There are over 60 million acres of land in Ontario with over 1.2 million of those acres in pasture. How beef farmers manage pasture land is widely different between those who farm in Southern Ontario versus Northern Ontario. “Land is available in Northern Ontario and it is less costly but there is quite a bit of infrastructure required for land clearing and improvement,” explained Barry Potter, OMAFRA’s pasture specialist before introducing two speakers on the subject.
Jason DesRochers and family run a commercial beef cow-calf operation near Val Gagne in northern Ontario. Developing pasture requires clearing bush on this third-generation farm to raise 230 cows and 200 calves.
In direct contrast, Tim Lehrbass transformed 90 acres of prime soybean and corn ground into an alfalfa-based pasture. He uses an intensely managed, rotational grazing system with 70 cow/calf pairs to harvest the pasture spring, summer and fall with hopes to graze 365 days of the year.
Their commonalities and differences made for an interesting presentation as they shared the struggles and rewards of raising cattle on opposite ends of the province at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference held in London, August 14-16.
Living two hours north of New Liskeard, Jason grew up in a beef farming family where creating new pasture is a routine chore. When creating pasture out of the bush, their first step is to winter cattle in the new section. “The cattle have a natural windbreak and we feed them out there,” explains Jason, married, with two young daughters.
Hay bales are opened up and sliced with a shearer so the bigger cattle don’t get all the good stuff. Jason says the shearer is perhaps the best investment the farm ever made as it is also used to clear land and clean manure out of the yard. Everything the cattle eat returns to the soil so the family hays in August when the grass is in seed. “This way the manure naturally seeds the field.”
The shearer comes back into play once it’s time to shear the alder trees off the new pasture. “When we shear those alders, nitrogen is released into the soil making it a fertile ground for new seed.” The acreage is then surfaced. Many techniques for seed growth have been tried including seeding with a surface mulch, seeding with deep mulch and conventional seeding with fertilizer. It turns out many of his best pastures were created simply from feeding cattle in the new pasture area and letting seed-laden manure seed the ground. The cattle aren’t worried about sticks left behind from the shearing. “We get a lot thicker and longer grass and many different varieties. It really works quite well,” said Jason.
Cost-wise, it’s the way to go. With shear blading and feeding cattle to seed, creating a new pasture costs about $200 per acre. When adding a “hard-core disk” to cut up sticks to allow conventional seeding, it can cost up to $1,000 per acre to seed a new pasture.
In total, the DesRochers family owns 3,300 acres of which much is still rough bush. “We are slowly working on that. We clear 33 acres at a time which seems small but it does add up.”
The next step is perimeter fencing. The family hopes to qualify for government funding to pay for this expense.
Tim says he launched into cash cropping right out of agricultural college but kept three cows because “I just like seeing cows in Grandpa’s pasture.” However, he never had a knack for machinery nor the cash flow for new machinery so he turned back to cows and turned 50 acres of land on Cameron Road near Alvinston into grass in 2014.
Intensive grazing soon followed, with another 40 acres put into pastures, requiring him to cull hard. “Once cows get bad feet, their feet will curl up and you have to cull them out,” he said.
He says farmers think it takes too much time to move cattle from one paddock to another. They miss the benefits of it in terms of managing the cattle. “I used to do 50 acres with rotational grazing. I’d drive up with the four-wheeler and they’d be lying there and hard to get up. Now, I spend my Saturday moving cattle (70 cows with calves) and I see them up and moving and I know immediately what I need to needle or cull.”
When it comes to rotational grazing, he said this year proved that the grass is always greener with this system. He left two bulls and couple of cows on four acres and by August, their pasture was dead. Two feet away, a paddock used in the rotational grazing system was lush with grass.
His tools of the trade include a 15-year-old four wheeler. The medical treatment, Alfasure, is administered to every water trough to prevent bloating. “The cows are getting used to alfalfa and I’m doing a better job of grazing so I feed a lower rate now and it costs me less than when I first started grazing,” said Tim.
The fence he uses is four wires on the perimeter and three wires in the alleys. The fence is monitored and sends him alerts if it’s been compromised. “That’s important because I do work full time off the farm,” he said. Were he to redesign the pasture paddocks, Tim would make the alleys wider. “The alleys are 20 feet wide but they do run. Maybe they would walk if the alleys were wider,” he said. Total cost of the fencing was $35,000 for 105 acres and much of it was funded via the Species at Risk program.
When asked why he chooses to graze cattle on high-value land, Tim says it’s because he hates moving and he has no desire to move up north. “My grandpa bought that land and I want to farm it.” Also, he believes he is contributing to soil health by grazing cattle. Plus, he believes it is profitable. “If you can be a high-producing beef farmer, you will be better than cash crop half the time,” said Tim.
Next, Tim wants to add to his business by offering custom grazing and finding more opportunities to winter graze. “Last year I put cows in the corn. They knock it down and eat it up. I gave them about 20 feet per day and I figure it cost me 80 cents per cow per day compared to $5 a day when you have to harvest it and feed it in a barn,” said Tim.
Some of Tim’s ideas have come from the Ranching for Profit program he took in South Dakota which he says really opened his eyes to the economics of rotational grazing. “It got me to leave my comfort zone,” said Tim. He recommends starting with just 10 acres and using a vision board to write down what you want to make happen. “It’s hard to drive a car by only looking through the rear view mirror,” he added.
When the audience was free to ask questions, one member wondered how each of the men measured success. Tim said he does an economic work up for himself and prefers gross margins per unit versus number of pounds per cow. Jason’s approach was having a reputation for marketing good cattle and seeing the reward on the price per pound. Also, he measures success in the amount of pasture acres made out of the bush. ◊