October 27, 2011
HOLSTEIN, Iowa: Tom German said it only took five years and a record high cow market to pull the trigger on his “too-big-for-grass fed” cowherd.
“I knew five years ago my cows were too big but I just couldn’t bring myself to sell them.”
He said these large cows created a “real train wreck” when he tried to finish their progeny on grass.
“I wasted a lot of time because I didn’t bite the genetics bullet early.”
He said he believed the correct sequence for a novice organic grass finisher to follow is:
1. Get your cattle genetics right.
2. Get your soils right.
3. Devise a forage chain for your climate.
“I’m shopping for right-sized heifers now but they are really hard to find,” he said.
“What I wouldn’t give to have my grandfather’s 1972 herd of cows.”
He started out farming corn and beans conventionally just like his neighbors with a few cows on the side but began converting to a grass farm in 1992 after buying a subscription to SGF.
He started converting to organic in 1999 and finally completed the conversion of the 400 acre farm in 2004.
He said Gary Zimmer of Midwest Bio-Ag was very helpful during this conversion period.
He said he initially got into grassfed beef at the request of a local doctor who wanted it for his patients.
Tom and his wife Kristi supply 30 local families with beef through a Joel Salatin-type “Buying Club.”
He also grazes some 500 laying hens whose eggs are sold through the club.
To help keep his numbers up while he rebuilds his cowherd, he is custom grazing 100 grass-finished beeves for a Minnesota grassfed beef company. He is being paid 75 cents a day for gain, which he says is too low if he puts two pounds a day on the beeves and too high if he only puts a pound on them.
“We need a pricing system for custom grazing (grass finished beeves) that better rewards high levels of animal performance,” he said.
“Ideally, I would like to just concentrate on finishing animals and not own any cows.”
German is using an Argentine-style “forage chain” of warm-season and cool-season annuals in conjunction with his base perennial pastures.
To learn how to do this he attended an SGF two day school taught by Anibal Pordomingo in July 2005 which he described as “priceless.”
German’s chain in 2005 included stagger-planted corn and BMR sorghum-sudan for summer and cereal rye and Italian ryegrass for winter grazing
The cattle are weighed every 90 days to confirm “finishing” levels of average daily gain.
Cattle must gain in excess of 1.7 pounds per day to create marbling fat.
“You have to learn to read the cow’s manure. The manure can tell you how fast they are gaining.
“The secret is to give the animals near finishing maximum selectivity in what they choose to graze. If you’ll do that, you’ll maximize gain.”
He said he was very disappointed in his beeves’ sorghum-sudan gains which were below the threshold needed for finishing.
“I only got about a pound and a half per day,” he said.
In contrast, his grazed greenleaf corn produced gains in excess of two pounds a day.
While he planted two plantings of corn in 2005, he should have planted at least one more to stretch his corn grazing season into the fall.
His chain is currently 60% cool-season perennial pastures and legumes and 40% summer and winter annuals.
Winter annuals include cereal rye and Italian ryegrass.
Legumes used are alfalfa and alyce clover.
“I’m still trying to find out what my ‘unfair advantage’ is in grass finishing cattle in Iowa. I am still experimenting and trying to find which forages work best for us. “I’ve done a lot of things wrong but at least I now know the right questions to ask,” he said.
“You have to be able to ask the right questions before you can get the right answers.”
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