A lot can change on a farm in five years, and it has at Sawyer Beef near Princeton. Since Neal Sawyer joined his dad, Norm, in the operation in 2005, the two have transformed the way they’re grazing their rolling hills near the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, and they’re expanding a niche market they found for grass-fed beef.
“My idea had been to move cattle to a few different pastures over the season,” Norm says. “But the problem was those bluegrass pastures got grazed down to nothing. Now, we put all the cattle in one small cell, and move them twice a day to new feed. This is a better way.”
The idea is for the “mob” of 150 cows and calves, 40 steers, and 20 replacement heifers to eat or walk on everything in the small cell of 1.5 to 3 acres, and then move on to new feed in a new cell within hours, Neal says. “What they don’t eat, they mash to the ground. It may seem like a waste to some people, but that cover for the ground helps keep it cool, provides protection against erosion, helps save moisture and makes better soil,” Neal says. The mob won’t come back to the same area for 85 to 90 days; that long rest is a key to building forage and the land.
• High-density or mob grazing allows more cattle to be carried on the same acres.
• A higher level of management is required; you spend more time moving cattle.
• But it’s better for the land and cattle health; they’re always on new grass.
“It takes me 15 minutes to move the cattle to a new cell,” Neal says, “and my dad and I about five to seven hours to set up the portable electric fence for new cells for the coming week. The cattle are easier to move than we ever imagined. We still can hardly believe a single polywire holds 200 cows, but it does; they’re so much calmer with this system. As long as we keep moving them to fresh feed every 12 hours, we don’t have a problem.”
Graze more cattle, longer
“We had 110 cows three years ago, when we started this ultra-high density grazing system,” Neal says. “Now we’re carrying more cattle thanks to the intensively managed grazing system. We combined our herds and have about twice the number of cattle on the same size cells, and graze longer in the year. We used to start feeding hay and silage in early November, but in winter of 2011, we grazed until mid-December and again for two weeks in January.” This past winter was warmer, which allowed even more days of grazing.
The cattle become the fertilizer spreading operation, Norm says, and also the weed control program. “That many cattle in a small area give even distribution of manure, and we’ve seen better weed control just from grazing. We’re seeing fewer and fewer thistles, even fewer musk thistles,” he adds. “The cattle eat some, and knock some down. Previously, we couldn’t seem to spray or clip the pasture weeds enough.”
To convert to the portable paddock system, the Sawyers used cost share from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help install more than 18,000 feet of water pipeline, 23 watering facilities and nearly 20,000 feet of fence.
After selling corn-fed beef for more than 30 years, the extended grazing season is helping Sawyer Beef fill a niche market for grass-fed Angus beef. It sells corn- and grass-fed beef through six local Hy-Vee stores, and takes grass-fed beef to a farmers market every Saturday in Davenport. The operation also continues to sell halves and quarters.
MOB ON THE MOVE: Norm and Neal Sawyer want their cattle to eat or trample everything in a small paddock, and then move on within hours to new feed. They graze 200 head or so in a well-managed system on hilly land along Iowa’s eastern edge.
This article published in the May, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.