Here is this week’s Rural Reflections Radio program, My brain on pasture
Spring makes some think of gardens or open-toed sandals however my
spring thoughts follow a path much less traveled; I think about
cattle on pasture. I think
about other things too, however they are even less interesting than
cattle eating grass (imagine that.) Here is what I am thinking about
this spring. This is my brain on pasture.
I have no-tilled corn and soybeans into standing pasture as a way to
rotate my cattle paddocks. The only reason I rotate my paddocks is
that the alfalfa typically dies off by year six or seven. I plant the
corn and beans, kill off the grass then rotate back to pasture the
year following corn. I graze the corn in tiny strips then put
everything back into pasture the following year. I have begun to
question this practice as it seems a shame to kill off all that nice
grass. I want my pasture to be a mixture of grass and legumes and
when the legume (alfalfa) dies off then I need to take some sort of
action. The problem is, the paddock is perfect except for the lack of
alfalfa. It seems like cutting down an oak tree just because it isn’t
a fruit tree.
I have considered no-till planting alfalfa into standing grass but
the results of this are not that great. Clover is a legume and does
better in a no-till situation but you have to suppress the grass in
order for the legume to get a toe-hold and grow. Suppression means I
allow the cattle to eat the grass down to the ground. I don’t want to
do this because tall grass suppresses weeds and when the grass is
gone then weeds can gain the advantage. In my opinion, clover is
the red-headed step-child to alfalfa’s more stellar performance, both
in fixing nitrogen and producing heavier cattle. Anyway, it is an
issue I have decided to explore more deeply this spring.
Here’s the second issue in my consideration, will my hydroponic fodder
project make as great an impact as I hope? I plan to raise barley
hydroponically and use it to augment pasture during times when the
pasture needs a little help, such as the summer slump or in winter
when the pasture I let grow and stockpile has frozen. I want to use
the hydroponic fodder to raise the cattle more quickly yet still
enjoy the benefits of grass-finished cattle. The way I finish cattle
on grass currently means I need to keep them through the winter which
is something I no longer wish to do. I know some people may question
trying something new when what I’m doing works but I wish to do the
very best with every gift I have been given. I am willing to “try and
fail” in pursuit of long-term and sustainable success.
I know the snow is twenty inches deep now but spring invites my
thoughts to melt through the snow and dig into the dirt and roots
that make up the pasture on our little farm. I guess when it comes to
spring I have a dirty mind. This is my brain on pasture.
If you wonder why I haven’t written about our cattle lately, the
reason is simple; they’re gone. I sold the cattle last December, the
Hay in January and the straw last week. It has been a winter without
Feeder cattle prices typically go down with high corn prices but the
most recent cycle of cattle prices has been extended because of
overseas sales and reduced cattle sale numbers. Corn has stayed high
because of ethanol supports and decreased production-most grain
prices are predicated on the cost of corn so they are high also. Both corn and
feeder prices have been affected by drought. Hay prices are also incredibly high mostly as a result of shortages caused by dry pastures. In short, our little farm
had become a place where outside influences stood tall enough to either magnify or block out our daily sunshine. I thought it was a volatile time and best to jump
off the ride until we see if it rains this spring and if a farm bill
I also needed a little break. It has been twenty plus years of cattle
during which I worked nights a lot at my job. I have never found
winter a pleasant time to own cattle, anyway. I take turns worrying
about either the cattle or the water they drink from December through
March. It was time to take the winter off.
I define “puttering around” as taking the simplest task and
breaking it down into many elements, then agonizing over each element
until the day ends and you begin again the following morning. I will
not answer God one day by responding that I’ve spent my life
puttering. I have, however, occupied myself with some experiments
around the farm this winter.
I’ve spoken at length of my hydroponic fodder project which is still
a “work in progress” and a “work in the way” out in the shop. I’ve
also made a few more tire/barrel mineral feeders. I most recently
used my digital inspection camera (yep, Lisa gave it to me
one Christmas) to follow the tunnels created by red squirrels in the
snow. I never found their underground nests and suspect these
tunnels are really just for temporary escape. The area under the
hollow tree was a bit more interesting and appeared to have some
small stores of bedding and food suitable for all squirrels red.
Socially, I have become much more entrenched in the lives of our
cats. We have gotten to the point where our personalities
occasionally clash. I also believe there are lines of social conduct
which have been crossed to include the fact that I cannot remember a
time when I have been allowed to go to the bathroom without at least
one feline chaperone. I guess maybe the cattle formed one of my
social contacts and that cross is now born by Twitch, Laine and Magoo.
