Steve Schwoerer's grazing experiments have taken him on a journey back in time.
Fifteen years ago, Schwoerer, from Bloomington, IL, was looking for a way to keep his Holstein herd healthy. The cows, continually on concrete, had a lot of foot problems.
So he turned toward the past and started grazing cattle in much the same way as his grandfather had done.
Grandpa Guy Hilton had bought a 160-acre tract next to his father's farm and established a dairy herd in 1917. It's half the acreage that Schwoerer farms today.
“Grandpa was very innovative as a dairyman,” Schwoerer says. “Coming out of the Depression and into World War II, he was milking 100 cows. A 100-cow herd at that time is like a 5,000-cow herd today.” Five hired men milked the cows by hand.
Cows were then put on 20 acres of pasture to graze. “Grandpa didn't have the wrong idea; he just didn't have the opportunity to have some of the research I have had and refine the idea.
“I'm not doing anything too different from my grandfather. Grandfather grew corn; we still grow corn today. But we have more genetic opportunity because of the selection of hybrids. We have the opportunity to monitor fertility and we rotate crops. Grandpa rotated crops, but that was the only thing going for him. He let the cows out to find their feed. Now we are targeting the feed for them every day.”
When Hilton wanted to disperse his herd in 1956, Schwoerer's parents, Robert and Evelyn, bought 12 of his cows and took over the farm.
Robert Schwoerer learned about “progressive techniques,” such as fertility, penicillin and soil tests, through ag school classes. “Crops went from 60- to 70-bu corn to 120-bu corn just within five years. So Dad came into agriculture during a time when the university, without meaning to, made Grandpa look stupid.
“That's when they came up with the confinement operations for livestock and the idea of bringing the feed to them. From certain efficiency factors, you can prove that that works. But from an animal husbandry side, there are some problems with that,” says Schwoerer, who has farmed with his parents for 31 years.
“I wanted to get the cattle off the concrete, so I started with a four-acre pasture. It took me two years to figure out I had a four-acre exercise lot.”
So he went to 12 acres that offered good grass for only about a month. Then he learned about rotational grazing and now is utilizing 10 two-acre paddocks.
“Cows are in each paddock for about three days. I use a lead wire so they can get fresh pasture every 12 hours. I do supplement with hay and silage, which helps keep the rumen stable.
“Grazing,” he adds, “helped increase longevity, milk production and herd health. I never had a cow give 30,000 lbs of milk until we improved with our grazing system. It allowed me to keep cows to be six, seven, eight or more years old. You don't get 30,000 lbs of milk out of two- and three-year-olds.”
Schwoerer, whose 40 cows average 24,000 lbs of milk, supplements with 4-5 lbs of hay and 10-12 lbs of corn silage/cow/day during summer. In winter they get 20 lbs hay and 40-45 lbs corn silage.
His paddocks consist of mixtures of clover, orchardgrass, fescue, alfalfa and timothy along with sorghum-sudangrass and wheat, oats or rye.
“With sorghum-sudan, we're able to withstand summer heat and drought pretty well and keep good, high-nutritional grazing available during the hot time of July and August. When we get into October, using oats, rye or wheat planted at the appropriate time, I can usually get good-quality grazing through October and sometimes until Thanksgiving.” He fall-plants small grains to be grazed the next April and May.
“I've been looking for the perfect pasture species to put in all of the paddocks. But I'm learning there is no perfect species. What you want is variety. So I will continue to look at new varieties as they come out.”
A few years ago, Schwoerer planned to reduce his herd. With no debt, the farm could easily sustain the two couples. But his son, Ken, wanted to raise his children on the farm and Schwoerer's wife incurred medical bills. He now works fulltime as an extension agent, while Ken works parttime off the farm and helps with chores.
Yet the three families maintain a close-knit working relationship. “Farming is truly a way of life here. It's what we do as our livelihood, but it's what keeps us together, enjoying each day — and each other,” he says.