September 26, 2021

Regenerative grazing results in healthy animals, environment, livelihood

MT. VERNON, Ill. — Regenerative graziers are in the solar energy business.

“Grass can be all kinds of forages but you must have the right type of grazing operation and the right kind of animals,” said Greg Judy, who owns Green Pastures Farm near Rucker, Missouri. “It’s management, management and management. Without that, you’re not going to be successful.”

Judy started to utilize mob grazing after learning about it from Ian Mitchell-Innes, a South African rancher who runs about 14,000 acres and 4,000 head of cattle. “If we take care of our soils better, we’re going to have all types of forages, healthy animals, healthy environment and a healthy livelihood coming from that farm,” he said during a presentation at the Heart of America Grazing Conference.

In addition to his farm, Judy worked at an off-farm job for 29 years. “When I turned 50, I was able to walk away from that job and other than the day I got married, that was the biggest day of my life,” the farmer said. “I’d been working toward that goal and I love doing this.”

Through regenerative grazing techniques, Judy said, he is using animals to heal the landscape. “In 1998, I started looking around the area and there were idle properties around that I drove by every day,” he explained. “We got our first lease in 1999 and that has grown to 17 farms and we own four of them.”

Judy has a lifetime lease on one of those farms. “I had a 10-year lease on the farm and after they saw how we took care of it, they ripped up my lease, gave me a lifetime lease and put it in their will,” he stated.

Judy focuses on raising animals that are adapted to the environment. “Our soil type dictates the type of animals and a 1,000-pound cow is more efficient on our farm,” he said. “In Illinois, where you’ve got deeper top soil, it may be a different size animal.” Fescue is the mainstay on Judy’s farm. “We’re trying to keep 30 to 40% red clover,” he said. “For the grazing interval, when you have fast growth, you move them fast and when there is slow growth, you’ve got to move them slower.”

It is important to make sure the plants are recovered. “Don’t graze the roots,” Judy stressed. “Look at the top of the plants and if it has a sharp point, it’s fully regrown but if it’s blunt on the end, it hasn’t fully regrown from the last grazing.”

The cattleman does not want any bare spots in his pastures. “Don’t get comfortable seeing bare soil on your farm,” he stated. “Cover it up with something and nature will put back better plants, when it is bare it is not capturing any soil energy.”

Carbon rich soil should be crumbly, Judy said, with earthworms coming out and roots everywhere. “That soil will soak up a lot of water,” he added. “Don’t give your neighbors your water when it rains. Keep it on your land and you do that by keeping the soil covered.”

Judy does not make any hay on his farm. “We can buy a 1,200-pound net wrapped bale for $25 to $45,” he said. “We put the bales all around the farms and I use an ATV to unroll the hay.”

It is important to avoid driving a tractor on pastures when the ground is soft to avoid making ruts. “Once you leave ruts, you’ve compacted the soil and you’re not going to grow grass in that rut,” Judy explained.

Judy places the bales of hay on the top of the hills. “So if we get a snowstorm, I can get in there with the ATV,” he explained.

Unrolling hay in the pasture is not wasting hay, Judy stressed. “You can see where you unrolled hay the next spring,” he noted. “The grass will be thicker, greener and the animals will flock to those areas because animals always graze the best plants on your farm first.”

Judy is creating open savannas by taking some of the trees out to get sunlight down to the forest floor. “I love savannas, especially when it’s hot because the animals are comfortable with shade and there’s forage,” he explained.

“We’re finding forages growing under trees have a lower lignin value and lignin is something cows can’t digest,” he said. “So the forage is higher quality under partial shade than it is in full sunlight.”

Cows on the Missouri farm are not wormed. “But they are moved twice a day,” Judy said. “If you’re grazing the forages real short the animals are ingesting a lot of parasites, so they’ll need to be wormed.”

When Judy moves his animals, the target for the forage is one-third grazed, one-third trampled and one-third left standing. “You’re not going to hit it perfect every time and don’t worry about it,” he added. “Do your best and keep moving them.”

Cows should be gaining weight right before they calve, Judy noted. “Those cows will have about a 90% breed back but if they’re losing weight, the breed back drops to 58%,” he reported. “The most expensive part of a cow/calf operation is an open cow.”

The hardest thing to get in a cow is energy, Judy said. “It’s also the most expensive,” he added. “By grazing the top parts of the plants, they are more palatable so you get a lot more energy through the cow.”

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Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor