GRATIOT — After wind storms and drought killed many of the trees in his pasture, Steve Holland was brainstorming ways to bring shade back for his grazing Jersey cow herd. He had seen a portable shade structure advertised and was going back and forth on whether to make the investment, finally buying one and giving it a try for the first time last year.
He told attendees of a recent pasture walk on his farm that he is glad he made the purchase. While he’s only had the structure for a little over a year, he expects multiple benefits from its use, including managing and distributing pasture fertility better, abating the summer heat for his cows and keeping them cleaner.
“The shade does have some benefits aside from helping to keep cattle cool,” Gene Schriefer, Iowa County UW-Extension agriculture agent said. “It also benefits soil and ecology.”
Schriefer stuck a soil thermometer into the ground multiple times during the pasture walk, recording cooler temperatures at points in the pasture and underneath the structure. Using a soil thermometer is one way to see how warm or cool the soil is; he also recommended using the Heat Stress app, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and available on smart phones and other electronic devices. The app uses GPS data and current weather conditions to alert farmers if temperatures are heading into a dangerous level for livestock on their operations.
Holland and his family milk about 75 Jersey cows just outside of Gratiot on their 147 acre farm. They’ve been grazing their cows since they bought the place in 1997, starting with just 40 Jerseys to begin. In 2005, they installed a swing-10 parlor, which made milking more cows a lot simpler, Holland said.
He added that it’s hard to tell if the shade structure has had an impact on milk production, but did notice that a few more cows were pregnant last year after using the structure in the pasture. He aims to continue recording data on the cows and will know more about other possible benefits as time goes on.
After using the structure for the first time last year, Holland had noticed some pasture damage where the structure had been positioned. Because the cattle congregated under the structure, the grass was shorter and brown spots could be observed within the pasture where the structure had been. However, Holland kept an eye on the areas and did not feel the need to re-seed this spring, although he has heard of other farmers re-seeding if needed.
“Like anything, it takes some management,” Holland said.
He moves the shade structure around the pasture every day using a UTV, following the advice of the company he purchased it from and not folding it up each time he moves it. It is relatively easy and only takes a few minutes to hook it up to the back of the UTV and move it, he said.
In the winter months, Holland stores the structure in a shed, out of the elements, and believes the fabric should last 10 years if properly cared for. He was also able to insure the structure, he said.
Interest in shade structures for pasture is growing, with Marie Raboin of Dane County’s Land Conservation Division sharing how she recently helped a Stoughton farmer with their first cost share for this specific piece of equipment. Kaitlin Schott, a soil conservationist with Iowa County’s NRCS office, has also been working with a few sheep raisers on the pros and cons of purchasing a shade structure.
Cost sharing through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program does include shade structures, although the farmer’s proposal needs to include how the purchase of the structure can improve and protect environmental quality on the farm.
Farmers interested in exploring a cost share for a shade structure should contact a local NRCS representative and work with them on a plan, Raboin said, adding that the more farmers explain how the shade structure will benefit the environment, the easier it will likely become to take advantage of those cost share dollars.