A few years ago, Rock Springs farmer Roman Miller said goodbye to his combine, corn planter and the rest of his row cropping equipment.
Instead of continuing to row crop, which “wasn’t that much fun” anymore as expenses went up, margins went down and erosion ate away at the land, Miller said, he turned his attention fully grazing on his 230-acre grass-fed beef operation. Getting rid of his equipment was his way of making sure that he would follow through.
“I kind of wanted to knock out all of the crutches just in case you wanted ... to go back,” Miller said Nov. 10 during a fall and winter grazing techniques webinar.
The 2017 transition to all grass saw not just the departure of row cropping equipment, of course. Seven miles of fencing and 5 miles of water lines were added in the effort to convert 175 acres from corn and soybeans to grass, Miller said.
Miller, who said that the farm has about 200 head of cattle in total, said that they’re still working on some things a little bit here and there, but so far, the change has been good.
“The concept is a great concept,” Miller said. “It’s quite profitable.”
The key to being profitable is to limit the amount of winter feed needed, said Serge Koenig, Sauk County Land Resources and Environment conservation technician.
Every day that can be knocked off of winter feeding is more money in the bank account, Koenig said.
Miller agreed that working to shave off winter feeding days is good for profits.
“That’s where a lot of your profit goes, is feeding those hay bales,” Miller said.
Rotational grazing has helped Miller cut down on hay feeding days on his farm.
“Before you’d run out of grass in August maybe, September sometimes, but the last three years now, I’ve been grazing ‘til the middle of December. This year, it’s probably going to be the first week of December when I run out of grass just because I’ve got a few more animals around,” Miller said, calling the difference in hay days “huge.”
During the winter, Miller has tried both bale grazing and bale unrolling methods to keep his herd fed and spread nutrients from the bales.
“I guess I’m little bit on the fence on which way to go, bale grazing or bale unrolling,” Miller said. “They’re both a good system.”
Miller said that he bale grazed in a grid that leaves 30 feet between bales in each direction.
Bale grazing provides the option to just set out all the bales in November and have that taken care of for the whole winter, Miller said.
The cattle are kept away from the next row of bales, but they aren’t back-fenced to allow them to continue to reach their water source, an energy-free system that just requires the ice to be broken in the morning in cold temperatures, Miller said.
“They seem to be really happy out there,” he said.
Miller used bale rings when bale grazing, but when asked if he would consider going without them, as some other Sauk County farmers have done, according to Koenig, Miller said it was something he would “definitely” think about doing to see if it made a difference in the amount of waste and ease of the process.
Compared to unrolling, Miller also thought that it is possible to get more nutrients out of a bale by bale grazing.
When Miller has made the decision to go away from bale grazing and to bale unrolling, he said he has done so because he wants to try to get nutrients spread out across his whole farm faster, citing that there’s $50 to $60 worth of fertilizer in a ton of hay.
“I thought I could maybe speed up my grazing process by unrolling the hay out in the field,” Miller said.
It does work well that way, but Miller said he could foresee a problem being what would happen if a bale was rolled out on the same spot the next year, something Miller said he doesn’t have a way to prevent from happening.
There’s a “huge response” where the bales were unrolled, Miller said, but when the next year rolls around, factors like a foot of snow could prevent him from seeing where the bales had been unrolled before.
Another perk of bale unrolling, though, is that it doesn’t see any of the weeds come through, Miller said, something those who are bothered by weeds may want to consider.
“I’ll probably keep doing both (bale grazing and bale unrolling) at this point,” Miller said. “I do see a nice response on both of them obviously.”
Another bright spot that Miller said he has found in grazing as opposed to row cropping is that the weather doesn’t affect his operation as much any more, citing the storm that brought several inches of snow to southern Wisconsin around Halloween last year.
His cattle were able to keep on grazing and just didn’t have to drink quite as much water, Miller said
When it comes to incorporating cover crops into his operation, the results have been more mixed, Miller said.
In 2018, after bale grazing on a field, Miller no-tilled a cover crop on the field, Koenig said.
“That year, I’d grazed it pretty hard. They were there for a long time. It was no grass left. They had it all down to dirt,” Miller said. “So it was a good spot to plant my cover crops. That year, it worked really, really good.”
But since then, Miller said he has tried to avoid grazing so severely.
“So then it doesn’t quite take as good a hold as it did when you had bare soil,” he said.
Miller said he wants to avoid terminating the grass or working it up, which can present a challenge for cover cropping.
In June of this year, Miller said that he put a sorghum sudangrass mix in a pasture that had been “wrecked” by grazing when it was too wet.
He planted the cover crops along with his perennials. It came up well, and the cattle did well on it, Miller said, but he wasn’t sure if he would try that again because the cover crops never really “exploded.”
“Just the cost of it, I don’t know if I’d really go that way because I don’t know, is it enough benefit to the root structures going in there or not to make it worth it?” Miller said, noting that he’d probably just plant his perennials there.
Koenig added that another farmer who had no-tilled a sorghum sudangrass cover crop in existing pasture that had been grazed very short came to the determination that doing so wasn’t worth it for the extra forage, considering the cost it took to do it.
“The return on investment wasn’t there,” Koenig said.
While not everything that has been tried — or may be tried in the future — on Miller’s farm has proven to be entirely successful, that’s point of trying new things and examining the results, Koenig said.
“It’s not all good. Some of it is not great, and it looks ugly,” Koenig said. “But that’s part of the learning.”