VERNON COUNTY - Fencing is one of the chief challenges that producers in the Driftless Region experience when they diversify their farm into grazing beef cattle. With the decreasing number of dairy farms in the region, much of the land has been converted to cropland. That means many of the old fences have been removed to make way.Today’s fencing isn’t necessarily the equivalent of the old barbed wire fences. Today’s fencing options are fast, flexible, and often rely on electric fencewire strung on light poles that can be easily moved. Even the electrification equipment has become more innovative and is more affordable than some of the earlier models.
About 35 producers, managed grazing experts and conservation professionals, gathered at the farm of Jeremy and Jessie Nagel, in the Tainter Creek Watershed last week. The occasion was a ‘Fast and Flexible Fencing’ workshop led by fencing expert Randy Cutler.
The workshop was sponsored by the Tainter Creek Watershed Council. It was well-attended by many of the council’s farmer-members. The presentation gave participants information about intensive managed grazing, the economics of running a successful grazing operation, recommendations for cost-effective grazing equipment, and a hands-on demonstration of fence building.
‘Managed Intensive Grazing’ or MIG is based on three concepts. Those concepts, as explained by Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn, are subdividing, rotating and rest.
“The goal with subdividing is to break down your area into smaller paddocks as much as possible,” Wojahn explained. “What you want to do is graze the highest possible number of animals on the smallest possible area.”
Rotating animals between paddocks, depending on the time of year and rate of growth of forage, should occur about every three days. Randy Cutler clarified that he recommends somewhere between 12 hours and five days as a good range to work within.
“Resting your paddocks will help to promote regrowth and prevent overgrazing,” Wojahn said. “There will be seasonal variation in the rate of regrowth, but generally you want to let it come back to approximately 12 to 18 inches – not too much, and not too little.”
Wojahn said that grazers should look to avoid the “thistle and golf course” approach to paddock management. This is where paddocks are not rotated properly, and the cows graze it down to a golf course height, leaving behind the things they won’t eat such as thistle or multiflora rose.
Wojahn explained that stocking rates will vary. The goal is to run a farm business that is profitable through stocking the highest numbers your paddocks will permit, while running a sustainable business where the paddocks are allowed to replenish themselves with good rotation.
The Vernon County Conservationist described the concept of biomimicry, where farming systems are designed to mimic the natural processes.
“The biggest factor in preventing soil erosion and reducing flooding is to keep your soil covered,” Wojahn explained. “Living cover is the best, but leaving your post harvest trash is better than leaving it bare.”
Last, Wojahn introduced some of the county, Golden Sands RC&D, and NRCS staff in the room that are available to assist producers who are interested in adding in grazed beef cattle to their farm operations.
“NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds can be a big help to producers in making the transition,” Wojahn said. “But don’t chase the money – if you want EQIP assistance, be prepared to be patient because there is a big backlog in Vernon and Crawford counties.”
Some grazing technical experts available to consult with producers include:
• Jacob Hawes, Golden Sands RC&D, works out of the NRCS Prairie du Chien office, and can be reached at 608-326-7179.
• John Zinn, Golden Sands RC&D, works out of the NRCS Viroqua office, and can be reached at 608-637-2183.
• Dennis Rooney, Great River Graziers, can be reached at 608-874-4239. Great River Graziers holds pasture walks throughout the growing season.
• Jim Munsch, a consultant for producers in the Tainter Creek Watershed, can be reached at 608-452-3769.
Jim Munsch is a long-time grazier who raises grassfed beef and sells to the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Cooperative. The Coon Valley farmer is consulting with farmers from the Tainter Creek Watershed who are interested in expanding into pasture-based beef production.
Munsch is particularly known for his nuts and bolts approach, emphasizing practical best management practices and focusing on profitability of the operation.
“Randy Cutler, who you are all really here today to see and hear, is to fencing what Willie Nelson is to country music,” Munsch said with a smile. “The whole emphasis of what I’m going to talk about today is the method of using cattle to manage grass in a way that allows for regrowth.”
Munsch says that the reason the Tainter Creek Watershed Council had decided to bring in Randy Culter for a workshop is that the single biggest piece of infrastructure needed for a successful grazing operation is good fencing.
“Ultimately, my work is in trying to help producers to run a successful grazing business,” Munsch said. “The Nagels who are our hosts have a cow/calf business with revenue coming from selling 700 pound feeders in late February. They calf in April and May, wean in October/November, and then take an animal from about 550 lbs. to 700 lbs. by February.”
“What is the main conservation advantage of rotational grazing?” Munsch asked. “It is the best way to maintain and grow your farm’s number one financial asset, your farm’s soil, all while making money,” he said.
“Grazing cattle on pasture is the best way to increase the organic matter in your soil,” Munsch explained. “A field with one percent organic matter can absorb a three-quarter inch rainfall – a field with five percent organic matter can absorb a 3.75 inch rainfall.”
“But ultimately, you have to make money. Good grazing management can help with that,” Munsch said.
Munsch described the results of a study of profitability of cow/calf beef operations by the University of Minnesota. Munsch said that the study showed that the least profitable 20 percent loses about $200 per cow in an 80-cow herd. The top 80-100 percent earn about $500 per cow in a 110-cow herd.
“The biggest single expense in a cow/calf operation is the feed, which represents about 63 percent,” Munsch explained. “When you control the cost of the feed through managed grazing, you start to control costs in your operation, and this is what will ultimately do the most to make your operation profitable.”
Munsch explained that a reasonably good hay field will yield three tons of dry matter per acre in this area. He said the trick is to get your pastures to equal that. The key is managing for vigorous pasture plants with proactive rotation to allow good regrowth and introducing clovers to fix nitrogen and increase pasture quality. He does this cheaply by frost seeding red clover into his paddocks every three years.
The consultant explained that another area where beef farmers sometimes go wrong in this area is in overfeeding during the winter with unnecessarily high quality and high cost feed. He attributes this to so many area farmers having a dairy background.Munsch has materials available for farmers in the Tainter Creek Watershed interested in learning more about the economics of running a profitable grazing operation. You can contact him at 608-452-3769, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to running a fencing company, Cutler Fence, Randy Cutler is also a dealer for certain brands of fencing and watering system equipment that he recommends from years of experience. Among his company’s many fencing jobs, Cutler has an extensive background in fencing to USDA-NRCS specifications.
“An electric fence system is a different kind of fence than the old barbed wire fences,” Cutler explained. “An electric fence is really a mental barrier that functions because it creates respect for the fence in the animal.”
First, Cutler took participants on a brief overview of fencing and watering system essentials for grazing operations. After that, participants headed out into the field for a hands-on afternoon of demonstrations of fast and cost-effective methods of fence construction.More information about Cutler and some of the products he recommends to grazers can be found at https://am.gallagher.com/us/passion-for-pasture/archive/pasture-pro-cutler-fence. To contact Cutler, go to https://cutlercountrycomfort.weebly.com/contact.html.