TAYLOR, Wis. – Grazing wet pastures was the norm for many Midwest farmers this past summer. The lessons learned from too much rain were presented during a drizzly pasture walk by Nathan and Karen Kling, who are part of the Coulee Graziers Network.
The Klings milk 250 cows on their grazed farm using 300 acres of pasture divided into 3-acre paddocks, which are divided into smaller units as needed.
“A couple of times I turned (the cows) out and it rained 2 inches overnight,” Nathan Kling said. “The pasture was brown in the morning; it smelled like stagnant swamp. We had geese on the ponds – where there’s not supposed to be ponds.”
Keven Mahalko from the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship group said, “I don’t wish for a drought year, but I’ve heard from a lot of farmers that this is the worst year they’ve had. Farmers need to be smart about timing on the pastures and keep the animals moving.”
Kling said, “Every year I look at things in spring and it’s not coming fast enough.”
And this year it really was slower – a month later than usual. Rest times for the paddocks were a week or more longer than average; they made one less round through them. Normally paddocks are allowed to rest for about 30 days between grazings. This year most of the pastures were clipped after each round.
It’s important to give the animals room so they don’t trample down the pasture plants and limit their concentrated impact, Kling said. This past year he had an aerial photo of the farm; he could see every place the animals grazed when it was wet.
This summer the seed heads came out early. There was lots of empty space between plants due to the cold and wet. Foxtail was particularly dominant this year.
“We’ve always had some foxtail, but this year it’s more,” Kling said.
He doesn’t like that because when it seeds out the cows will go around it – it pokes them in the nose and tastes bad.
Kling uses improved lanes for moving cattle to the paddocks from the milking barn. One section is 1,500 feet of 4-foot-wide concrete. He said he wishes he had built it up along the edges to prevent mud where the cows step off to enter their paddock. Another lane was built using share funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. It consists of 20-inch-deep rock.
“You have to have a way to get to the barn and keep the cows clean,” he said about his lanes.
He would formerly follow his heifers behind the cows, but found he had more cases of Johne’s. So he gave them their own pastures for grazing. Kling thinks heifers can be raised using rotational grazing if they are moved every day for maximum gain.
In the past Kling tried ripping up the orchard grass and tall fescue that likes to dominate the pastures. He planted clovers in their place that came up thick and nice. But two years later they were gone and the orchard grass remained. He’s not sure if it was the soil type or his technique; he thinks of it as a waste of money.
His dad, Steve Kling, said the nice thing about grazing is that if he makes a mistake, he can wait a couple of weeks and mess it all up again. Mahalko concurred, saying grazing gives an opportunity to improve every day.
Another problem prevalent this year was pink eye. Kling’s veterinarian thinks it may be a new strain. He finds it extra frustrating because he cannot treat the organic animals with antibiotics. The acceptable treatments are time-consuming and need to be started quickly.
Kling hopes this winter is milder than the previous year, he said, when he needed to plow paths through the snow for the animals to reach the feeders. He uses excellent-quality big square baleage during the frozen months.
He appreciates the benefits of grazing, he said. During a wet year one of the main advantages is that the cows can harvest their own feed at peak nutritional value when mechanical harvesting may not be possible.