Adam Bedtke (foreground) hosted a Land Stewardship Project pasture walk at his dairy farm outside Plainview. The Bedtkes use a rotational grazing system that they say has helped reduce costs and improved soil health.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Adam and Amanda Bedtke’s cows are outdoor cows. While some of their bovine brethren strain their necks against barn stanchions whenever they hear the tractor coming to deliver the morning feed ration, the Bedtke animals shuffle out of the milking parlor each morning and find their own breakfast.
Adam Bedtke was in seventh grade when his father switched from conventional farming to rotational grazing. “The ag instructor said, ‘You’re wasting your time,’” Adam Bedtke recalled. But the instructor was wrong, he continued. “It worked. It just worked with the cows out on grass,” Adam Bedtke said.
Many farms cut hay, bring it to livestock in confinement barns, and transport the resulting manure back to the fields. Graziers let the animals do that work. “They are 100-percent capable of harvesting their own feed and spreading their own manure,” Adam Bedtke said of his cows. “Some of it is quality of life, too,” he added, explaining why he practices rotational grazing. “It’s that much less feed I have to harvest and that much less manure I have to haul.”
Asked why he pastures his St. Charles-area dairy herd, farmer Brad Schrandt echoed, “For one, the labor aspect: You’re not hauling all the feed in and all the manure out.”
The hilly terrain of Gary Pronschinske’s Buffalo County farm prompted him to raise his heifers on pasture. “It’s ideal for grazing,” Pronschinske said of his land. “It’s not meant for row crops.”
It may not be for everyone, but rotational grazing produces a host of soil health benefits, from absorbing downpours to boosting fertility, conservation experts advise. Proponents argue that rotational grazing helped them cut costs and become more profitable over time. “If more people were willing to embrace rotational grazing, it might help save some of these farms,” La Crescent dairy farmer and long-time grazier Art Thicke said.
As opposed to continuous grazing, where animals are allowed to graze a single pasture for an extended period or for the entire season, rotational grazing moves animals frequently from one paddock to the next — every two to three days in the case of the Bedtke farm. Rotational grazing does require more labor than continuous grazing, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Health Technician Dean Thomas noted. Often, continuous grazing pastures have ponds from which cattle drink. Rotational grazing paddocks frequently use water tanks that can run dry. Farmers need to move cattle more frequently and check on the water tanks a couple times a day, Thomas said. However, rotating the livestock from paddock to paddock helps prevent overgrazing, maximizes pasture productivity, minimizes compaction and erosion, suppresses weeds, and ensures the cows’ manure is spread out evenly and not concentrated in certain parts of a pasture, Thomas said. With continuous grazing, he stated, “As soon as the grass gets an inch tall, they’re hammering it again. So you’re getting compaction, you’re depleting your perennial vegetation, and next thing you know you’re going to get weeds and thistle because your forage is getting hammered too hard.”
The Bedtkes produce organic milk with a herd of just over 50 cows. Fences divide 45 acres of the their farm into small paddocks, while the rest of the farm is open cropland. The Bedtkes grow all of their own feed, and in summer, they said the only supplemental feed the cows need is ground corn. The Bedtkes do not purchase fertilizer for those corn crops but rely on the cow manure and “green manure,” or plants allowed to compost on the fields. On a rotating basis, Adam Bedtke plows up some of his pastures and plants corn in them. “Its a pain in the butt row cropping in fences,” he acknowledged, but added, “I do get better corn on my pasture acres than my crop acres, and I just attribute that to the cattle being on it. It just seems like the all the microbial things — they’re just clicking so well.” In the years before they are plowed for corn, those paddocks benefit from perennial vegetative cover protecting the soil from erosion and building up organic matter and from cow manure and green manure gradually building up nutrients into the soil. “We don’t buy fertilizer for our corn, but it doesn’t mean it’s not fertilized,” Adam Bedtke said.
The Bedtkes hosted a Land Stewardship Project pasture walk earlier this month and showed off a paddock that was lush with grass, red and white clover, plantain, and a wide variety of forage. Adam Bedtke explained that, once, he wanted to plow the paddock and plant corn in it. Then, he said, “I had an ‘aha’ moment. It was so thick, I almost had trouble plowing it.” He could not bring himself to do it, so he left the pasture untouched, and it’s been one of the most resilient paddocks — the first one he turns the cows out on in spring and the last one they graze in fall. “You cannot kill this grass,” Adam Bedtke said. “It’s thick. It just holds up. There’s zero out-of-pocket dollars reinvested in this, and it just keeps growing,” he added.
One pasture walk attendee asked the Bedtkes if they had ever considered eliminating their pasture-to-corn rotation and only growing grass in the paddocks. They had, Adam Bedtke said, but with their limited land, they were concerned they would not be able to grow enough feed and would be forced to either cut their herd size or buy corn — something they wanted to avoid. “That’s the never-ending debate at our house,” Amanda Bedtke responded. “How much land? How much corn? How many cows? Where’s that sweet spot?”
Another guest asked whether rotational grazing could produce more profit than conventional farming. “If you want people to start farming this way, if you can prove to them that you’re making money at this, it’ll happen,” he said.
So can rotational grazing be a financially successful model? It depends, local experts answered. “We’ve got [successful rotational grazing farms] out there right now,” NRCS Winona County District Conservationist Sue Glende said. “It depends on what your goal is for your farm income. It can be successful. Are you going to make as much as money? I don’t know the answer to that.”
Proponents of rotational grazing highlighted the costs they have avoided. Thicke and Schrandt said their animals are healthier on pasture and their vet bills are lower. “We’ve found over the years now, we do less and less for animal treatment,” Schrandt stated. Amanda Bedtke noted that her family has saved on capital expenses because of their reduced need for barns and other buildings.
“I think if it was a cut and dry ‘yes,’ all farmers would do it,” NRCS Area Resource Conservationist Jim Fritz said. “But it’s kind of like incorporating cover crops into the land. There’s a lot of benefits, and with the benefits, there’s not always a dollar figure tied to it in the short term.”
“It depends,” Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District Resource Specialist Lance Klessig said. “I’ve worked with a lot of guys who have made a livelihood off of it and have a lot of success. It definitely can work. But with that said, typically having some sort of direct market for your product is probably the biggest key I’ve seen. If you’re just going to sell to the local sales barn, just like a lot of commodities, you’re chasing break even … If you can direct market your own meat or your own milk, that’s where I see the real possibilities lie.”
Having enough land to support a herd is also crucial to rotational grazing. NRCS officials who work with local farmers to develop grazing plans said that having enough space to prevent overgrazing is critical. “The harder ones are the ones where they don’t have enough grazing land and you would have to take some of their crop land out of production,” Glende said of consulting farmers interested in rotational grazing. “That’s where we run into road blocks,” she stated. Farmers are reluctant to give up cropland, she explained, in part because grazing is more labor-intensive, the market for grass-fed milk and beef is sometimes challenging, and there is no safety net to fall back on like there is with crop insurance.
Thomas pointed to a recent trend in local real estate that is driving up pastureland prices and making the economics a little more challenging for graziers. “Pasture land is selling for $5,000 [an acre] because guys out of the Twin Cities are buying it for hunting land. Well, there’s no way a guy can buy that and run cows across it [profitably],” he said.
“I think grazing might really help people through these tough times,” Thicke said.
The NRCS offers advice to farmers interested in rotational grazing and financial assistance for infrastructure. For more information, contact the local NRCS office at 507-523-2171.