Sustainable ag: Successful pastures tougher than rocket science

Farm Forum

Gary Zimmer, president of the agricultural consulting company Midwestern BioAg, has worked with pastures in Australia, Texas, New Zealand, Africa, Idaho, California and countless other places to help people get the most out of their pastures.

Because every environment poses unique challenges, realizing the full potential of a pasture is extremely complicated.

“This isn’t rocket science. It’s much harder than that,” said Zimmer, who also runs a dairy farm in Blue Mounds, Wis.

Unlike rocket science, there is no mathematical formula to ensure a pasture’s success, only guidelines and basic principles, he said.

“Rocket science is a bunch of numbers, punched into a bunch of computers, to make a rocket,” Zimmer said, “and out of 70 tries, 69 of them fly.”

People from across the Midwest crowded into a conference room at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel in Aberdeen on Jan. 26 to hear Zimmer’s presentation titled “Rules, Observations and Livestock Farming: Examples to get the most out of pastures.” The presentation was part of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society’s Winter Conference.

Farmers have to deal with many variables, some of which are beyond their control, he said. Among those variables are the general climate, the area’s soil structure and droughts, Zimmer said.

However, there are some principles that should help most dairy farmers and cattle ranchers maximize their production, Zimmer said.

Ranchers need to ensure their land can provide a proper diet for their animals, he said. It’s just as important for ranchers to be consistent and stick to a system that works, he said.

Just by making sure they use a consistent system, Zimmer said, he’s helped people increase production by 10 percent.

Many people throughout the world try a different fertilizer every year or randomly mix and match what they feed their cattle, he said.

Zimmer showed slides of ranches with owners who did nothing besides open the gate and let their cattle graze on whatever grew. That system obviously doesn’t work, Zimmer said.

“You can’t have the same feeding system for dairy cows and calves that you do for steers. It’ll kill them,” Zimmer said.

A mixture of alfalfa, corn silage, oats, grain byproducts, sorghum and grass is good, he said. The key is variety, just letting cows graze on nothing but alfalfa does not work.

Certain specialized extra foods can help cattle ward off illnesses, and improve their health, Zimmer said. For example, feeding kelp to cattle cures and prevents pinkeye.

“I have neighbors right across the fence with blind cows, he said. I don’t have a single animal with pinkeye.”

A good pasture has balanced mineral levels and is high in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and crude proteins. The pasture also needs a balanced potassium-to-sulfur ratio, Zimmer said.

The ideal way to achieve the best balance of nutrients in soil for a cattle pasture depends on the natural climate, he said. For example, land in the Dakotas tends to have elevated potassium levels, he said.

While spreading manure, mixing rock phosphate is an effective and inexpensive method to boost phosphorus levels, he said. It’s usually better than commercial fertilizer and cheaper too.

A mixture of salt, kelp and humates can help rebuild soil, improve plant growth and increase the mineral absorption, which leads to happier, more productive cows, Zimmer said.

Humates, which can be shipped from North Dakota, is essentially coal that hasn’t fully matured, he said. It doesn’t burn like coal does, but it oxidizes very well, Zimmer said.

Putting humates in soil can help a pasture retain moisture, which is very helpful during a drought, he said.

Cows know what they need to eat to stay healthy, but will eat whatever is available to survive, he said. Ranchers and farmers must make sure the right food is available, he said.

The best way to do that is with healthy pasture land and constant care, Zimmer said.