Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have happened—that’s for sure. However, the pasture walk at Dennis Rooney’s farm near Steuben last Friday proved how ideas about what’s best for the environment change.
It was a moment where those producing grass-fed cattle along streams met with trout fishermen and environmentalists to endorse proper rotational grazing as the best way to keep those streams healthy. The workshop was co-hosted by the Great River Graziers, the Valley Stewardship Network and the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative.
In fact, the first speaker at the event was Trout Unlimited’s Dave Vetrano. The retired Wisconsin DNR fisheries biologist made his short presentation to about 45 people gathered in the driveway below host Dennis Rooney’s house.
Kickapoo Grazing Initiative Coordinator Cynthia Olmstead introduced Vetrano. She noted the group’s pasture project was focused on promoting grass-fed beef and promoting good water quality. Olmstead believes the market-driven program involving three or four grass-fed beef co-ops will be a “win-win” situation producing better water quality and value-added beef.
Olmstead acknowledged Dave Vetrano’s perspective was important in changing the way the organizations viewed grazing.
Vetrano began by talking about the amazing change that has occurred in the Driftless Area over the past 150 years and said there was as much change as that seen in Virginia, where mining companies are removing tops of mountains to extract coal.
Vetrano noted there was mostly tall grass prairie and oak savannah in the area 150 years ago, kept open by Native Americans who burned the prairie to increase its potential for game.
The arrival of European agricultural practices of row crops in the bottoms and on the ridges, combined with intensive grazing on steep hillside pastures, led to massive erosion. In a matter of 60 to 70 years, 12 to 15 feet of soil had collected as sediment in the floodplain.
This history was not lost on Vetrano. So, when he heard of a successful streamside-grazing project in Minnesota years ago, he was skeptical. However, after seeing how grazer Dick Hastings managed a system of paddocks and the stream quality that resulted, he saw a way to protect trout.
Vetrano seemed to chuckle a bit as he noted that he is now an advocate of grazing and serves on three ag boards. Vetrano sees grazing as an ideal sustainable ag model.
“With pastures, there’s no pesticide, no herbicide and no sedimentation,” Vetrano said. He believes the rotational grazing system, perfected by Hastings, really leaves streams protected.
Furthermore, he sees grazing and clean streams with healthy fisheries as part of something bigger. With visiting fishermen playing a role in local economies through bed and breakfasts, restaurants and more.
“You need to look at it as a system,” Vetrano said. “You can’t separate the political, economic or cultural.”
The retired fisheries biologist can’t hide his excitement about the future of grazing as more and more people “become interested in food” and where it comes from.
However, Vetrano said he’s also concerned about the lack of respect grazing gets from politicians and conventional agriculture.
“The problem is conventional ag has nothing to sell the grazers,” Vetrano said.
So, grazers are getting little or no help from the state legislature.
“So, I’m a grazer and I have just as much right to make a living as anyone else,” Vetrano said. “Grazers are not looking for a handout, all they want is a level playing field.”
Vetrano reviewed the impact on trout of agriculture from 1880 to 1930, which nearly wiped out the native brook trout population. With stocking, trout were reintroduced and then with CRP land protecting more streams in the 80s, they began to thrive and stocking started to be reduced. The fish took hold and many streams no longer need to be stocked.
Now, Vetrano’s concerned about farmers removing contour strips and terraces, which were designed to minimize erosion on hillsides, so they can get more ground into production spurred on by $7 per bushel corn and $14 per bushel soybeans.
The fisheries biologist cautioned that last year was a particularly bad year for manure runoff and those producers responsible for fish kills are now charged $26.25 per fish regardless of species or size. The price is an average cost of raising and stocking a fish. He noted that can be a lot of money, when you consider a stream might have 2,000 to 6,000 fish per mile.
After the group moved down to a bridge over the stream, Vetrano noted some of the beneficial aspects of grazing for trout habitat including the removal of trees along the bank. He explained shade along the banks is not needed in southwestern Wisconsin, as it sometimes is in the central or northern parts of the state.
Vetrano ended his presentation on the bridge and handed the workshop over to Bruce Ristow a grass-fed beef producer from the Star Valley area.
Ristow, a former schoolteacher, said he moved onto his property 40 years ago with a desire to farm the land, but without any background in farming.
“I learned through mistakes,” he said with a smile.
Ristow soon understood the problems associated with growing crops in the bottoms, when the areas flooded. He began grazing beef on the land and working with the DNR, which created designated crossings for the cattle and began working on the stream banks.
Ristow saw trout numbers climb from just 50 per mile to 1,500 to 2,000. The stream that runs through his farm is a popular destination for fisherman and last year, he estimated 400 people fished the stream.
Over time, Ristow became qualified through a Valley Stewardship Program to do water testing. He initially became interested in the quality of the stream water because he didn’t want the cattle drinking bad water. Now, he seems totally absorbed by the work.
After Ristow finished his brief presentation, it was host Dennis Rooney’s turn to explain his operation and offer the group a brief tour.
Rooney bought his farm in 2000 and by 2007-08 received money from an EQUIP grant to create the lanes and paddocks of his operation. Rooney’s grazing area is a mile long and a quarter mile wide (about 63 acres). It contains nine paddocks and can accommodate up to 65 to 70 bred-heifer dairy cows. He keeps the heifers for his son, who runs a dairy operation on a nearby ridge top farm.
Rooney showed interested grazers and some potential grazers the tricks of fencing that is the essential component of a rotational paddock grazing system.
The workshop ended where it started in the driveway under Rooney’s house, where Rod Ofte, a local grass-fed beef farmer and member of the Wisconsin Grass-fed Beef Co-op discussed the financial end of grazing beef cattle on pasture.
Ofte started by making a comparison between a rotational grazing operation and renting land for $200 per acre to a row crop grower. On 30 acres, Ofte penciled in the net income from the rented 30 acres minus $1,967 in property taxes at $4,033.
Meanwhile, he figured grazing 20 cow-calf pairs on the land with 10-year depreciation on the cattle purchase and the fencing. He also figured a 30-year depreciation on equipment. The total income for the grazing operation would be $19,800 minus $14,748 in annual costs which would yield an annual net income of $5,052. There were plenty of cost assumptions and an EQUIP grant to offset some of the fencing costs in Ofte’s calculations, but it looked reasonable.
One other interesting point in his analysis was the cost of labor for the operation of $4,380 per year. If the owner did the labor, it would come close to doubling the net income.
Ofte pointed out that it might be more profitable to finish grass-fed beef than to produce calves. He also noted that both Trout Unlimited and the Audubon Society support the growth of rotational grazing and grass-fed beef.
The day ended on an upbeat note with possibilities for grazing and a grass-fed beef future understood a little better by all who attended.