October 6, 2023
At a Glance
- Mitch Baltz has followed the 300 Days of Grazing Program for 15 years to maximize grazing and minimize input costs.
- Rotational grazing reduces the need to purchase hay, decreases wear on equipment, and reduces fertilizer applications.
- Baltz has improved drinking water for his cattle by taking advantage of funding through the NRCS Prescribed Grazing program.
Hay is an expensive cost in cattle management, but that is not the case for Arkansas farmer Mitch Baltz. For 15 years, he has successfully relied on rotational grazing to cut input costs instead of cutting hay.
Baltz’s cattle operation sits off the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in Lawrence County. There he strategically maintains forage stockpiles to keep his cowherd grazing for nearly 10 months out of the year, only feeding hay for a couple of months in the winter.
He has implemented this grazing strategy since 2008, when he began following recommendations from the
300 Days of Grazing program developed by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
The grazing system, originally designed by Extension forage specialist John Jennings, is now overseen by Kenny Simon, Extension instructor of animal science. Baltz has worked with both Jennings and Simon over the years to fine-tune his practices and improve his operation with a few NRCS projects along the way.
Baltz said, “We have had a lot of success with the 300 Days of Grazing program. It is a way of life for me now, and I would never go back to the way we did things before.”
Stockpiling forage for rotational grazing
Baltz said converting to the 300 Days of Grazing program is particularly easy for farmers who already utilize a rotational grazing system.
On his farm, the cattle graze bermudagrass and crabgrass in the summer – along with summer annuals like hybrid sorghum sudangrass. In August, he begins stockpiling forage for the winter.
Baltz starts with sod suppression and said this is an important step that requires bushhogging or a chemical burndown to remove old growth. He fertilizes the bermudagrass and crabgrass that will be stockpiled for late fall and early winter grazing.
Baltz cautioned that scouting is imperative at this stage, because armyworms have an appetite for new growth. To avoid infestation, he routinely scouts for armyworm damage three times per week beginning around mid-August.
In September, he fertilizes fields of fescue that will be stockpiled until late winter. From there, planting continues into early October for crops like spring oats, ryegrass, and wheat to keep the cattle grazing through the fall and winter seasons.
Dividing fields for grazing efficiency
Baltz limits the cowherd to a designated grazing area by dividing the pasture into smaller sections, stripped off with a hotwire system. The electric fence is made of single-strand tinsel wire and attached to metal posts with polywire.
The fencing system is easily adjusted at the post markers to rotate the cattle into the next grazing strip. Baltz said he keeps the cattle in a smaller area to prevent them from packing down the grass as they roam the pasture.
The size of the grazing area depends on the time of year and available stockpiles on the farm. Baltz typically strips the fields for two to three days of grazing. However, when stockpiles are low the cattle are restricted to a one-day supply to maximize feeding.
“According to Dr. Jennings, stripping off the pasture to give the herd a one-day supply will feed about 70% of that grass. Otherwise, if you turn them out on the whole field, you feed only around 35% of it. That makes a big difference,” he explained.
Graze, rest, repeat
Allowing the grass to rest is an essential part of the program. Grazing height is important, and Baltz monitors the cattle and moves them to a new strip of pasture before they graze the forage too short.
He said, “Leaving the grass a little taller with a rotational grazing system gives the plants plenty of sunlight and encourages quicker growth. You let the grass rest, and then it takes off growing. That makes all the difference in the world, and I have grass galore here on the farm.”
This technique also prevents the cattle from chewing the grass down to the ground and grinding their teeth into the dirt. As a result, the cows have healthier, longer lasting teeth.
Baltz smiled and moved a hotwire for his cattle to enter a new field. As the cows ran into the fresh pasture he said, “I have so much grass this year that there are some fields I have not grazed at all this summer. I may end up having to cut those for hay.”
Allowing the grass to rest is an essential part of the 300 Days of Grazing program. Baltz monitors the grazing height carefully to ensure the cattle are moved to a new strip of pasture before any forage is grazed too short. Photo credit: Whitney Haigwood
Less hay, better soil health
Untouched fields are the only stockpiles cut for hay, and those bales are reserved for winter feeding. This not only saves on the cost of hay, but also reduces the wear and tear on equipment compared to year-round hay baling, hauling, and storage.
In addition, year-round forage optimizes soil health and maintains soil nutrient levels. This reduces costly supplemental fertilizer applications and saves Baltz money down the road.
He said that nutrients are in the grass, and when hay is cut and hauled from a field, the nutrients go right along with it. “If you do not bring the hay back and feed it in the same spot you cut it, you have lost those nutrients. You essentially mined them from your soil,” he added.
To monitor soil fertility, Baltz collects soil samples every other year and applies fertilizer as needed. His bermudagrass fields typically need a potash application; however, some fields need no fertilizer at all.
“I have not had to fertilize the other end of my farm in several years. That is where I have most of my fescue, and we have built the phosphorus and potassium up pretty good there.”
Baltz has also gained in soil organic matter, ranging from 4% to 6% across the farm. In effect, this improves soil infiltration rates and enhances plant health. The biomass allows rainfall to penetrate deep into the silt loam and silty clay loam soils – getting rainwater to the plant roots, rather than running off into nearby ponds.
Clean drinking water in every field
A rotational grazing system requires drinking water in every field, and Baltz relies on the strategic placement of watering tanks around the farm, supplied with well water. The tanks are located at post markers where fields adjoin so that each tank provides clean drinking water to multiple fields.
Nine of these watering tanks were constructed from old combine tires. To ease the installation costs of these tire tanks, Baltz took advantage of EQUIP funding through the NRCS Prescribed Grazing program. He worked with NRCS engineers and district conservationists to execute the project on his farm.
Baltz explained that installation requires digging and plumbing from the well to the tank and noted that he does most of the digging himself with a 1950s model trencher.
To install, the top bead of the tire is cut out to give the cattle room to drink and the bottom of the tire is filled with concrete around the plumbing and sealed with silicone. A float valve in the tank automatically turns the pump on to provide a constant water supply as the cows drink.
Baltz mentioned the benefits of these tire tanks compared to the older concrete tanks located on the property. He said the tires are sturdy enough for the bulls in the herd, and the black rubber absorbs sunlight to minimize freezing problems in the winter.
To reduce algae, a few goldfish are kept in the tanks. Those goldfish also bring joy to Baltz’s grandson when he visits the farm.
Continuous improvement on the cattle farm
Baltz is currently in the process of converting all his Kentucky 31 fescue to novel endophyte fescue by following recommendations from the Alliance for Grassland Renewal organization. This switch will safeguard his cattle from the fungal infection known as fescue foot, caused by the toxic endophyte found in Kentucky 31.
Furthermore, he hopes to improve grazing with another NRCS project on his farm by building portable shade structures to protect the cattle from the summer sun.
While he takes every opportunity to improve his operation, one thing is for certain. Baltz will continue stockpiling and rotating to save on inputs while his cows graze 300 days a year.
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