Livestock Meeting Notes 2015

Spring 2016
Toki Oshima drawing

By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.

This is my annual wrap-up of meetings I attended in 2015, beginning with the Northeast Pasture Consortium meeting in Morgantown, W. Virginia.
Using a conservation planning computer tool created in response to concerns expressed last year at the Northeast Pasture Consortium, Peter Kleinman demonstrated effects of grazing on surface and subsurface waters of riparian corridor ecosystems. Kleinman is an adjunct associate professor of soil science with the USDA-ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, Pennsylvania. The tool balances management goals, soil health, stream health and other factors and can model many aspects of a farm. It relates phosphorus concentrations in the soil solution and in plants to concentrations that cause algal blooms. This is part of an integrated farm modeling system available at Audience members expressed concern about the difference between runoff of manure, of increased plant degradation if land is not grazed or of increased biological activity on wooded stream banks. The presentation showed that continued research is needed on best management practices for grazing riparian areas.

Heather Darby, extension associate professor at the University of Vermont (UVM), spoke about possible summer annual plantings for grazing and forage production. Sudangrass is the best liked by cows on pasture and has excellent regrowth. The BMR (brown midrib) varieties have a high digestibility. Millet has a much smaller stem and great leaf biomass, with remarkable regrowth potential, no prussic acid, and it does well on wetter and cooler soils. The small stems of teff are very leafy and tolerate many soil types. Teff is grown for hay, not pasture, and takes 9 to 12 weeks to reach harvest stage. Corn can be grown for one cut or can be grazed when small.

Ideally summer annuals should be seeded with a grain drill in late June or early July in soil that is 60 to 65 F. Seeds should be planted 1-1/2 inches deep at a rate of 35 to 55 pounds per acre for sudangrass, 28 to 30 pounds for millet and 4 to 5 for teff. Soil pH should be 6.0 to 6.5, and soils should be well amended with P, K and manure, based on a soil test. Millet requires less N than sudangrass for high yields.

Trials in which brassicas or crimson clover were interplanted with millet produced less dry matter per acre than millet alone.

If animals cannot graze these small grains due to weather, at least the plants serve as cover crops.

Sid Bosworth, extension professor of agronomy at UVM, thinks that perennial rye is not worth the cost and effort, even with quality seed, since its winter survival requires snow cover.

A. Fay Benson, small dairy extension educator from Cornell University, has started trials of no-till drilled brassicas, primarily tillage radish, into pastures for winter grazing, soil health improvement and to reduce compaction. First-year plantings were not very successful for reasons yet to be determined.

Matt Bertone, extension associate entomologist at North Carolina State University, spoke about the natural history of dung beetles. They are tunnelers, primarily, and their value for pasture health is only beginning to be understood. They do improve the distribution of nutrients on the pasture. To evaluate the dung beetle population in your fields, pick up a shovel full of dung, hold it for 5 minutes and then flip it over. You will see the beetles that burrowed down to the shovel blade. When managing pasture for their survival, do not pasture chickens until at least three to four days after larger livestock were removed from the paddocks. This give the beetles time to do their job and get below the reach of chickens.

At the 2015 Maine Grass Farmers Network conference, Gabe Brown from Brown’s Ranch in Bismarck, North Dakota (, spoke about adopting Holistic Management on his farm, philosophically and on the ground. He advised using animals as a tool to make money. He started by quitting all inputs – vaccines, pour-on wormers, grains, etc. It took two to three years to change his herd of cattle to short, thick, easy fleshing animals with big guts. His goal is a 35-day breeding period and 90 percent weaning rate. Calves stay on dams for 10 months before weaning. I recommend his video, “Keys to Building a Healthy Soil,” at

Brown’s cows calve on winter triticale and hairy vetch or on native range in a 45-day window in May to June. Do not use the same ground two years in a row, said Brown. His stocking rate is 150,000 to 250,000 pounds per acre, grazed once each year. Allow full recovery of pastures, said Brown. He grows turnips and tillage radish to feed cows and to turn under to feed the soil.

Millet does not hold its quality for winter stockpiling, said Brown. His cows bale graze during the worst of winter on lower quality fields, spending seven to 10 days per paddock at this time of the year, balancing quality and poor fields. The farmstead is available during the worst of blizzards, and water is available there. Rotating bale grazing adds carbon and nutrients to the soil and produces so much more growth. A healthy soil ecosystem is the goal, said Brown.

Dung Beetles and birds control flies. Focus on beneficials in the environment, said Brown; and heal riparian areas that animals impacted.

Brown uses Brix levels (a measure of sugar concentrations) to decide when to cut hay. A Brix of 16 will produce an average daily gain of 2 pounds.  With a field of alfalfa and brome grass and Brix of 22, Brown can get an average gain of 2.25 pounds. In this situation cows are rotated two to three times each day and are eating only the top third of the plants. This ensures an even distribution of dung and urine, improves soil health, stabilizes soil temperatures, keeps soils cooler, makes “happier” soil microbes and earthworms, and maximizes solar energy use and soil carbon buildup. When finishing cows, allow the cows to select for maximum energy by using a lower stock density.

Brown has been using British white bulls for breeding. A mature cow averages 1,150 to 1,300 pounds.

Jason Rowantree, assistant professor at Michigan State University, spoke about fencing and the ability to have animals in a certain place at a certain time for best animal and plant behavior. Grass finishing aims to improve the triple bottom line: environmental, social and economic.

First, said Rowantree, have the right forages growing in the fields; second, manage them well; and third, have good animal genetics. Regarding management, he said that a good rate of photosynthesis combined with the capacity of a soil that has a good microbial population produces a greater Brix and more forage. Walk your fields every two weeks to monitor pasture growth, he suggested.

A small cow eats as much as a large cow but gains twice as much weight. Rowantree believes that a 1,200-pound adult cow is a good size in general. A feeder calf uses 2 to 2.5 tons of hay from weaning to slaughter. Ensure that animals have a good body condition score going into winter.

At MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer Conference, Jeff Maddocks from Fertrell did three great sessions – one on pigs and piglets with Brendan Holmes of Misty Brook Farm; one on alternatives to corn and soy feeds; and one on income-positive poultry (layers and broilers). I have copies of his slide presentation. Contact me if you want one.

At the Maine Beef Producers Conference, Bruce Addison, president of Addison Biological Laboratory, Inc., spoke about causes, treatments and prevention of infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (IBK, or pinkeye) and about the vaccine that Addison produces. The disease often is caused by the bacterium Moraxella bovis and is exacerbated by infectious bovine rhinotracheitis. Moraxella bovis collagenase destroys the white blood cells and breaks down the internal eye tissue. Although IBK doesn’t often affect cows on certified organic farms, the bacterium is developing antibiotic resistance, so prevention is the best method of addressing pinkeye. Prevention includes mineral supplementation, keeping animals out of very tall pastures where plant matter would be likely to scratch the eye, and using a vaccine if IBK is common in the herd. Gluing a patch of denim to the eyebrows to reduce light reaching the eye will also help a great deal.

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

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