I really enjoy a monitoring session, but will quickly admit that they are a bunch more fun when one or more interested people present, especially with bunches of good questions.
I like for them to be praising you one minute then following with question after question and listening attentively to the answers. They make you defend everything, including all your management decisions. Mix a beer or two in the deal along with a few bites of cold beef and it is a toned down rendition of a few Friday night frolics of the past.
It's about observation. When I go to my farms, I am interested in several important considerations:
- Fun and some exercise
- Manure condition
- Pasture regrowth
- Microbial activity
- Soil color and structure and texture and moisture
- Wildlife activity
- Inputs (seeds) that we make
- Forbs and brush
- Getting cattle through the winter
I have already said enough about fun so I’ll start with manure. On a winter trip to one farm, I zoned in on areas that were grazed 30 to 45 days ago. Back in September we had temperatures of up to 90 degrees while the cattle were grazed in densities of 75,000 pounds per acre. Moves were on a daily basis and the cattle were supplemented with one pound of energy supplement per 250 pounds of body weight (cracked corn), several ounces of Kansas salt, several ounces of lime (CaCO4) per 250 pounds of body weight, and some trace minerals. There has been more than one inch of moisture or more weekly and 30 hours of sunshine during seven-day periods on a regular basis.
The manure was mostly disappearing with soil incorporation and flipping by turkeys and probably other wildlife. About 80% of the turds were not readily evident. Digging under these mostly digested pads showed new plant growth, darker soil, lots of earthworms with size, a wonderful earthy smell, and soil aggregation with lots of air spaces to hold water and air depending on the weather. Both are necessary to grow grass and legumes. Earthworms were working up to eight inches deep into some really anaerobic clay dirt. This adds lots of air and soil food and growth.
I recalled that immediately post-grazing the manure was spaced every three to six feet and twice the size of a gallon jug bottom and two to three inches high with the texture resembling peanut butter. Forty days later I could only easily find a pat every 20-30 feet or more. Remember that behind every 1 day graze there was a steer pie every three to six feet. Earthworm numbers likely averaged 30 per pat and most would be considered good fish bait or hen supplement. Less easily found manure was much digested into hundreds of sub units. Remember that the wild turkeys had worked these areas.
Supplementing calcium in large amounts to our cattle is a no-brainer in our country. Most of the lime we feed (95% or more) is later deposited in the manure. Remember that calcium is soil fertility driver No. 1. Earthworms love calcium and everything loves earthworms. Plant a tomato plant in earthworm castings and experience what happens with zero additional fertilization. This is biodynamic farming in real life. Good cattle manure is a miracle right in front of our eyes and nose when managed in the natural model. Everything is connected.
The pasture regrowth revealed near 100% ground cover including some standing brown C4 plants, growing C3 grasses and forbs and clover regrowth. The ground liter was 20-50% digested. I saw 20 cow days of feed 40 days behind the mob on November 22.
In late August of 2018 we mixed two ounces of turnip and rape seed with a one-half pound of gulf rye grass and oats into 200 pounds of lime and five pounds of Kansas coarse loose salt. We threw the mix in front of the cattle at a rate of 200 pounds per one-third acre. A bunch of this stuff was up in late November and lots of the turnips were baseball size. I filled two 5 gallon buckets in 10 minutes. Last winter we had several acres of this cocktail (turnip seed was 80 cents per pound). Turnips are a nitrogen and sulfur increaser and are a really good side for lots of meals. Slice them and salt lightly and no other preparation is required.
The turnips will mostly freeze out before the cattle get back in February but they will push the oats and rye grass. The rape is good stuff.
Remember that if there is a little moisture, cattle grazed in high densities (70,000 pounds per acre or more) will essentially culti-pack a good percentage of seeds. The smaller and harder the seed, the better the results. Lime is a good carrier.
The landscape was a jungle in early August when the cattle arrived. The canopy top was 6 to 12 feet high. When the cattle left the pastures were open and there was lots of ground litter. Hopefully, we left enough standing brown dry matter to replace hay feeding in March, April and May.
Ragweed, ironweed, cocklebur, aster and mares tail that I pulled up had earthworms in their root balls and excellent soil aggregation. Aster has furnished a lot of quality feed the last two years (see Beef Producer). The same is true to a slightly lesser extent of ragweed which is near alfalfa quality in late June, July, and August. Ironweed is likely our No. 1 deep soil builder and cattle browse off the mature leaves. This is an excellent mineral/trace mineral supplement and likely gives cattle several other health benefits from a number of secondary and tertiary compounds.
I enjoyed the 90 minutes of monitoring while walking, digging, looking, smelling, pay attention, and harvesting some nutrient-dense food. Hopefully I’ll use the information for profitable planning.