The cattle at Cimarron Farm don't have to reach far to grab mouthfuls of fresh forage. That's because folks at the St. Albans, VT, organic dairy began practicing grazing tall three years ago.
Unlike traditional rotational grazing, where cattle eat much-shorter, immature forage, grazing tall commences when plants are at the point of maximum vegetative growth, and occasionally even into the boot stage or later.
“Other keys include utilizing extremely high stocking densities and leaving large amounts of residue,” says Abe Collins. He's a Cimarron share-milker and founder of Carbon Farmers of America, an organization that promotes the creation of high-organic-matter topsoil.
While grazing tall runs counter to many conventional practices, Collins and the farm's owner, Teddy Yarrow, say it works. “The benefits we've seen include improved animal and pasture performance and faster buildup of topsoil,” says Collins.
“As an all-grass dairy with no grain supplementation, we saw production increase 16 lbs/cow/day after moving from short-sward grazing to grazing tall and switching from grazing new forage evenly throughout the day to concentrating it in the afternoon and evening,” he says. “Other management changes likely contributed to the increase, but those were the primary ones.”
Fifty cows plus youngstock graze 135 acres from May 1 into December. Several cool-season grasses are utilized, including bromegrass, tall fescue, Kentucky and Canadian bluegrass, orchardgrass, quackgrass and timothy, plus red and white clover. Newer seedings also include chicory, meadow fescue, perennial and Italian ryegrass and plantain.
The farm's divided into 50 paddocks. “But it's almost like we have 500 of them because we move the animals within each one so many times.”
Using a Gallagher Tumble Wheel portable electric fence and pitchforks supporting rolling reels on either end, the cattle are moved to fresh forage five to seven times from noon into the evening, the period when plant sugar content is highest. They're given 10-50' of new pasture each time the fence is moved.
“It's like we're strip grazing within each paddock,” Collins explains.
Because the stocking density is so high - up to 800,000 lbs/acre - the cattle graze shoulder-to-shoulder.
“There's not much chance of the cattle going back and eating the recently grazed and trampled plants because there's always fresh, lush forage in front of them,” he says.
As the cattle graze, they cream - eat the top third of the plants - and trample. The large amounts of plant material left behind form a mulch layer, which encourages fast regrowth, preserves soil moisture and helps build soil organic matter, says the grazier.
Depending on plant growth, pastures are regrazed every 23-45 days. During late fall, the herd's grazed in a planned sequence on less than one-third of the pastures.
“We set up our grazing wedge in the fall for the coming year,” says Collins. “We've seen increased forage production on pastures that we send into the winter with full cover and intact secondary tillers.”
For more on Carbon Farmers of America, visit www.carbonfarmersofamerica.com.