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Grass farmer

Dan Specht is as concerned about making a profit as any other farmer. But the organic grassland farmer in northeast Iowa believes he can manage his pastures in a way that maximizes profit and still offers good habitat for birds and other wildlife.

He’s concerned about stocking rates, forage nutrition value, rate of gain and other details for profitable grass-fed beef. But he also hesitates to drive his pickup in a pasture when bobolinks are nesting in spring and early summer because he might destroy a nest.

It’s important to Specht that his brome, orchard, fescue, bluegrass, clover pastures, quackgrass and hayland give ground-nesting birds a safe place to build nests and raise their broods.

“I think the closer you can come to a natural system in farming, the less damage you’ll do,” he says. “I grew up fishing in streams and ponds, and learned early on that you don’t fish in Iowa after a heavy rain because the water is full of silt. I think a farmer has some of the responsibility for that.”

Key Points

• Move cattle often, with no more than five days in a paddock.

• Grazing can be profitable and still provide habitat for birds.

• Grass-fed beef protects the land and offers premiums.

Earn a price premium

Specht is proud that his grass farming system doesn’t add chemicals to the groundwater, or sediment to surface waters. He farms 700 acres of rolling-to-steep land near McGregor. Only 40 acres of that is corn or soybeans; the rest is pasture, hay, woodland or small grains.

“You get a premium for grass-fed beef,” says Specht, who has been farming organically since 1983 and was certified as an organic grower in 1995. He has grazed as many as 200 yearlings in the past, as well as 45 cows. “I buy some yearlings at about 550 pounds and also have the calves from my Red Angus and Angus cows. My market weight for heifers is 950 to 975 pounds, and for steers it’s 1,050 to 1,100 pounds.”

Plan a good grazing system

Specht calves in the fall, and since he rotates pastures, the calves can go on pasture early in the spring, as soon as the grass starts growing. “Figuring out a grazing system each year is about as much art as it is science,” Specht says. “It’s a little different every year.”

After he and a group of neighbors met with master graziers in New Zealand, Specht decided on a rotational grazing system that keeps cattle in each paddock for three days. Giving each paddock a month’s rest between grazing meant he needed 10 paddocks. “So the cattle make the circuit in a month. I match the stocking rate to that, making sure they’ll have enough to eat for those three days without overgrazing,” he says.

“A longer return interval is OK, too, maybe up to six weeks before the cattle return to the first pasture if there is plenty of feed,” notes Specht. “That interval favors legumes. In organic systems, we don’t apply nitrogen fertilizer, so legumes are our source of nitrogen, and we have some lush pastures. It can take a good dose of cattle.”

He’s looked at native grasses and had some success with eastern gamagrass, but says it’s not a major part of his operation because seed is expensive and it takes time to establish.

Specht doesn’t clip pastures or make hay during nesting season, and he is careful to leave grass longer in late spring and early summer when most birds need it. “But birds nest at different times,” he notes. “The main thing is to have more good grasslands to attract the birds, and then manage the grasses as best you can.”

Betts writes from Johnston.


FULL COWS: Dan Specht stocks and rotates pastures with a goal of making sure his cattle are never hungry. “It takes planning, but our cows get a good supply of groceries,” says the Clayton County farmer.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.