February 05, 2023

Grazing system focuses on quality forage, profitable operation

MACOMB, Ill. — The goal at River Oak Ranch is to provide the best meal possible every day for the cattle with a regenerative, adaptive, management-intensive rotational grazing system.

“We can’t do that with a traditional grazing system where you turn the cattle out and leave them all summer on the same pasture,” said Trevor Toland, owner of the farm. “We’ve got too many traditional pastures that are grazed the way father, grandfather and great grandfather did and it’s not productive.”

“What we’re going to show you today is an operation that’s simple and bare bones because it doesn’t take a lot to run a grazing operation,” explained Toland at a tour of his farm during the 2022 Illinois Beef Association Summer Conference and Illinois Forage and Grassland Council Forage Expo.

Cattle graze on 265 acres of the 400-acre farm that has the East Fork of the LaMoine River running through it.

“We added 20 acres a couple of years ago and that was so important,” Toland said. “Before that we had to run electric wires from this side of the river to the other side and that was a challenge a lot of times.”

After managing a cow herd for many years and then operating a heifer development program for another cattle operation, Toland selected a young cattleman three years ago to lease his operation.

“My wife and I interviewed five people and we chose Carson Welsh to be our guy,” he said.

A lease agreement describes the responsibilities for both Toland and Welsh.

“I’m mentoring him on our system of grazing and he’s picked it up wonderfully,” Toland said. “We’re refining it still, but it’s working great.”

Recordkeeping for a grazing system is vital, the cattleman said.

“We want really good records because I want to evaluate every pasture at the end of the year,” he said. “We have three groups of cattle running and this calendar tells us what group is in each pasture on each day.”

Instead of focusing on animals and weaning weights, Toland said, graziers should concentrate on the per-acre results.

“At the end of the year I can tell you exactly how many animal units we grazed on the pasture,” he said.

The records area in the barn has a map that shows all the paddocks on the farm.

“There are 45 or 46 paddocks and most of the pasture sizes are determined by the availability of water and the easiest way to fence,” Toland said.

Another sheet of paper documents when each paddock was last grazed.

“If we have questions about the rest period, which needs to be at least 30 to 35 days, we can easily look at this sheet,” Toland said.

“We never want to graze a paddock more than five days,” he said. “There will be sufficient re-growth in five days that the cattle will be re-grazing and that is damaging to your pasture, so most of the time the cattle are grazing one to three days in a paddock.”

The river running through the farm is challenging sometimes since it drains thousands of acres.

“It gets really big at times and this river is also heavily silted,” Toland said. “When I was a kid growing up here in a lot of places the river was five to six feet deep, but today it’s two to three feet deep, so it doesn’t hold very much water.”

Reed canary grass grows in the low-lying areas near the river.

“It really likes water, and if you mange it properly, it yields really well,” Toland said. “It can be flooded completely and within a week it’s back to normal.”

This forage is a sod-building grass with rhizomes.

“It spreads by seed and roots and we have a lot of trample in this paddock,” Toland said. “Trample is good because the long-term effects are added organic matter.”

The upland pastures at River Oak Ranch are fescue.

“We like fescue because it’s easy to establish, it’s tough as nails no matter the conditions and it’s great winter feed,” Toland said.

“We try to have the cattle out of our fescue pastures no later than Sept. 1, and from Sept. 1 to mid-November, the fescue pastures are resting and growing,” he said. “The cattle love the fescue and they do great on it.”

If cattle start to graze under a wire, Toland said, that’s an indicator of overgrazing.

“We try to get two wires between us and a crop and everywhere else it’s one high tensile wire which is easy to maintain and easy to repair,” he said.

Water is the most costly aspect of a rotational grazing system.

“We have nine ponds and we use them all,” Toland said. “For two of the ponds, gravity feeds the tanks, one pond has a system on it and all the other ponds have ramps built into the pond, which is the only place cattle can access the pond.”

The ramps are 15 feet wide, dug 12 inches down with geotextile fabric laid down and rock on top.

“The advantages for ramps are there is water always available and they are pretty maintenance free,” the cattleman said.

Since every year is different, Toland said, it is important to be adaptive.

“We make mistakes and you will, too,” he said. “Year in and year out, it’s different, but that’s why I’m keeping records.”

In addition, every pasture is different.

“You have to be out there every day looking at the forage and the cattle while thinking about what’s next,” Toland said.

Easy handling cattle are a benefit of a rotational grazing system.

“You never have to drive cattle anywhere,” Toland said. “These cattle came from Colorado and they have never done this before and on their second move, they knew what to do.”

“Carson opened this gate, drove the mineral wagon in and those cattle just followed him into the paddock,” he said. “That’s a joy to have cattle with that kind of behavior.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor