McLaughlin Farm utilizes rotational grazing from late spring through December. The perimeters of the pastures have multiple strands of electric fence, usually high tensile wire, with temporary paddocks created with single strands of poly wire (fine strands of copper or aluminum wire wound with plastic strands to provide strength and flexibility). A “tumble wheel” system is used to hold a single wire with geared reels at each end. Two sets of wheels are used per paddock, with one in front of the cattle going into new grass, and one following the cattle, so they cannot go back to a paddock recently used. Although the fences may stretch 1000 feet, one person can easily move them.
The cattle are moved daily from one paddock to another, with the size of the paddock adjusted based upon the number of animals in the herd, the quality of the pasture, and our schedule. The constant movement of the cattle prevents the plants from being eaten down to the ground, allowing for a shortened recovery time for the plants. This system also allows for much of the forage that is not eaten to be trampled into the ground, thus helping add biomass to the soil. Maintaining a sizable plant above ground assures that there will be sufficient root left underground to allow the plant to start growing again. Roots will die back in proportion to the loss of the plant above ground. This root loss adds to the biomass and helps heal and build the soil. The new growth on the plants is generally the most productive and provides the cattle with the best nourishment, although there are periods when the plants may be growthy and “washy” and lack nutrients (such as in the early fall when the plants grow quickly with additional rain). During these times dry hay is often fed as a supplement to help the cattle balance their rumen. Normally there are two grazing groups in different areas of the farm. The steer herd (including the bull if it is not breeding time) and the Cow herd. Occasionally young heifers or weanlings are grouped separately for management purposes.
The farm’s pastures are a mix of plants, including alfalfa, clover, orchard grass, Timothy, rye (various types), fescue and various other plants. New pastures start as an alfalfa mix, but as the alfalfa diminishes, the fields are replenished with clovers, other hay species, and grasses. Alfalfa plants produce toxins which prohibit re-seeding alfalfa without first killing off the existing crop. The process may require having a temporary crop planted for a season before going back to alfalfa. McLaughlin Farm utilizes no till practices whenever possible. Highland Cattle also like to browse, which they do in the fence rows where they also find shade and cover. Some say that the browsing helps create good flavor through the tannins they consume in the leaves.
In 2015 McLaughlin Farm began to plant annuals for late fall/early winter grazing. Two paddocks are planted with radish, turnip, snow peas, clovers, oats, rye and a few other plant varieties, which are tolerant of the cold. This practice extends the grazing season beyond late fall when all of the other pastures go dormant. The cattle first eat the tops of the plants, then they look for the radishes and turnips. Some of the plants will come back in the spring, but these paddocks will require re-seeding in the spring in order to be productive in the summer; or will be replanted as permanent pasture in the fall. These particular paddocks are also where the cattle are fed in the winter. These areas are often referred to as “sacrifice” areas, as they take abuse through the winter in order to protect the permanent pastures. The area becomes worked up during the winter with freezing and thawing, creating lots of mud, ruts from the tractor when moving the feed, and the cattle traffic. The intense use of these paddocks (about 3 acres each) also concentrates manure. There is a benefit however, as these areas become very productive without the use of commercial fertilizer. The manure and remnants of hay and baleage build up the soils. Our plan is to move the sacrifice areas every two or three years, ideally to areas that need to be re-seeded and improved. The only limitation to this system is the need for access to frost-free watering. Although in the summer it is possible to utilize temporary water tanks away from the barn, this is not possible in the winter except in emergencies.
Finished on Grass, Baleage and Hay
We are often asked what “finished on grass” means. How do you feed grass in the winter? As indicated above, the cattle are fed dry hay (cut and baled in our pastures) or baleage which is also produced in our pastures. McLaughlin Farm utilizes large round bales in both cases. Initially they are both the same product, however the baleage is baled with higher moisture content than the dry hay and is then put into a wrapper, creating a long tube that lays on the ground. The bales ferment in the tube, which helps the bales retain more nutrients than the dry hay. Making the baleage takes more time and expense, but it creates a better feed. However, once the tube is opened the introduction of air will cause the baleage to start deteriorating. Deterioration is slow in cold weather, however unseasonably warm weather can be a problem. Dry hay on the other hand will last longer, especially if it can be kept indoors (we do not have such a facility). It is always good to have some dry hay in reserve in case of drought. In addition, especially in the spring when grazing fresh pastures, it is good to offer dry hay and limit the amount of fresh grass in order to allow the rumen of the cattle to adjust to the new feed.
In the winter of 2016 /2017 the farm began to feed the hay and baleage on the ground, using a round bale un-roller. This method eliminates round bale feeders, where the ground gets torn up and mud created. Unrolling the bales in several areas each day also allows all of the animals to eat at the same time. Dominant animals will keep younger or more docile animals away from the feeders for long periods of time. The unrolled bales make this impossible. The forage is fed daily in order to limit waste. However, uneaten hay or baleage becomes bedding and is eventually worked into the soil, so what initially appears to be waste, actually builds soil and improves the soil’s productivity. Some natural re-seeding also occurs if any of the species in the pasture mix were going to seed when harvested.
Dry hay and baleage are unrolled daily for each group of cattle.
McLaughlin Farm Ltd. is environmentally verified under the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program, known as MAEAP. As MAEAP states in their materials: “MAEAP-verified farms keep their land, water and air as healthy as the food they produce. They represent the highest standards of environmental stewardship and responsible agriculture.” We have become verified in all three of the MAEAP categories: Farmstead, Livestock and Cropping Systems. The verification process involves a three phase process: Education, Risk Assessment & Management changes, and State of Michigan Verification.