MUNNSVILLE, NY — Raising cattle on pasture should be neither a 24/7 task nor a thankless job.
According to Dave Roberts, a grazing specialist for the USDA, if a farmer takes the time to observe the cycle of growth in the pasture and the cattle’s natural tendencies, the animals can practically raise themselves.
Roberts, who is based in Oneida County, was the guest speaker as Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida and Madison counties invited local grazers to an end-of the season pasture walk at the Stolzfus Farm on Oct. 16. He discussed how to evaluate pasture conditions and marketing options for beef producers.
Brothers Loren and Tim Stolzfus operate the farm handed down by their father, Daniel, who runs Custom Woodcraft at the same location.
“Even if you’ve got a day job, you can (successfully) raise beef cattle,” said Roberts as a crowd of about 30 people observed the Stolzfus’s Black Angus herd grazing in the pasture as sunset approached. “It should only take up two or three days of your time each week.”
This system can be employed if the farmer uses pasture rotation as grazing experts suggest. Cattle have a varied diet and will eat virtually anything that’s green, including weeds, even wheat and barley.
“Study the life cycle of a plant,” Roberts advised, telling the farmers to watch how the grass grows according to the season and move the cattle frequently so they can get the freshest greens with the most nutrients.
A typical rotation is every two to three days, but it depends on the weather. Calves might be rotated every three to seven days. But yearlings can be rotated to different pastures more often, up to twice a day because it helps them gain weight, Roberts said.
Rotation allows the grass to rest and rejuvenate, approximately 15 days in spring, 30 days during the hot, dry days of summer and back to 15-20 days in fall, Roberts explained. When the grass stops growing in late fall, the rotation can be delayed.
Interestingly, because spring grass is new, it packs a lot of energy, yet the farmer cannot allow the cattle to gorge themselves at this time. Roberts said the spring grass for cows is like a child feasting on dessert. The cattle will be reluctant to leave the lush vegetation behind for a less tasty pasture, but rotation still matters. The animals need a balance of appetizers, dinner and dessert, he said. They will remember the original site and be anxious to return to it later.
“The trick to grazing is moving the cows around to different pastures, and watch their first and second bites,” he said. Even if there are some weeds that might be considered toxic to humans or animals, it won’t necessarily upset all of the cows. Some of the toxicity is reduced following repeated frosts in the fall.
Roberts raised a question for the attendees. “How does an animal know what to eat?” He answered, “They don’t know. They learn from watching others. It can take a couple of months for them to learn.”
He pointed out that the cattle on the Stolzfus farm prefer the hilltops to the lowlands. However, not all cows like the same grasses. Not all of them will eat the same amount, so a wise farmer observes their different tastes.
“The more time you spend with them, the more questions you will have, but the more you will learn from them,” Roberts said. As well as grass, cattle should be given grain and hay to ensure they have a balanced diet.
The amount they eat is determined by the energy they’re expending, Roberts noted. If they are expending a lot of energy, it’s likely they will fall behind in their nutritional needs, so the farmer needs to supplement the cows’ grassy diet with other sources of protein, for example hay, especially in winter.
Other factors and observations of the herd concern the weight of the cattle, leanness, muscle, vitamins and protein levels.
Daniel Stolzfus has had his farm property for 25 years, but he rented it out to a neighbor for the first 20 years. As his sons got older, he decided to try his hand at farming.
This system allows him and his family the freedom to run their cabinet-making business. “I always wondered about rotational grazing,” he added. He began practicing rotational grazing just a few years ago.
The herd now numbers 23 cows, 13 calves and a few steers and is managed by Loren and Tim. They said they usually move the cows daily. Also this year, they began marketing their beef.
Milan Djurdjevich maintains a very modest dairy farm in the tiny town of Mt. Vision in Otsego County. “I came here tonight because I want to try a different paddock system,” he said, despite having what he called “a handful of cows.”
He said he is concerned about allocating his time and finding an efficient grazing system since dairy farming is truly a second job for him. He works fulltime at night for the Chobani yogurt plant in Norwich, Chenango County.
Berni Ortensi of Ortensi Farm, a small certified-organic beef producer in Richfield Springs in Otsego County, had two reasons to attend the pasture walk at Stolzfus Farm. She and her husband, Greg, appreciate the practical advice of other farmers, plus Berni wanted to spread the word about the Adirondack Grazers cooperative, which was founded in 2012 in Schuylerville, NY.
Katherine Brosnan of Cornell Cooperative Extension Madison County ended the lecture by giving a talk to the farmers about a CCE marketing program called “Meatsuite.” It’s an online directory of beef farms and allows farmers to post a profile of their farm and sell directly to consumers. The program will be gradually extended to farmers in neighboring counties.
The Stolzfus family generously prepared a hot meal for attendees at the conclusion of the presentation.