by Sally Colby
Michelle Kirk took her husband Bill to the emergency room in September 2012 because he hadn’t recovered from what they thought was a minor illness. They were shocked to find that Bill was in kidney failure, but doctors didn’t know the reason. After exhaustive testing, Bill was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer. Over the next several months, he underwent stem cell treatment, dialysis and chemotherapy. In February 2013, Michelle brought him home from an extended hospital stay, right in the middle of calving season. She says the first thing Bill requested when he returned home was to be driven to the pasture to see his cows. But keeping him inside as he continued his recovery proved to be difficult.
“Our dining room window has a perfect view to back there,” said Michelle, motioning to the line of sight between their house and the early spring calving area. “One day I was in the barn with a cow in the squeeze chute trying to get her calf to drink, and Bill showed up, all covered up, wearing a mask and gloves.”
In spring in 2013, Bill felt well enough to start mowing hay, but had severe joint pain. At one point he was treated for a blood clot, and developed a large hematoma in his leg from the tractor seat. Bill has been off dialysis for a year now, and the couple is picking up where they left off.
“We lost a year,” said Michelle. “There are pastures that should have been renovated or clipped last year, but we weren’t able to.”
Fast forward to August 2014, when Bill and Michelle hosted a pasture walk for fellow graziers on their Table Rock Farm in Biglerville, PA. Fall calving has started, and although some areas near their southern Pennsylvania farm have received plenty of rain, the Kirks’ farm has not. However, despite the lack of rain, good management has paid off, and pastures are holding up to grazing.
NRCS soil conservationist Tyson Myers attended the pasture walk to discuss water infiltration. “These are in-situ samples taken from the pasture,” said Myers, pointing to three pasture samples. “We can pour water over it and it’s like rainfall coming down. Some of the water will infiltrate, and some will run off.”
One sample taken from a 10-year pasture included orchardgrass, ryegrass and red and white clover. That sample yielded surprising results. Although there was significant runoff, perhaps due to the dry weather, the runoff water was fairly clear.
Another sample was from a paddock planted in sudangrass that has been established for about six years. “It was in sorghum for a while, but the prussic acid was a problem,” said Bill. “We went to straight sudangrass and haven’t had any problems. I’ll no-till wheat right into the sudangrass, then when we graze that off, hopefully there will be enough moisture that I can run the drill and put the wheat in the next day. The wheat will come up in the existing sudangrass for the next grazing. When the sudangrass frosts, we’ll wait a week and graze the frosted sudangrass with the wheat, then continue to graze the wheat through Christmas.” Bill says in spring, he expects to get four grazings from that paddock before it’s planted in sudangrass again, and will use it to graze cow-calf pairs.
The third sample yielded muddy results, which was no surprise because it was from small lot that Bill refers to as a brown lot — a heavily compacted area that is used for spring calving and is now mostly summer annual weeds. “We plant a small grain in there to keep it covered,” he said, “but it’s only 3/4 of an acre.”
Throughout the pasture walk, a penetrometer was used to determine the level of compaction. The results varied widely, likely due to the deep shale soil on the farm. Myers says that the level of compaction could affect pasture yields due to the plants having less ability to take up nutrients. He suggested some ways in which compaction might be alleviated, including rotating sudangrass across different paddocks. But since the Kirks want to try to catch up where they left off when Bill became sick, they will likely renovate other fields first. Tillage radishes would be a reasonable choice because they could be planted after a close grazing.
Table Rock Farm includes 130 acres of fenced paddocks for the Kirks’ 100 head of Angus, Limousin and crossbred cows. Bulls are selected from private breeders based on EPDs. “I put a lot of time into researching genetics,” said Michelle. “We look for low birth weight and good growth, and we like bulls that we can use on either heifers or cows.”
Paying close attention to the pasture-bred throughout the year means that Bill and Michelle can track breeding dates and watch cows that are close to calving. At calving time, Michelle spends a lot of time observing cows that are close, and stays near cows that are in labor so that she’s there to assist if necessary. Cows that calve in early spring have access to a barn, but rarely use it. After calving, the cow-calf pairs are moved to a pasture that stays dry and has a wooded area for protection.
Large, early spring heifers that will be retained in the herd are bred for spring calves. Smaller calves born in April and May will be held to calve following September calving. “We like first-calf heifers to calve in fall if we can,” said Michelle. “It gives us more time to spend with them. Either that or we’ll have them calve last.
We like them to calve at age two. Most of the time we don’t pull our bulls out,” said Michelle. “A bred cow is always worth more than an open cow. In our experience, there will be someone who wants a calf to raise for their freezer.”
One of the management challenges for the Kirks is getting cattle onto pasture in spring when the ground is still wet. “Our target date (to start grazing) is April 15,” said Bill. “This year it was May 1st, and the cows were ahead of the grass. Usually the grass is ahead of the cows. But we’ve had knee-high grass by April 15th, and we try to have them on for one day then come back and start a three-day rotation.”
Overcoming life’s challenges
by Sally Colby