I actually believe I can distinguish between the tones of Twitch’s
caterwauling and understand what request is married to each
tone. My world has become condensed and my animal relationships more
It is warm outside today. The pasture will green up soon and may not
be so washy because of drier conditions. It may be one of the best
pasture years yet. We will soon have cattle again but for now I am
happy to plow the snow, visit with Lisa, learn cat language and chase
Here is this week’s Rural Reflections Radio, mirror images and the second herd
The sun loves cattle pasture and pasture loves the sun. Although, I
am not a part of that relationship, I like basking in its light.
This is the sweetest time of the year on pasture, both emotionally
and dietary. Spring cattle pasture was a little high in protein and
low on sugar, then early summer made the grass grow so fast that some
of it got too mature to be at its best: however now we have hit the sweet
spot. The cattle are grazing grass at about a foot high and leaving
when there’s about four to five inches left. This keeps the grass young and tender
plus takes advantage of a grass plant’s ability to use sunlight to absorb carbon and
make sugar. This makes the grass sweet and very good for adding a little fat to some quite muscular
animals. The fat is what transfers the beneficial elements that make grass-fed cattle healthy
plus provides a little savoriness.
So many people graze their pasture until it looks like a golf course.
The problem with this is that along with rain and nutrients, grass
needs some sunshine to grow. The green blades of grass act like a
solar collector and help make the grass grow through photosynthesis.
When cattle are allowed to graze every part of the solar collector,
the plants can no longer grow at peak efficiency. A bare pasture is also
subject to overheating from sunlight whereas a pasture that is left with some cover
is shaded and cooler-a nicer environment for beneficial worms and microbes.
Worms constantly work their way through the soil leaving small openings which
hold rainwater. We get very little water runoff as the pasture has structure similar to a sponge
because of all those little worm tunnels. Microbes in the soil exist to help break down
leftover grass and manure into fertilizer for new growth.
Okay, if the technical information about pasture grazing has caused a slight glaze to occur
on the surface of your eyes, here comes the glaze remover. Cattle, pasture and sun have way
more meaning to me than just making beef-it’s a combination that makes me happy. When I am
free from the world, under the sun and hanging out with fifty of my closest bovine friends, I am
doing what I was made to do. That porous pasture of ours is soft on my feet and all of that green
grass helps to keep the air temperature a little cooler. I’ve always sought to define myself by
responsibility but have little interest in clubs or other groups. When I am in the pasture, among the cattle
and green grass, I can afford to let my guard down and serve those who serve me. When I am in
the pasture, I know my own identity; I am a lowly shepherd-lowly and happy.
Certain incidents in my life give me a lot of traction, they cause me to learn more than just the obvious lesson. This spring, I told you a story of how mutant gophers had chewed through the inch and a half water pipe that we used to water our cattle. The obvious lesson was that I need to control the gophers (done) and also how to repair the pipe which has also been completed. This week I went a little deeper into the incident and found greater meaning.
First off, we have repaired this pipe about three times. Each time we thought we’d fixed it, another problem peaked up from beneath the earth. The third repair occurred when I noticed water rising from a connection. I reached through about twenty inches of very cold water and could feel the pressurized water hitting my hand. I could have waited until the water drained down or make the repair that day. I believe true character comes out in bad times so I always try to be at my best in the worst situations and so decided I would tighten the coupling right there and then. I rely on daily prayer so that was the first club out of the bag. I had been worried that week about the pipe repair which had caused me to be short with my wife, Lisa so I prayed for more patience. I virtually never pray for things or success so instead I also asked God to please help me to understand what lesson He wanted me to learn from this broken water pipe and to please â€œdo it soon.â€ If prayer doesn’t work for you, pray for something else.
I needed two pipe wrenches and my four wheeler (amazing how many of my stories start with this phrase.) I arrived at the coupling and took off my watch and jacket and plunged my hands into the great, cold water unknown; my hands hurt immediately and I got a little headache. I always say that pain is not necessarily injury-it is just pain. This was just pain so I loosened the coupling with the pipe wrenches then pulled my hands out of the water and threw my jacket over my arms to warm up. I did this about four times during the repair and by the fourth time I had acclimated and was able to keep my hands and arms under water for quite awhile. I jiggled the pipe until it slid into the coupling then tightened it up. I turned the water back on and it somehow did not leak. I was proud, I really was.
I always look up to people who not only can take the pain incurred in living, yet still operate and even fire back at life. This was just a small incident but I stood the pain and was still able to think and complete a repair and that made me feel good. Even better, I prayed for the right things (patience and knowledge) even when it would have been easy to ask for something else or complain to God that life was unfair at that moment. I could have failed in the repair by letting the pain of cold water defeat me just as I could have let the pain of life defeat me by asking God â€œwhy meâ€ instead of asking Him for the lesson of life from that particular day.
Anyway, no leaks as of today.
