Grass, cattle and goats

Grass, cattle and goats
by Bonnie Warnyca - 7, 2011

If you read the article about the Fearnley family farm in the June issue of the Alberta Beef Magazine, you will recall that the family switched to a more intensive grass management system about 15 years ago. After we talked to John Fearnley about the progress, he wrote back to continue the dialogue offering some additional and rather creative insights to cutting costs and dealing with unwanted invasive plant species. He also talked about the improvements he's been seeing in the 1900 acres of owned and rented pastures.

On some of his rented land where he runs his 85 Hereford/Angus cows and calves and custom grazes some 500 yearlings, for hopefully 100 days annually, he has had to deal with Tall Buttercup.

He says the plant has increased over the past 10 years, especially on compacted areas with low fertility. As a result of the drier conditions, where you once only found it in a ring of black soil between the peat in the sloughs and the grey soil higher up, it's been slowly creeping up the hillsides.

"Without cultivation or herbicide and since the cattle won't even graze near it, our only option was to try to increase the fertility of the soil to a point where forage would force it out," says Fearnley. "To do that, we placed winter hay feed deliberately on patches where we knew the Buttercup was and we were able to get forage production up and it's worked well."

The family also has to deal with Tansy, Buckbrush or Snowberry, Canada Thistle and White Poplar. They spot spray the Tansy to keep ahead of it and will use chemical to spray the Buckbrush. The improved grass stands seem to keep the Thistle under control but Fearnley has clipped out a few patches with good results. The White Poplar suckers that borders many of the fields is quite palatable to the cattle and they chew it down. Although Fearnley has clipped some of it in the past, he says that you also need to follow up with more intense grazing management.

"We stopped using chemical fertilizer in the early 1980s," continues Fearnley. "The only herbicides we now use are to spot spray the invasive plants the cattle eat poorly or not at all. I tried some herbicide for brush control a few years ago, which worked well, and even though it speeded up the recovery process, I don't think it was cost effective."

Running a small herd of goats parallel to the cow herd has helped to control some of the underbrush (especially willow) and forbs that the cattle don't graze down.

"Our son Barry and his wife Lisa are building a herd of goats and had about 50 nannies kid this spring," says Fearnley. "There are challenges in keeping the goats where you want them, but they are useful for improving bush pasture."

Fearnley tells us that up until about 20 years ago most of the bush pasture in this area was burned off regularly but since the drought conditions, fire regulations and liability issues, it's no longer an option.

There are about 100 acres of meadows, mainly mono-culture Reed Canary Grass which has been quite productive yielding 2.5 to 3 tonne per acre on an average year. But Fearnley warns that it needs to be grazed down before it gets too mature.

"We ran into a problem managing these stands in a couple of the drier years," explains this rancher. "We got good use of it during the first round of grazing in mid-June but when we came back to it in mid-August, the cows refused to eat it and broke through the fence into an adjacent paddock. I consulted an Ag Specialist and was told that because of a higher concentration of alkaloids in the plants, the cows then found it unpalatable."

Fearnley then baled the field hoping the cattle would eat it but they only ate a small percentage leaving the rest as bedding. "I'm now trying to shift the sward to more palatable grasses with herd effect," he says. "There are fescue and Timothy plants in the field along with White Clover seed that should grow if the sun can get to them. But it's a long term project at best."

Fearnley has had some difficulty in getting Cicer Milk Vetch established. The plants lay dormant for many years before showing some promise once a little more moisture arrived, but even then they weren't very productive.

"Fifteen years after I seeded the Cicer Milk Vetch, it hadn't showed much of an increase until last year," admits Fearnley. "All of a sudden there was a flush of new plants located up to about 50 feet from the existing mature plants. It was quite a surprise. We hadn't had anything new in moisture with 2/3 the average in 2009 and only 3 inches of rain in May of 2010. Yet, by the beginning of June, the new plants just seemed to spring up. If anyone has any particular insights on the uncommon growth habits of this plant, I would certainly be interested to hear them."

While Fearnley is pleased with the results of his holistic grass management, he is reluctant to call his system "organic" or "natural".

He says, "I think there is some merit behind these words in the industry, but I attribute our improved herd health to a better balance of trace elements as a result of more concentrated grass management. Eliminating the use of chemical fertilizer and minimal use of herbicide has helped to improve the soil mineral balance. This in turn, has helped the cattle develop a stronger and effective immune system and we've been able to reduce our vaccinations and treatments and of course labour and cost."

"Our goal is healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy livestock and healthy people."