Keith Tuck increases profitability with managed grazing

CM-MR-2-Keith Tuck 1by Karl H. Kazaks
MONETA, VA — The forecast was predicting winter weather — a mix of rain, freezing rain, and snow.

Just a few years previously, Keith Tuck would have been girding himself to brave the weather, to go out and spend two hours feeding hay — each and every day until the weather passed, and then continuing each and every day until April, when the grass started to grow again.

This time, Tuck planned to move the temporary electric fence that allows him to strip-graze stockpiled forage (mostly fescue with some clover).

“I can move the fence in 30 minutes by myself,” Tuck said. His plan was to move the fence before the weather hit.

Tuck switched to rotational grazing in 2010. That year, with cost-share help, he drilled a well, buried waterlines, and installed the waterers which were key to his transition from conventional grazing.

Previously Tuck’s 100-cow commercial cow-calf herd had access just to ponds and streams for water. Since his pastures were large, the areas furthest from the water weren’t being grazed efficiently. And there were the water quality concerns of having his cattle drink from steams.

The waterers allowed Tuck to fence out his streams and subdivide his large pastures into smaller paddocks. Some of his waterers are situated in 40 by 40 ft. corrals located in the middle of four paddocks. The corrals have a gate in each corner, allowing access to each paddock.

During the growing season, Tuck will graze in five to seven day intervals. He’s careful not to let his animals graze the sward to less than four inches in height, to allow for rapid regrowth. He also doesn’t let the animals stay on longer than a week, because he doesn’t want animals to start feeding on regrowth.

Sometimes Tuck will move his cattle when there is a foot or more of standing forage. He admits that can feel contrary to conventional wisdom, but he noted that having that stockpiled grass sure helps in the summer slump.

In the winter, since there is no regrowth to worry about, Tuck will let his cattle graze all available forage. He still wants them to graze efficiently, though, and thus strip grazes his paddocks with temporary electric fencing.

Tuck starts by giving his herd access to the portion of a paddock closest to a waterer, and then opens up more and more of the pasture. The animals do cross over already grazed ground to get to the waterers, but since it’s winter there is no worry the cattle will be affecting regrowth.

Tuck still feeds hay, but thanks to stockpiling he feeds 1/3 or less of what he used to. The last two years, he was able to keep his cows on forage until the end of February and fed only 125 bales each winter. Before moving to managed grazing, he would feed about 400 rolls per year.

Thanks to the dry weather this fall, Tuck doesn’t have as much grass stockpiled as the previous two years, but still figures to be able to graze up until the month of February.

The new feeding system has been a great labor and cost saver. Previously, Tuck was making several cuttings of hay on 120 or so acres. Now he makes only one cutting of hay on just 60 acres.

Tuck is even considering selling his hay equipment and buying all the hay he needs. Instead of making hay out of excess spring growth, he would instead buy a group of stockers. Hopefully, what he gains by running the stockers will be enough to cover the cost of the hay he would need to buy and realize some profit.

By getting out the hay making business, he figures, all the equipment he’ll need will be a tractor with a loader and a bush hog.

With less hay making, Tuck doesn’t spend as much money on fertilizer. Nowadays he only fertilizes the hay ground once in the spring, and some of the ground he intends to stockpile in the fall.

Because his cattle are grazing smaller pieces of ground at a time, there is better manure deposition — not concentrated by the sources of water and shade. After just three years, Tuck has already noticed a difference in how his fields are responding to the manure.

“It helps the grass come back faster,” he said.

With managed grazing, Tuck is seeing a large saving of labor and diesel fuel in the winter. As mentioned above, it’s the difference between spending two hours a day (and tractor fuel) feeding hay versus half an hour a week moving a temporary fence.

What’s more, last year Tuck tested his stockpiled forage and it had more protein and energy than his hay in the barn.

Tuck does get out with his cattle more frequently than once a week. He’ll move the free choice mineral feeder every two or three days, to keep the pasture around the feeder from being trampled.

Tuck’s herd is mostly black, with a few black baldies. It is Angus-based, but with the use of a Gelbvieh and a Balancer bull, he has been growing Balancer offspring.

“They grow a whole lot better and faster than straight Angus, I can see that,” Tuck said.
They also produce “higher-spirited calves,” Tuck said.

Hence, Tuck plans on getting a black baldy as his next bull. The calves won’t grow as quickly as Balancers, but they won’t be quite as high-spirited, which will make it easier for his family to handle them.

Tuck’s family has been in this part of Bedford County since 1962, when his grandfather had to relocate from his previous homestead because it was being subsumed by the filling of Smith Mountain Lake.
For many years the Tucks raised tobacco — as much as 20 acres — before switching to focus on cattle after the tobacco buyout.

Tuck keeps records of when he moves his cattle, with data including the height of the pasture grass when they were let in and the height of the pasture grass when they were let out.

The most satisfying records though are the figures that aren’t accruing — the cost of fuel and fertilizer that Tuck is able to forego by practicing managed grazing.

“I can’t control what the cattle’s going to get when I sell them,” he said. “I can’t control the cost of what I’m buying. But I can control what and how much I have to buy. Rotational grazing is simple. The key to it is management. You’ve got to look at yourself not as a cattle producer but a forage producer who markets through cattle. You’re a grass farmer.”

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