Grazing benefits livestock and consumers

Matthew Hull

By Bill Plank

Over the last 15 years, many American farmers have begun practicing sustainable farming methods such as the intensive rotational grazing (IRG) of livestock, a practice which is better for the livestock, the land, the farmer, and consumers.

IRG involves dividing a farm into small, electric-fenced paddocks where the animals are rotated from one to six days.  Making rotational grazing easier are new tools such as low-impedance electric fence controllers, high tensile permanent fencing, and low-cost, flexible and easily moved subdivision poly-wire on fiberglass reinforced fence rods. New in-paddock watering systems provide quality water and keep the animals out of streams and wetlands. 

Farmers using IRG let the cows do the harvesting, with little of the waste involved in the mowing, raking, and pickup of forage crops by tractor and the storage required in barn/feedlot-centered methods. IRG lowers costs by reducing the need for expensive harvesting equipment such as the $100,000+ oxygen-limiting big blue silos, large tractors, auger silo unloaders, as well as the fuel, electricity, and labor these systems require.

Just as farmers make a first cutting and then allow re-growth before subsequent hay-making, grazing paddocks are generally rested for about three weeks before animals graze them again. Usually, part of an IRG farm is reserved to produce the hay needed for winter feeding. And hay that comes off the paddocks in the spring -- when the first flush of growth gets ahead of the animals -- is generally reserved for the hottest part of the summer when the season is dry and pastures go temporarily dormant. 

Pasture-fed dairy operations typically see a decline in the total pounds of milk per cow, but that reduction is balanced by better hoof health and significantly lower food and machinery costs—every drop of milk that goes into the bucket costs less to produce and is healthier for the animals. In contrast, in barn-based systems, cows typically stand on wet, manure-covered concrete almost every hour of their short lives. Although cows are capable of about 10 lactation cycles, many barn-raised cows are being culled from herds after just two to four lactations because of poor hoof health and difficulty rebreeding. The use of growth hormones also seems to shorten the productive life of cows. 

Grazing systems also work well for beef operations, some poultry operations, and hogs, which are now commonly fed on pasture and cornfields. Because the only manure storage required by these operations is for near-barn manure and for clean-up water from pipeline milking parlors, much less manure hauling is needed. Less manure storage means less risk of leakages and overflows to nearby waters. Runoff problems are also minimized by the careful layout and design of lanes to carry animals between paddocks.

Two outstanding examples of IRG applications are located in Bedford County – one beef and one dairy. Sam Wylie, who runs a grass-fed Octoraro Angus beef operation, also does a good business in the semen and embryos from his herd. Dairyman Glen Moyer, who recently immigrated to west central Bedford County, combines IRG with “seasonal dairying,” synchronizing his cows to calve and begin lactation together, around March 1. Because cows generally give milk for 305 days followed by a “dry” period before the next calf is born, synchronizing for March 1 births allows the farmer to stop milking during January and February, avoiding the extra, and costly, feeding required by cows lactating during the coldest months of the year. 

Grass-based agriculture in an important way of keeping families farming on the steep, thin soils in Pennsylvania, where much of its animal agriculture takes place on hilly terrain near streams and rivers. Even the production of soybeans, with the inevitable erosion it entails, threatens water quality. Without almost constant grass cover on such slopes, the water quality of area streams is impaired..

Not only is grass-feeding better for the land, healthier for the livestock, and more profitable for farmers, it’s also healthier for consumers, because grass-fed animal products contain less saturated fat, more heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids, and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids), compounds that promote weight loss, among other things.

Sustainable livestock methods offer many benefits: healthier humans, healthier animals, more profitable farming, fewer crop fields, and fewer containment areas losing soil from over-use, less fuel and electricity consumption, and possibly, two months of reduced labor, or even vacation, for dairy farmers.  Not a bad way to go.

Bill Plank farmed sustainably for over 15 years, was a member of PASA, and served on his soil conservation district board.

Published May 2005