Jana Malot might be retired, but she’s hardly sitting still. After a 30-year career with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service as a state grassland conservationist, Jana is spending more time with her beef cattle and the land on which they graze.
Jana and her husband Clem raise beef cattle on about 300 acres in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, where rolling hills mean plenty of grazing land. With extensive experience in grassland management along with knowledge gleaned from others in the field, Jana has developed a system of grazing management that is constantly evolving as she observes both her cattle and the land they graze.
The home farm includes 75 acres divided into 23 fenced paddocks; each with a year-round water supply. “I’ve tried a lot of things here,” said Jana. “Some of it started with nutrient management of pastures and trying to figure out phosphorus loading – how do you stock a pasture and deal with phosphorus?”
After doing some calculations using book values, Jana determined that if a pasture is grazed properly all summer and cows winter on the same pasture, when the cow pies get close enough that a cow can’t lie down without laying on a pie, enough phosphorus (from manure) has been applied for the next year’s grass. “I looked at number of days the cows were on the pasture, how big the cows were, what the manure had in it based on what they had grazed in summer,” said Jana, explaining what her research revealed. “Then we soil test to see whether phosphorus is accumulating or staying the same.”
Like other graziers, Jana says that cattle do well on orchardgrass. The farm also includes some bluegrass, clover and fescue; with fescue reserved for grazing in November and December. A five-acre pasture of warm season grasses includes switchgrass, big bluestem and little bluestem. “When the cool season grasses start to green up, I’ll put the cattle there because the warm-season grasses are dormant until about mid-May,” Jana explained. “I let them overgraze the cool season grasses because it knocks them back. I let the warm season paddock grow to about 10 to 12 inches tall before they graze it for the first time. You have to make sure it’s grazed down to the height you want it to be at the end of the year. If you don’t, it gets too coarse and fibrous, and the next time you go in and graze to that height, the cattle won’t graze it any shorter because the coarse stems poke their noses.”
Jana says the protein in the warm season grasses is 12 percent at best. “The clover in with the switchgrass raises the protein to about 14 percent,” she said. “As long as there’s heat and rain, it grows like corn. I keep grazing it about every 30 days, not too short, and once it starts to go to head, I let it reseed. Once the seed heads start to loosen up, I let them go back in and glean it off, then overgraze the cool-season grasses before winter.”
The Malot’s second farm, which is also used to pasture beef cattle, is accessible by a deep-cut road that was originally part of the never-completed South Penn Railroad system. Jana can easily move the cattle down the road with only a poly wire at the end to prevent them from moving in the wrong direction. The working facility at that farm was previously used for bison, and includes heavy-duty panels and chutes. The rolling hills form a natural low spot for a pond, with a solar panel providing power to pump water to the top of the hill. “The water is gravity-fed to the hydrants, and there’s a freeze-proof trough below the pond that the cows have been drinking out of this winter,” said Jana.
The cowherd is comprised of Shorthorn and Shorthorn x Angus crosses; all bred to an Angus bull from Penn State. “I keep the females that are meeting what I’d like to see as far as genetics,” said Jana, adding that growth and size are among her selection criteria. “I watch calves’ birth weights and select replacement heifers with low birth weights.”
Jana says a beef genetics class she took as a Penn State student helped her see the value of certain heritable traits. “We discussed heritability — like mothering ability, which ties into femininity and appearance,” she said. “If a cow doesn’t look feminine, chances are they may not be a good mother and may not milk well. Structure and correctness of feet and legs is also a highly heritable trait.”
The cowherd is bred for April and May calves. “I tried May/June calving, but it was too hot,” said Jana. “I used to have them on lush grass all the time, but was having trouble with scours from the grass being too rich. It was more than they needed. I learned from the range guys that taller grass would be better, and now calves don’t get scours anymore.”
Jana believes the flavor of grass-fed beef is related more to the time it takes to finish the animal rather than the feed itself. Feeder cattle are wintered on high-quality, second-cut legume forage and marketed privately or taken to Masonic Village for finishing.
“I always finish some calves on grass for customers who prefer that,” said Jana. “I have some loyal customers, and I tried to switch them to grain-fed beef, but they don’t want it – they love the taste of grass-fed.”