Just the hint of a breeze off the southern tip of the Ozark Mountains holds the promise of changing seasons as cattle producers Steve and Shari Swenson look toward winter.
In mid-July the temperatures are in the 90s, so in between grazing periods the cows and their calves are hanging out in the shade. But the Swensons are already preparing for the day in October when they’ll move the cattle from back pastures to the front where white clover grows amid fescue. Come January, the cows will return to the back 40, which will have been growing and stockpiling.
Somewhere along the way, probably next summer, the Swensons may feed hay — but only if they must. Last year they only “had to” feed hay for 53 days. And it wasn’t necessarily in the winter.
• A study called 300 Days of Grazing is saving cattle producers money.
• Steve and Shari Swenson fed hay only 53 days last year.
• The recipe is simple: Plenty of grass and water equals thriving cattle.
When it’s time to move, the cows will be waiting at the gate. If cows could sing, these would probably join in a chorus of contentment.
Their owners, at least, are making sounds of contentment about the advantages of switching to an almost year-round grazing system devised by the University of Arkansas.
The Swensons, who run 50 head of mama cows on 138 acres of a salad mixture of fescue, bermudagrass, clover and crabgrass, report they’ve saved time and money, and made life easier.
They’re participating in a study with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and Extension called 300 Days of Grazing, a program that began three years ago amid exorbitant feed prices. They are one of three producers in the state who are conducting the full range of experiments to develop a “cookbook of practices” that will help cattle producers save time, money and labor, says Kenny Simon, who coordinates the program.
The University of Arkansas Livestock and Forestry Experiment Station in Batesville also has a whole-farm project. Producers throughout the state are trying out one of eight different experiments to help reduce feeding costs.
A simple recipe
For Steve Swenson, a carpenter by trade, the recipe is simple. Give cattle plenty of grass and water and watch them thrive. “I’m not a farmer,” he says. “I listen to what they [Extension agents and specialists] tell me.”
He received some skeptical looks when he told his neighbors about the goal of not feeding hay during the winter.
So far, the arrangement has worked out well. The Swensons rotate 25 cows per pasture every three days, using an electric fence that splits the 40 acres into four paddocks.
Their pastures look like posters for good management practices, clean of weeds. The calves look fat and slick, gaining an average of 1.8 pounds a day after weaning on nothing more than fescue and clover.
When the weather turns colder, they’ll move their cattle and calves to four front paddocks of white clover and fescue. The cows and calves will graze happily there, shifting paddocks every three days until spring, when they’ll move to the back 40.
“Look at how happy my cows are,” says Shari Swenson. “Cows are happy when they have good water, good shade and good grass.”
This article published in the September, 2010 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.