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Sustainable Agriculture

Win-Win-Win: Managed Grazing Improves Profits, Soil, Water Quality

When Ray Meismer took stock of his central Illinois crop and livestock farm, characterized by steep slopes along the Illinois River, he thought he could improve his profitability and lessen his impact on the watershed. He wanted a more intensive grazing system for his cow/calf herd to make better use of the land, even if that meant taking crops out of production. With a SARE grant and help from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Illinois Extension, Meismer designed a new grazing system reliant upon nutritious forages and a “ram” pump to power water to his pasture in an electricity-free system.

Now, on some of the most challenging 56 acres of his 300-acre farm, Meismer manages a five-year rotation of corn, soybeans, and forage. He divides the forages into grazing paddocks for his cattle. “Some of my ground was rougher and not as productive for cash cropping, but was suitable for grazing,” Meismer said. “After I pushed the pencil, I thought I could get more dollars per acre grazing and selling feeder calves than on corn and soybeans.”

His hypothesis played out as expected: Meismer increased his stocking density from 32 cow/calf pairs to 37 because he had better pasture, and those animals gained more weight, bringing better returns. Meismer’s net return in 2000 from the calves was $65 per acre compared to $59.70 an acre for soybeans and $55.73 per acre for corn. “The increased revenue from calf sales more than offset the decrease in revenue from cash crops,” he said.

Meismer worked with NRCS and Extension to install a water-powered pump and a watering system that reaches 1,200 feet from a spring to the farthest paddock. He moves a storage tank on a wagon among three steep sites, then, using gravity, moves water to a tank he rotates among paddocks as he shifts his herd. By covering the soil with vegetation, Meismer has reduced erosion. Moreover, he set up his watering system to keep cattle away from the spring itself, protecting water quality.

Rotating the herd every several days is a fine example of what Illinois agricultural educators are trying to promote throughout the state, said Jay Solomon, an extension specialist who worked with Meismer. Rather than running herds on pasture for a month or more, farmers might mimic historical patterns. “Traditionally, buffalo herds came to a watering hole, grazed it all, then went to the next one—giving the forage a chance to re-grow during the rest period,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to run the cattle the same way in more of a managed situation.”


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