in the Corn, Pigs in the Pasture
This article was first printed in the March-April 2002 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
"Don't whine about high commodities. Feed pasture." That's the philosophy of Dan Specht, a certified organic farmer with the CROPP meat pool who raises beef cattle and hogs on 150 acres of pasture and grazed row crops in northeast Iowa. "Nothing beats perennial plants for not spending money. There's nothing to plant, and the animals do all the fertilizing."
Specht's presentation at the recent Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, "Integrating Livestock into your Crop Rotation," detailed his experience and experiments with New Zealand-style rotational grazing, as well as insights from New Zealand graziers. Specht has seen a gain of approximately 600 pounds per head of cattle from May to February on an average of 1 1/2 acres, and raised ten litters of hogs per acre per year.
is a good use for marginal crop land," said Specht, who pastures
his livestock on side hills. He visited people in New Zealand whose
cattle gained about 4 1/2 pounds per day on low wet pastures only.
"No one feeds grain in New Zealand," Specht said, "there
are graziers with no tractors--just a holding pen, a milking parlor,
a bulk tank, and fences."
Specht noted that this schedule fits well with the needs of pasture plants. "The closer you graze grass, the less there is for the root. If you run into a dry spell you need to have those reserves. And legumes really respond to having 30 days for regrowth. If you do grazing light the legumes actually strengthen." Specht said some conventional graziers put nitrogen on ryegrass for a 14 day return, but "last summer they ran into a brick wall (during the drought) because nothing was left in the 'savings account.'"
Most of Specht's pastures are old seedings of grass/legume mixes. He got a tremendous stand of volunteer birdsfoot trefoil by stimulating an old pasture with disking and chiselling. White and red clovers also volunteer well, he said. For new seedings he likes Alice white clover. "It's a good hardy pasture plant," said Specht, "3/4 of the feed but 5% of the seed". Specht also plants late varieties of orchard grass, "for better regrowth than early orchard grass ,which grows rank and produces seedheads". Also a little rye grass and brome grass.
For his moveable fences Specht uses thin poly wire reeled on a five-dollar crank tool, attached to 79-cent plastic posts. "Moving fences is really simple," he said. For semi-permanent fencing, he uses a single strand of 12 1/2 gauge high-tensile electric wire, with strainers, attached to stripped black locust. "This is easy compared to barbed wire. You don't need brace posts, You don't need four or five strands, just one, and high tensile doesn't sag so you can go twenty paces between posts, using 1/4 as many. The wire costs $60/4000 ft., " cheaper per foot than wire that's a lot thinner".
" Once the cattle get used to a good hot fencer, they don't pressure the fences," Specht said.
Grazing Row Crops
grain he chops barley for silage at the doughy seed stage, when
the stalks are still green. "My guess is it's close to corn
silage in energy," said Specht, "and barley straw is pretty
palatable, at 8.75 % protein." With an early spring in 2000
he was able to chop barley at the end of June, then replant that
field with soybeans on July 1st. He bagged the silage in the winter
pasture, and protected the end of the silage tube with moveable
wooden feeder panels.
When it comes to putting pigs in corn, he is emphatic. "It is the most natural thing in the world to hog down corn. There is no labor, no manure handling, just water."
The sows are bred all at once. "It is natural for them to farrow together in a group. They have a herd instinct, and will run around with 50 to 60 in a group," said Specht. He gives two pounds of shell corn per day to gestating sows, and pushes the nursing window to 6 weeks, until the "juvenile delinquent" stage when they are getting out of fences. Then they move to a large hoop building, open to the south for plenty of winter sun, with a feed wagon and "bales of barley or oat straw that they chew on instead of each other"
In December they ate turnip greens from a thick field stand which stayed green until a nine-degree freeze. "Cattle, hogs and sheep will eat it, and turnip greens provide minerals, vitamins and protein," said Specht. He noted that pigs don't naturally like the root, but he trained some to graze it by first offering it in their feed bunker. It was planted August 15 after the hogs finished the corn. He disked and rolled the field, broadcast turnip seed at two pounds/acre, then rolled once again.
Specht concluded his talk with a bit of advice. "A lot of organic people belong to a grazing group in their area. You might be able to borrow equipment, or get ideas-I strongly recommend joining one."
Paul Bransky is a Wisconsin organic vegetable grower, and the former editor of the Organic Broadcaster.Return to TOP