I want to be proud of my cows!

Triple Creek Journal, June 2021

Over the next year I am going to write a monthly update on our farm activities and what I am thinking relative to producing beef in a toxic fescue environment.  I will try to describe the challenges we face and solutions that we find. 

Being on the farm daily during the pandemic has given me a lot to think about.  I farm in Southern Virginia and run 110 cows with 50 steers a year being marketed as local beef.  I grew up on this farm and it has just been a part of what I have done since childhood. This April, after one of the wettest winters ever, and mud everywhere, I started asking myself and my friends, “why do we do this, anyway?”

Answers included  “It is just what we do”, “To have the opportunity to work with my family”, “Because I love to be around cows”, “Because of the challenge”, “Because pasture is the best use for my family land”, and “Because of the people I get to work with in the beef industry”.  Not one said “to make money or to make a living.”  We all want to have economically sound farms, but lets face it, if our goal was to make the most money we could we would not be raising beef cows!

I grew up with cattle, so the time with family was priceless.  But, the key thing for me is  that I love to be out in good pasture with my cows.  It is not always a picnic, but even on those icy and muddy days last winter, I moved fence daily and felt happy that I was in the game.  I also love the diversity of activities and the skills I have learned to get them done.  Essentially, there are daily challenges and I love addressing them.  I have threatened to quit in some of the worst of times, but that threat never lasts long and I just keep coming back for more.

This is not to say that I don’t think about economics and bringing in enough income to keep up with our expenses.  Of course that is critical, but I have a good job as a University Professor and I make a plenty good living from that.  All things considered, I spend nearly all my extra energy on the farm, and I am very satisfied if we break even.  I do have a nearly full time worker that makes a living from our farm, but I never get paid either for my labor or my management skills.

My dad used to justify this to me (he was just like me) by saying that when you invest your efforts in the land and what it will produce, you can’t go wrong.  We are building value in the farm, including all the infrastructure and improvements, and the functioning beef production system we have developed. 

The problem with that is that, like my Dad, I will pass from this world and leave the farm to someone else and never really benefit much from that increased value I have built into it.  That makes it seem even more crazy to put so much energy and passion into every day.  My friend, the economist Dr.  Geoff Benson, once taught me that farmland is not an asset if you never borrow against it or put it up for sale.  Now I know why my Dad was always “land poor”.

My point is that I don’t raise cattle to make a profit.  I raise them so I can take friends, family, tour groups and other visitors and show them something I am really proud of.  I want cattle and management examples that really are working, so I can feel a good sense of accomplishment and use the information in my educational efforts.  It is icing on the cake that I can break even and do not have to pay a penny for all this entertainment and exercise.

I was studying on my life and the 20 years or so of good days I probably have left as I checked my cows the other day.  I have three groups that I have been moving daily on the main farm, so that gives me a lot of opportunity to look at them.  One  is a group of 44 bred yearlings and beef program steers that have been grazing ryegrass and other winter annuals since early March, one is a group of 21  2 year old heifers with calves that have been grazing ryegrass with oats or triticale or novel endophyte tall fescue since early March, and finally the mature cow herd (85 3 year olds and up with calves) which have been  grazing on old pastures dominated by KY31 Tall Fescue.

Our old pastures are quite diverse, with a lot of orchardgrass, red and white clover, dallisgrass, bermudagrass, bluegrass, crabgrass, etc.  Despite the diversity of these pastures, the negative affects of toxic fescue come through strong during May and June.  This time of year, I really get a kick out of moving the young groups, but I feel so bad moving the mature cows.  The cattle on non-toxic forages have mostly shed at this time, they have some bloom to them, and they are about one point better in body condition score than those mature cows.  Both the yearlings and the 2 yr olds have had no feed other than a mineral since the time they were turned to grass, and it is amazing how productive they have been.  Last year the yearlings gained 2.4 lbs/day during the 100 days they grazed ryegrass!  The first calf heifers outweaned the mature cow herd by 75 lb and 90% of them bred back!

In great contrast, the cows on the old pastures really suffer and I hate to see it.  I am really proud to show photos or to lead tours of the young cows, but I would really rather not show anyone the mature herd until July when they have finally shed and started to put condition back on. 

The photos show typical animals from each herd.  The 3 yr old looks pretty typical for our area, and would not have always looked that bad to me.  I grew up with these toxic pastures, and at one time I just thought that cows around our area look like that.  It was not until I killed enough KY31 to allow me to grow animals for a long period of time without the toxins that I saw what was possible, shown here in the photos of the younger animals. 

So, back to the point of my story.  If I don’t primarily raise cattle to make money it is not surprising that making a little more money would not be enough to motivate me to make a major change in my forage system. But,  I realize now that to really enjoy what I am doing I need to do something fundamental about the tall fescue base so those cows don’t suffer so during what should be the nicest time of year.  It is not a matter of economics, it is a matter of cow comfort and welfare. 

The main thing that motivates me is that I want to be proud of my cows, my production system, and my stockmanship skills.  Given that, why would I knowingly feed my cows ergot alkaloid toxins and just look the other way during the two months when they suffer as I have been doing most of my life?

If you love your cows and want what is best for them, join me in my journey converting from a toxic to a non-toxic forage base.  There are many options to do this including warm season annuals and perennials, winter annuals, and novel endophyte tall fescue.  Start the journey by killing some KY31 pastures where you can use them for your young cattle and plant to a summer or winter annual.  Then, make a plan to convert that land to warm season or cool season perennial forages.

~ Matt Poore, NCSU

The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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