Spring 2012
Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.

Conferences and workshops are rich sources of tips for livestock care, pasture management, marketing and more. Here are some ideas gleaned from 2011 events that I attended.

At the Maine Grass Farmers Conference, Jim Gerrish of American GrazingLands Services LLC in May, Idaho, said that to raise meat, milk or fiber, you must manage the availability of solar energy – and forages are your solar panels, so increase the leaf area index (the amount of green cover) by growing a mix of narrow leaf plants (grasses) and wide leaf plants (legumes and many perennials). Gerrish also said to minimize bare soil and grazing of over-mature plants; to manage the land for water availability; and to manage soil nutrients carefully, since approximately 90 percent of what ruminant animals eat becomes manure.

I would add “time” to this list of management goals. How long do you leave animals in the paddock? How long do you keep them off to allow plants to grow back and to increase the root mass? How much time do you have to manage rotations?

Grazing the same ground too often and too short – e.g., starting at 4 inches and taking the animals off at 2 inches of plant height – will destroy the pasture and increase weed populations, said Gerrish. A farm operates at only 30 percent efficiency if pasture plants are grazed until they’re too short. Instead, let animals graze when plants are at least 8 inches tall; even waiting until some clover is in flower and removing animals when pasture is down to 4 inches in height will increase efficiency to 60 to 75 percent – and will sequester more carbon.

Once plants are mature or even older, they direct more photosynthates to storage roots than to leaf mass, reducing forage production efficiency.

Ideal management varies with different forage and livestock species. Red and ladino clovers are best grazed at 12 inches, especially for cattle.  Many grasses and birdsfoot trefoil are better grazed at 8 inches. For sheep, leaving 3 to 4 inches of residual growth helps control parasites.

For best pasture management, animals should not stay in a paddock for more than three days; for best animal performance, only one day.

In general, when plants are tall enough, plan to take half of pasture growth and leave half for good root maintenance.

Ohio State research showed that grazing Kentucky Bluegrass too short – i.e., to 2 inches – could add five days to the time needed for re-growth.

A healthy stand of bluegrass and clover and a 180-day growing season will produce 6,000 pounds of forage if it has a 30-day recovery period or six rotations (4 inches consumed at each of six grazing times, with 250 pounds of dry matter per inch per acre; 4 x 250 x 6 = 6,000 pounds). A 45-day recovery period or four rotations produces 4,000 pounds of forage.

Two recovery periods are calculated because in spring and early summer, plants grow faster, and a paddock rested for 30 days can still get healthy regrowth. In later summer or with less rain, plants need 45 or more days to recover.

Finally, Gerrish noted that the seasonal utilization rate or percent of annual forage production actually used and not wasted by animals is determined by the length of the grazing period, frequency and duration of grazing, species of livestock and forages, presence of single versus multiple pasture and animal species, and the distribution of plants, animals and grazing times.

Beneficial Weeds

At the Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Conference, Troy Bishopp, “the grass whisperer” of Deansboro, N.Y., said that milkweed is often considered a pasture weed, but it can be managed to support monarch butterflies. Also, its deep roots bring up minerals from deep in the soil, making them available to adjacent plants when milkweed dies, and to animals that eat bits of the young milkweed plants. Milkweed can be controlled with more-intensive grazing, i.e., by concentrating more animals in an area.

Animals impact the area around bale feeders significantly, said Bishopp, and nutrients from their manure are mixed into the soil and increase plant diversity in this area. Weedy areas can be grazed more intensively to enable animals to “till” the soil and incorporate organic matter; then these areas can be seeded.

Livestock Health

At his Livestock Health Seminar with Organic Valley Cooperative, Dr. Paul Detloff said that having a well balanced soil mineral level is critical to successful farming. He recommended a pH of 6.5 to 6.8 and saturation levels of 70 to 75 percent calcium; 15 to 16 percent magnesium; 5 to 8 percent potassium and 1 percent sodium, with boron, cobalt, zinc, iodine, manganese and sulfur at 25 to 30 parts per million.

If a cow rocks back on its heels to ease the weight from its toes, said Detloff, check for laminitis (little hemorrhages in the lining of the hoof) – and investigate the animal’s feet and diet to discover the cause of the rocking.  A high grain diet increases the amount of butyric acid in the rumen and often results in this condition. A high forage diet lowers butyric acid and increases acetic acid levels, producing a healthier animal.

Plants with hollow stems are often high in potassium, which can cause milk fever in ruminants.

Be aware of magnetic field issues and stray voltage, continued Detloff. Look at all the pathways electricity takes on the farm. For example, if the transformer is by one end of the barn and the electrical service entrance on the other, electricity is more likely to travel through water and milkline pipes.

For animals with reproductive issues, supplement their feed with manganese and kelp for enzyme activation. Kelp is also high in iodine, which helps control internal parasites.

Continuing to address nutrients, Detloff noted that soil microbes more actively mineralize plant nutrients when temperatures climb above 50 degrees F, so plants will take up more nutrients and seeds will germinate better in warmer soils.

Regarding some health care substances, Detloff said that tincture of Caulophyllum thalictroides (blue cohosh) constricts the uterus, which helps alleviate metritis (inflammation of the uterine wall) or expel a mummified calf. And humate liquid helps calves overcome coccidia or cryptosporum infections.

