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Beefs and Beliefs

I Spent Last Week With Great Graziers

Grassfed Exchange meeting in Missouri was loaded with bright ideas and brighter people.


I really like spending time with grass finishers of livestock because most of them are really good grass managers.

If practiced well, that also means they are among the lowest-cost producers.

That's why I spent last week at the annual Grassfed Exchange meeting in Columbia, Missouri. I'll share a few highlights here, but first a word about grass finishing for those of you who might care to remind me I'm also a proponent of smart money use.

The only complaint I have with grass finishing of cattle in particular, is that it's a much slower way to finish them because of the relatively low amount of energy in forages. This means a slower turnover of money, and as rancher friends Wally Olson of Vinita, Oklahoma, and Charlie Kraus of Hays, Kansas, are constantly reminding me, turnover of capital can be equally as powerful as high return on investment.

Now, back to my stories ...

On the way up I spent the afternoon with Mark Brownlee in west-central Missouri. I've known Mark for awhile and twice heard him give his talk about his progression from an old-style, hay-subsidized operation to a high-stock-density, tall-grass grazier.

I'll write more about Mark's operation in coming issues but the gist of his story is he's much more profitable these days, he and the cattle are much happier and healthier, and he's much more drought-proof.

Once at the conference we made a tour stop at Greg and Jan Judy's place, which we've featured in Beef Producer a couple of times for grass management and also for innovative land leasing methods. One of the things Greg and Jan talked about at breakfast with me and others is how their program for interns may also yield them an heir, since neither have children to carry on their operation.

While I'm on the topic of interns, I'll mention that many of the innovative graziers I've met, from the Judys to Neil Dennis in Saskatchewan to Chad Peterson at Billings, Montana, to Brett Addison at Marietta, Oklahoma, bring interns onto their operations at various times. Most have told me a primary goal is they want to teach young people the more profitable ways of management. They add that the idea of "free" labor or even cheap labor is not really a functional description of an intern. Sometimes though, when the intern is a good one, his or her presence allows the managers to apply much higher stock density with livestock to improve the land faster than their own limited time might otherwise allow.

A similar program I just learned about last week is run by the Quivira Coalition from Sante Fe, New Mexico. It's called the New Agrarian Program and is actually a year-long apprenticeship on various types of "sustainable" operations.

Abe Collins, a former grass-based dairyman and grass-finishing beef producer from Vermont, talked at some length about how grazing livestock can be used to build soil, a concept currently considered void by the majority of range and pasture scientists. At Beef Producer we know Collins's claims to be true because so many time-controlled, planned graziers over the past 20 years have shown us soil tests that prove increased soil organic matter.

Collins opened his talk with this statistic: Soil loss in the US is 10 times the rate of soil formation, on the average. That pretty much matches estimates I've seen over the years from NRCS and the US Geological Survey.

Collins's answer to this is the same as mine has been for many years now: "We need 100s of thousands or maybe millions more ruminants than we currently have to improve the land."

We'll plan to have more from Collins and others in our soil health issue next June.

During the farm tour we heard Luke Linenbringer describe a unique piece of equipment he's invented. It's a pasture waterer with an integral livestock scale. Its purpose is to provide performance data from the pasture and help with management decisions. Used along with visual cues such as gut fill, manure condition and pH of the urine, it might help determine the effects of changing forage types and supplements or timing of moves. Read more about that in the November issue of Beef Producer.

Last but certainly not least, it was interesting to me how much emphasis the outside world is beginning to put on soil carbon. Of course, they keep tying it to some degree with the failed concept of anthropomorphic global warming, a weak and discredited hypothesis, but in reality soil-carbon increase is a vital topic. Organic matter, or soil carbon, is the engine of soil life, as Walt Davis has been known to describe it. It retains water, creates air space and provides food for soil microflora and plants alike.

In fact, I met a young man representing an investor's group from the East Coast which is investing money in grass-based agriculture enterprises which can prove they're building soil carbon.

My, how times change.

I arrived home in the wee hours Saturday morning after a stop-by visit with my friend Darrel Franson, who lives near Mount Vernon, Missouri. Lately I've been talking with Franson about how heat cuts production in cool-season grasses, even when there's ample water. His extensive records have shown this trend.

I'll leave you with one more thought about how great our country once was and how innovation like I saw last week should be the norm. It's from Iowan Fritz Groszkruger: "In the old days, people in foreign lands who were hamstrung by cronyism or tax structure looked to America as a place where the rewards for their efforts were theirs to keep. That produced incentive for them to excel at what they did. Many worked long hours and made great sacrifices with the assurance they could use the proceeds as they saw fit."

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