Herbivores get happy when they find grass plants to eat, so do I. My
happiness is probably not as deep nor as gustatory as my cattle,
although we both feel relief. I am relieved that I no longer have to
feed hay and the cattle are glad they no longer have to eat it. It is
the season to pasture cattle and that means itâ€™s party time.
Most pasture is still brown however we will break on through to the
side,â€ where the pasture is always greener. I donâ€™t mind some old
forage as it balances out the new grass. It provides some fiber to
dilute all protein in the new grass and keeps cattle stomachs
healthy. I can pretty much guess what state the grass is in by the
consistency of the cow patty. I want something about the consistency
of pumpkin pie (sorry if youâ€™re reading this with breakfast.)
I have grazed the cattle for the last several years on a rotational
basis. What this means is the cattle eat small pieces of pasture for
a few days then are moved on to the next section. This way, they eat
the best of the vegetation and keep the pasture in a growing or
immature state. I plan to move the cattle more often this year as
that should give them more carbohydrates which will help the heavier
cattle finish more quickly. It seems the cattle eat a higher
concentration of protein the further
down the plant they eat. Younger cattle probably benefit
more from higher protein as opposed to more energy; however I believe
cattle typically find the food they need so everyone should find
something of benefit to eat.
I plan to use something called a â€œbrix refractometerâ€ this year. Iâ€™ve
seen these used by beekeepers to check sugar content. Sugar is the
energy that helps cattle finish well so the refractometer should help
me find the best pasture for my cattle. Itâ€™s not like I plan to pass
over some pasture because of my readings however I can discover which
grass or legume varieties get me the energy I desire. I can also find
out what time of day the plants have collected enough sunshine based
on sugar content to provide my best weight gains.
Finally, I think I have finally achieved my best management practice
in grazing cattle; I am not making any hay this year. Each time I cut
hay, I remove nitrogen and nutrients from the soil which
means I have to add fertilizer the following year. When the cattle
harvest that forage themselves they will return almost all of it to
the soil in manure. The act of cutting hay also removes the canopy of
grass and legumes which keep the soil cool-a perfect environment for
earthworms. The worms do the work of converting leftover grass and
cattle scat back into soil, they also keep the soil aerated and able
to hold more rain.
Soon I will invite several of my favorite bovine buddies to join me
in a salad bar made of alfalfa, orchard grass, clover, rye grass all
surrounded by a garnish of electric fence. It may just appear to
others as cattle doing what cattle are good at, however for me it is
a pasture party.
This letter has been delayed by at least 45 minutes while I manage our indoor herd of three cats. Twitch causes constant trouble and teases little Laine when he’s bored. Magoo needs more attention than any two year-old and even now has tipped a container of cereal and is testing its sovereignty. We scold Twitch when he is mean which causes him to go sit on his â€œpouting chair.â€ He sees my admonishments as play and leaps from his perch then beats me back to the computer where he sprawls on the seat of my chair and waits to be petted. We have no human children, however we have definitely have kids.
Today is a big day Dave; I am returning the heifers to our brother, Steve. I purchased these cattle in early 2010. During their time here, they have grown into a sort of bovine adolescence and are now ready to go back to their original home. When I deliver steers for butcher, it is a one way trip and a bit sad. However, today’s heifers will see familiar surroundings and their mother cow at the end of a road which leads to Viking, Minnesota. These animals start their life with Steve, spend some time at our place, then back to Steve’s farm. The only down side to this arrangement is that the cattle never get to hyphenate their last names because they are always Nelsons.
I tasted spring on Monday. If we first covet with our eyes, then it is logical that we first taste with our nose. Oppressive cold makes it impossible to smell anything and Monday was just warm enough to enjoy the freshness of winter which tastes a lot like spring. The first little warm spell of the fourth season is almost like seeing weakness in a seemingly unbeatable opponent. I know now that winter will one day die and it seems a little more approachable, perhaps the snow and cold is not so bad. I understand winter’s need to be, at times, stern and unapproachable. Mother nature enjoys irony and I understand the old hag will send winter back in cold and hard next week to mock the feelings winter and I briefly shared.
I hope Carrington, North Dakota and you are doing well. The last time we spoke was before Christmas; at that time Carrington had already received two more inches of snow than it received in the whole season of 2009-2010. We have received so much snow that I am now using a box blade to drag any new snow out into the pasture. I pile all of our snow next to ditches or other drainage so hopefully our spring will not be so wet-oh, that it was that simple in the Red River Valley. I plan to visit you for breakfast before the summer so you will have to find a piece of farm equipment for me to purchase-gotta deduct that mileage for taxes.
Tell, the wife, the kinder and their spouses hello
your little bro’
Showing animals some kindness and understanding life from their
perspective has been a concern for good farmers for a long time, it
became fashionable January 16th, 2011-more on that later.
Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University who holds
a doctorate in animal science. She has written several bestsellers on
both animal and human behavior and is responsible for the humane
design of livestock handling facilities in better than half of all
meat processing plants in the United States. Oh yeah, she also has
I have read Temple Grandinâ€™s articles in the past and use some of her
techniques for handling cattle. Her studies on cattle handling are
basically how to use a cows tendencies to the handlerâ€™s best benefit.
Cows like good footing, enjoy walking up a slope better than down,
hate loud noises, enjoy being in a herd and find shiny dangling items
to be suspect. They also like to walk in circles and enjoy almost 360
degree vision. After Iâ€™ve read an article by Grandin, I always feel
fired up about cattle and inspired to do a better job in their
Temple Grandin is not a vegetarian. She feels cattle are there to
provide meat but also wishes that they be treated in a humane matter.
Cattle that are calm cause less trouble, normally do not injure
humans and they taste better. If we are to be good stewards of what
we are in charge of then giving cattle a good life prior to their end
on a plate is the right thing to do. Grandin sums it up best, â€œI
think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but weâ€™ve got
to do it right. Weâ€™ve got to give those animals a decent life and
weâ€™ve got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.â€
Claire Danes stars in the movie â€œTemple Grandin.â€ It tells the story
of a woman who sees conversation in pictures and finds spoken
language to be of only secondary importance. She does not speak until
the age of four and would have been destined to an institutionalized
life had it not been for a determined and innovative mother. Although
Grandin cannot even see the signs of human happiness or sadness, she
can read the face of a cow without trouble. She is able to step into
their lives and therefore design handling facilities that make their
contact with humans much less stressful. Lisa and I loved the movie;
itâ€™s about as far from removed from status as a romantic-comedy as
possible but the movie touched our emotions. Youâ€™d have to love
animals to understand. The only location I could find the movie to
buy or rent was â€œMr. Movies,â€ however the large internet outlets all
have the show for sale. It would be excellent in the classroom.
If you think the movie â€œTemple Grandinâ€ was something no one ever
heard of or saw, you would be incorrect. January 16th, at the Golden
Globe awards, Clair Danes received the best actress award for her
portrayal of Temple Grandin in a movie of the same name. The show
also garnered seven awards at last fallâ€™s Primetime Emmy awards. It
seems a little compassion for animals is not only ethical; it is
popular-maybe even fashionable. Thatâ€™s just fine; whatâ€™s really more
important is it is right thing to do, as itâ€™s been always.
People like to worry about oil and things made from oil. I don’t worry much about it; I just try to buy as little as possible. The commodity that holds my attention has always been water. This week we renewed our source for water by digging a well and it is the topic of this week’s column.
No one likes to be hungry, however you can live for weeks without food, even poor quality food will keep you alive. Without water, you would soon dryly pass back to dust. This same truth extends to our cattle for whom this well was dug. I get a kick out of people who hope to put good weight on pasture cattle but allow those same cattle to drink from the same place they go to the bathroom. The cornerstone of good cattle health is making sure they eat and drink good things. A cow, who is producing milk, will drink about twenty gallons (160 pounds) per day while taking in about 50 pounds of forage. Using these amounts comparatively, you can affect cattle health three times as much by what they eat as what they drink.
Our current water system contains mechanical elements that are probably as old as the farm. A pump jack slowly pulls (two gallons per minute) water up into a tank which stores about 350 gallons at a time. I then have a pressure pump which draws from the tank and pressurizes that water through an underground pipeline. This system worked okay but so did bucking hay prior to the baler.
Jeff Davidson from Newfolden, MInnesota arrived the other day with his well-drilling rig. It sat for awhile so I looked it over at my leisure. It reminded me of the rig that Jeff’s dad used to drill a well at my parent’s farm about three decades ago. I remembered from that experience that my dad told me I could watch but to stay well out of the way when the work was being done. I tried to follow that advice but I am still curious and I believe I have gotten underfoot a couple of times in my curiosity.
A well is dug with a large derrick mounted on the back of Davidson’s Mack truck. The derrick seems to exist only to lift the drilling pipe high into the air in an effort to marry it to the end of the pipe that is already in the ground. The action of twisting the drill pipe and forcing it downward appears to be the job of a collar the sits about four feet above the ground and is driven by the truck engine. The drill bit on the business end free-wheels and is driven by the action of its contact with the ground. Jeff told me the bit was invented by the famous director/industrialist/professional womanizer Howard Hughes. Drilling a well is a slow process and although the point of this act is water, I believe an unintended side-effect must be increased patience. I don’t think I could do it.
In the end we will have a modern water-delivery system. It will probably be the last well I drill before I no longer need water. The cattle occasionally watch Jeff in his work but they have no idea the work being done for them. All they know is what we all know; there is nothing like cool, clear water.