To make a foliar spray to promote plant growth, mix 3 ounces of liquid fish, 2 ounces of molasses, 2 ounces of kelp, 1/4 cup salt, 1 ounce of apple cider vinegar, 2 ounces of humates and 1 quart of milk with 2 gallons of water.

Essential oils are synergistic with all mixtures of herbal tinctures or decoctions, said Detloff.

A very effective antibiotic is a mix of cayenne, Echinacea and garlic, especially when tinctured together; while willow bark and St. Johnswort tinctured together make an effective painkiller.

Animals’ immune systems, said Detloff, decrease in effectiveness seven days after weaning or drying off (stopping milking), and two to three weeks before giving birth, and three to four weeks after giving birth. Their cortisol levels rise at these times, indicating that the animals are experiencing stress. Giving 1 ounce of aloe per 110 pounds of animal will help reduce cortisol.

Dr. Hue Karreman of Penn Dutch Cow Care in Pennsylvania gave a Livestock Health Seminar with Organic Valley Cooperative. He said that a product called Ferro, and chicory in pasture, are both rich in tannins, which help reduce adult internal parasites in cows, sheep and goats. VermaTox from AgriDynamics also helps with internal parasites.

To treat mange, Karreman recommended washing with Betadine scrub and drying and dusting with elemental sulfur and tobacco powder, repeating the treatment in a week.

Hoof rot or hairy hoof warts can be treated with 1/2 cup of sugar mixed with 2 ounces of Betadine scrub or honey.

All essential oils are antiseptic, added Karreman; and to treat calf diarrhea, try giving the animal oregano tea.

Karreman believes that residues from natural treatments need to be investigated, possibly through a SARE grant.

Karreman also noted that cows that have Streptococcus agalactiae or Staphylococcus aureus can be used as nurse cows, because calves will not get these types of mastitis from drinking milk with the bacteria. The only possible problem is if calves fed this milk nurse on other calves and spread the disease. But generally the calf will go to the nurse cow before it will go to another calf.

Raising Replacement Stock

Karma and Michael Glos from Kingbird Farm in Berkshire, N.Y., spoke at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference in November 2011. They raise their own replacement stock in order to choose animals that fit well in their system. They are breeding Tamworth pigs, Scottish Highland cattle, Peking ducks, Australorp laying hens and Freedom Ranger meat birds.

Culling inappropriate breeding stock is critical. Any animal with behavior, constitution or body shape that doesn’t fit your system should be eaten.
The Gloses keep their sows in a Swedish bedded pack system using lots of straw to keep the animals warm and dry. With seven sows and one boar, they get an average of eight piglets per litter. They use oak dividers between litters in the barn, which has a raised concrete area at one end where pigs access feed and water while keeping their feet dry.

Five roosters are kept for 20 to 30 laying hens and five drakes with 20 ducks for good fertile egg production. Cockerels from laying hens are raised for meat for 20 to 24 weeks.

Chicks are raised in an Ohio Brooder box, basically a box on legs with a heat lamp inside the box.  This inspired the Gloses to build a similar setup for piglets, and it is working well.

The Gloses are great speakers and are willing to share information. See www.kingbirdfarm.com.

Ration, Hay and Pasture Talk

Also at Farmer to Farmer, Gary Anderson of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension said that calculating a ration really involves recognizing that there are three rations: the calculated ration, the mixed and fed ration, and the eaten ration. Losses can occur between mixing and eating, so when evaluating a ration, Anderson said, look not just at the calculated ration but also at the animal’s body condition.

Richard Kersbergen, also of UMaine Cooperative Extension, said, “Hay in May, or see the head and the quality is dead.” If you harvest first cut hay early, the second and third cuts will be greater. And cutting hay on the last day of a predicted rain enables the crop to dry the next day.

A sickle bar mower dries forage faster than a mower-conditioner initially, but the mower-conditioner dries the last 15 percent of the moisture faster – although running a tedder after the mower-conditioner will provide both early and later drying.

Ross Ludders of Clovercrest Farm in Charleston, Maine, said that an L system for pasture, in which animals go into the least desirable area first and work toward the best area, is effective. In an L system, the temporary fencing is set up in an L shape.  The animals walk along the leg of the L to the base first.  At each change of rotation, the fence is moved to shorten the leg and increase the depth of the base.  By taking advantage of the animals’ desire for the best feed, the system eliminates the need for back fencing (fencing behind the animals to keep them out of the area they previously grazed).


During a Northeast Livestock In-service Training, Matt LeRoux from Cornell University Cooperative Extension talked about the Marketing Channel Assessment Tool he created for vegetable farms and is now creating for livestock farmers. It evaluates the impact of a marketing channel choice by looking at price, profit, associated costs, sales volume, and labor requirement, risk and lifestyle preferences. Farmers’ markets have the poorest profit per hour, said LeRoux, but they are a good way to find customers. 

Meat CSAs are more work for the producer and return less per hour than selling a half or whole animal, unless prices are adjusted.

Think of your target audience, said LeRoux, when considering pricing, packaging, marketing channel, products and cuts, value added, processing establishment choice, promotion and communication methods.

Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her at 568-4142 or [email protected].

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