Making the Switch to Grass
Two new calves teeter in the grass next to their mothers as Neal Sawyer rides up on his four-wheeler to check the herd. The cattle glance his way and then continue grazing. Sawyer pulls out fencing equipment and starts moving posts and stringing wire. He opens a new paddock in the field, and the cows move toward it, munching as they go.
You can’t run a grass-fed beef farm from an office or a tractor cab, and Sawyer, 33, likes it that way. He is most comfortable in the pasture with his cattle. Rotational grazing wasn’t something he grew up around. The cattle on his family farm near Princeton, Iowa, were grain-fed. It wasn’t until people started asking him if he had any grass-fed beef to sell that he considered that option. “Dad was adamant about corn-fed beef tasting better,” he says.
Do your research first
Sawyer read about rotational intensive grazing, went to conferences, and learned the benefits of a grass system. It didn’t take long to convince his dad. “We are in a really hilly area with highly erodible soils, so it made sense for us.” They switched 400 acres of land to pasture, seeding clover, bird’s-foot trefoil, brome, orchard grass, timothy, oats, and a little alfalfa on newly disked fields. The pastures took two years to get fully established.
Start with a good fence
The most important tools in a grass system, says Sawyer, are good wire and posts. He uses Powerflex Fence products (www.powerflexfence.com) with step-in posts that bend easily and wire that holds up to the elements.
Once you have your fence material in hand and a trusty means of transportation such as a four-wheeler, it’s time to rotate, rotate, rotate. Keeping the cattle moving from paddock to paddock keeps the pasture and soils healthy. There are more sugars in the plants and better microorganisms in the soils with rotational rather than conventional grazing, says Sawyer.
As the cattle move, they drop fertilizer bombs. Over three years, every foot of the pasture will benefit from the cow pies, he says. He moves the entire herd every 12 hours and grazes 2 to 4 acres at a time.
“If I see that 70% or more of the grass is eaten or trampled, I move the herd. I watch the grass and if half of the height is gone, I move the cows,” he says.
Health costs are low, but he has been challenged with pinkeye outbreaks in his herd of 150 females. That requires a lot of patches and ointment.
“I don’t use wormers and I don’t notice parasites,” he says. “I’m always moving the cattle to fresh grass, so that helps.”
Watch the water
Along with fencing, a good watering system is essential. Sawyer trenched in water lines throughout his pastures, and he has hydrants that feed tanks for every paddock. The cattle are 600 to 800 feet from a water tank at all times. If the cattle are within that distance, they will not all drink at once, he says.
The big pond in the pasture used to be the cows’ water source, but it had silted in from their trampling. Now it is fenced off and there is grass around it, with geese, turtles, and ducks enjoying the environment. The only time cattle get near the pond is when the temperature approaches 90°F. or more with high humidity. At that point, they are allowed in the pond for heat relief. “I lost a couple of cows from heat stress one year. It was a hard lesson to learn. I know I have to let them back into trees, shade, or the pond,” says Sawyer.
Cattle grow slower with a grass system. Sawyer’s steers used to go to market at 15 to 18 months when they were grain- fed. Since he switched to grass in 2008, the market age went up to 20 to 25 months. That margin has to be made up by lower feed costs and charging more for the product. Consumer demand hasn’t been an issue, says Sawyer. “Grass-fed beef is past the fad stage.”
He processes his cattle at two places – a federally inspected plant in Edgewood, Iowa, and at state-inspected Preston Meats in Preston, Iowa, where he sells halves and quarters. The meat is dry-aged for 10 days to two weeks, hanging in a cooler to intensify the flavor.
His equipment costs are low. “A four-wheeler and fencing is all I need,” says Sawyer. The main investment is time and day-to-day labor. “If I was only interested in money, I would till it all up and raise corn,” says Sawyer, with a grin.
Neal Sawyer, Sawyer Beef
1103 Lost Grove Road
Princeton, IA 52768
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