October 27, 2011
by Allan Nation
PUEBLO, Colorado: The Rocky Mountains of Colorado are not generally thought of as a prime place to finish beeves and lambs on green winter pasture, but two of Colorado’s most innovative graziers are finding this is indeed possible with winter annuals.
Russ Maytag produces grassfed beef on a ranch near Pueblo in southern Colorado as well on another upland ranch in the mountains. Both ranches are irrigated.
In Pueblo in August of last year, Maytag drilled in 100 pounds per acre of cereal rye with an Atchison no-till drill under a center pivot. He said he got an excellent germination rate.
Due to the extremely high price for calves a previous fall, Maytag waited until February and then bought broken mouth, pregnant cows to graze the rye.
“The cows were a condition score 4 to 4.5 at the time of purchase. By June, they were a condition score 7 to 7.5 with calves at their sides and we had fed absolutely no hay.” Maytag said that in April the following year he felt the rye needed a boost of nitrogen and applied 40 pounds of actual N per acre.
“The nitrogen not only gave us a lot of excess feed, which we had no use for, but it also forced us to graze a more mature feed.”
As a result, Maytag said he would be taking a more organic approach in the future utilizing purposefully built-up natural soil nitrogen.
“I would say I liked the winter rye and will plant more this year but it needs better management on my part as far as getting the stocking rate right.
“Also I can see the benefit of planting wheat and rye so that your pastures don’t mature all at the same time. That way I could swap to the wheat when the rye starts to mature.”
Maytag plows under his rye in the late spring as a green manure crop and after a month of allowing the soil to digest it plants sorghum-sudan for summer grazing.
“I tried to no-till the sorghum-sudan into chemically frosted rye and had a total crop failure,” he said.
“The rye looked dead but when I turned the water on it revived and totally prevented the sorghum-sudan from growing. I now believe plowing it under is the only way to go.”
On his high elevation mountain ranch, Maytag follows winter rye with graze-out oats as the summer temperatures there are not high enough to grow a warm-season plant.
He uses stockpiled cool-season perennials as the transition forage in both late spring and again in the fall while the annuals are germinating and growing.
Across the state near Durango, Richard Parry’s Foxfire Farm, is at 6500 feet in elevation and yet he was able to fatten lambs for harvest all winter long on irrigated cereal rye.
Parry markets all of his production direct to area consumers and via the Internet nationwide.
“We are a major ski resort area, winter is our prime season for fresh lamb. This year we were able to grass finish lambs until late March,” Parry said.
His base forage is spray-irrigated, perennial ryegrass and white clover. Due to his high elevation, summer heat is not a problem but winter temperatures fall to -10 degrees F.
By stockpiling late summer perennial pasture, he said he had been able to direct graze until the end of November.
The ewes were then shipped to a lower elevation ranch in the desert for the winter and the lambs were either finished on alfalfa hay at home or transported to Arizona or California for winter grazing on alfalfa fields.
He said his decision to start a grass “farming” operation was the result of a combination of three things.
He went on SGF’s tour of New Zealand’s South Island in 2003. He attended Anibal Pordomingo’s grassfed meats school in California in 2004 and he decided to become Certified Organic in 2005.
“On the cold South Island of New Zealand, I saw that sheep producers there plowed down up to one-third of their farm for winter grazing crops. Down there lambs are finished on winter annuals and the ewes are wintered on brassicas.
“I saw that it was possible to farm your way through a cold winter, and Anibal reinforced that.
“However, the final decider was our decision to become Certified Organic.”
He said due to the extremely high cost of Certified Organic alfalfa hay he knew he had to get out of the hay feeding business.
“This year, 2005, was the first year we did not have to feed one drop of hay in our operation,” he said.
“Even in the worst cold of the winter we were able to get over a third of a pound of gain on the lambs, which is very respectable.”
Parry said a major key at his elevation was to plant the cereal rye in early August.
“By October we had cereal rye eight inches tall. We grazed one paddock off and were amazed that the rye regrew well in the cold short days of November.
“By December it was impossible to tell the grazed paddock from the stockpiled one.”
He said cereal rye that was no-tilled in September was a major disappointment.
“I don’t know if it was the combination of no-till and the late planting date but we do not plan to ever do either again.
“I have had two complete crop failures with no-till. That’s enough convincing for me.”
He said annuals go on run-out perennial pastures. He first chisel plows to open up the irrigation hardpan and then roto-tills the paddock to destroy the old sod.
At this time, lime and other mineral fertilizer needs are tilled in as well.
Such old turned-under sods need up to 45 days to “digest” the material before releasing the nitrogen in the plant for subsequent reuse. Plowed under winter annuals need around 30 days.
After two years in annuals, Parry plans to replant the paddocks back into perennials.
“In this way, we will gradually and continually renovate the ranch,” he said.
Both Parry and Maytag said learning how to plant and utilize winter annuals required a steep learning curve.
For example, neither one was prepared for the explosive growth of cereal rye in the early spring and that the rye’s planting date had to vary due to elevation in Colorado.
Maytag plants his rye in mid-September in Pueblo but said Parry’s August 1 date would be better for his own mountain ranch.
Also, both Maytag and Parry were loyal disciples of Stan Parsons and his no equipment philosophy, and both admitted going to “farming” instead of “ranching” was psychologically difficult.
MINDSET SHIFT PAINFUL
“For 18 years I had seen the plow as my enemy and now I am embracing it,” Richard Parry said.
“Yes, it was a difficult decision for me but a totally necessary one.”
“You just can’t produce a quality grassfed meat product without farming a lot. You can’t stay a rancher. You’ve got to become a grass farmer.”
Maytag said that having the tillage done for you custom hire was the best way around a lack of personal farming knowledge.
“You don’t have to do it yourself but you’ve just got to do it.”
Parry said he actually liked that most ranchers were reluctant farmers as it increased his competitive advantage.
“I believe you need lots of (forage) tools in your tool box to create a gourmet grassfed meat product,” Parry said.
“But as far as my opinion goes, you can take it or leave it. The consumer will ultimately be the one who decides.”
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