.

You will find out that it is not necessary to have a five-strand barb wire fence on the inside.

Wedge Barthe: It took Sammy and I over 20 years to believe in electric fence. We put a single stand offset on our bull lot we had. And they never got out again. I’ve been a believer ever since.

Cliff Vining: There are a lot of things that you learned, that they sold me when I started out, that over time I have found it ain’t necessary.

They didn’t care about doing things the usual way if it didn’t work for them.

Plan your grazing.

Don Ashford: I just want to say this about these grazing sticks. I know a lot of people make fun of them. But if you learn the information on this thing…

If you plant Rye grass and you get a good stand you’ll have 150 to 250 lbs of Dy matter forage per acre inch so if you take off 3 inches or 6 inches of Rye grass, you going to have three times that so you’ll have 450 or 750 pounds.

All right what, why do I need to know that? How much feed is out there for how many cows or calves I’m going to put out there? That’s how you size these paddocks these paddocks are not built just because ‘oh I think I’ll run a wire there and I think I’ll run a wire.’ There’s a reason they’re as big as they are. The other thing you need to know about sizing your paddocks is how much does each animal need when you put them out there?

Don writes about how to use a grazing stick here:

The Grazing Stick: Tool or Toy?

On Pasture also has a full series on grazing planning and we share free grazing charts every Spring. To get you started, here’s how Troy Bishopp figures how much forage he has and how much his livestock need.

A Walk Through of How to Use Your Grazing Chart

Just as they were stewards of the land they became architects of their herds.

J.A. Girgenti: I’ve always been passionate about raising cattle and trying to build a little bit better animal every year by selective breeding and selecting the right sires.

Cliff Vining: And in the bull I want longevity, low cost, survivor. About that wide across the bike and long, stretchy and got the appeal that I like in the right color – y’all leave his in them.

By selecting cattle genetics tailored to their operations they ensured a harmonious balance between the animals and the environment.

J.A. Girgenti: It’s all intertwined. You can’t have one without the other.

Grazing hacks are worth their weight in gold.

Thrifty innovations also took center stage.

Cliff Vining: (Talking about his catch pen set up.) I scrapped up the pipe. Bring the cattle in this alley right here, and they turn and go down through there, and they get down there and they they run out of room to go shut the gate for to come in and we bring them right back down the side and they think they’re going back out. It’s easier to handle them.

Wedge Barthe: I’m going to show you my latest invention. All this is is a swimming pool floaty with a chlorine tablet in it. If you don’t get a lot of rain to dilute that water, just like any swimming pool, it gets that algae in it. [With the floaty] after 2 or 3 days all that algae be gone. It just kills it.”

Just for you, I searched “Grazing Hacks” in the On Pasture library.
Here’s what came up.

Rest is not a four-letter word.

They found ways to enrich the soil without breaking the bank, nuturing their land’s natural potential.

Don Ashford: If you graze the grass down to 90% of its height, roots stop growing for 17 days. So that’s why you talk about putting the grass on a 21-day or better rotation. The time that’s important is the time they are not there.

There’s two things you can do wrong. You can put them out there too quick because because the grass is not ready for them, or you can move them too quick and then you can bring them back too quick.

Dave Pratt has an excellent series in On Pasture on the importance of rest:

Rest is Not a 4-Letter Word – Timing for Pasture Recovery – Part 1

Pay attention and keep on learning.

They also relied on an age-old tool: observation.

Cliff Vining: We put just a little dab of urea on it to kickstart it but every time, and I’ve seen this before, when when this when this soil gets to the point that it’s… Now this is according to Dr Vining and this is visual observation, every time that we get a half inch of shower it look like you should hit it with a dose of fertilizer. Now that was the the moisture to take up decomposing microbes.

Our memories aren’t always reliable, so here’s an easy way to use your smart phone to help you be a better observer:

Easy Monitoring to Track Pasture and Rangeland Changes

This practical wisdom guided their choices ensuring their actions resonated with the land’s needs.

Don Ashford: What grazers don’t understand, it’s the hardest thing for them to do, is they do not trust their grass. They don’t think the grass will do what we tell them the they’ll do. They can’t envision today that they don’t have to buy a feed.

Cliff Vining: There’s so much to learn out there that you never quit learning.

J.A. Girgenti: The average age of the cattleman in Louisiana is probably in the late 60s or maybe early 70s you know. And so as that generation leaves and the next generation comes on, they’re going to be more accepting of of what we’re talking about.

Through their experiences and tireless dedication, these men have discovered a path that not only ensures a sustainable and profitable ranching business but also honors the heritage of this cherished way of life.

Wedge Barthe: I wasn’t always successful but in most cases it’s been a fairly good 8 second ride.

Don Ashford: I’ll show you anything you want to see till you want me to start pulling off clothes then we going to quit.

Cliff Vining: Course you get lit up every once in a while like a Christmas tree.

J.A. Girgenti: It’s mostly been poo pooed on by most people that you tell it to but…”

Wedge Barthe: That’s my supposition. Like the man said earlier that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

_______________________________________

If you came all the way down here looking for the funnies, well done! Here you go.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Vothhttps://onpasture.com
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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