September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Bechtel was renting 300 acres, but cut back this year, due to the higher land rents that corn and soybean prices are driving. During a recent Great River Graziers' pasture walk on his 265-acre ridgetop farm, Bechtel said he reduced his rented ground by two-thirds. He didn't want to get locked into a lease at these high prices, perhaps just to see rents ease if corn and bean prices relax.
The rented land will be used to grow corn and hay.
"I'm short on roughage," Bechtel said. "I don't like to buy roughage. I don't mind buying grain."
The Bechtels moved to Wisconsin in 1991, renting a farm northeast of Richland Center.
"I made a mistake when we moved there," Bechtel said. "I didn't go to grazing right away."
Instead, he seeded a paddock to clover four years later and got going with grazing then. In 1997, the Bechtels moved to their present place, and he decided to really concentrate on grazing.
"It just seemed to fit my life-style a lot better," Bechtel said. "I like to see cows on pasture. I like to take advantage of not using machinery to do a lot of the work."
Managed intensive grazing offers three things that are important to him, the dairyman said: life-style, how you handle the cows and returns.
On the day of the pasture walk, the Bechtels were milking 102 cows, with more due to freshen soon. In a few weeks, Bechtel figured, Nona and he, their daughter, Melinda, and part-time employee Amanda Fowell would be milking 135.
One of Bechtel's goals is to gradually replace the grade and registered Holsteins with Fleckviehs, a hardy breed from Germany, Austria, Italy and France, and related to Simmentals. The Bechtels have two Fleckviehs, one of them a bull.
If he decides to not switch to Fleckviehs, Bechtel might still make better use of his 110 acres of pasture by selling his Holsteins and buying Jerseys, dairyman Don Boland, Gays Mills, Wis., suggested. He said he had a Holstein herd, but it took 10 years to develop one better suited to grazing by crossbreeding.
Boland said Bechtel might want to think about selling his Holstein cows when prices rise. Then he might be able to buy two Jerseys for each Holstein he sells and switch to seasonal milking, too.
A point that was made was that crossbreds might eat less. And, their milk - if it's higher in butterfat and protein - could yield $1.50 to $2 more per hundredweight.
"Everyone loves their herd. But you'll love your new herd, too," Boland said.
Bechtel said he has also been looking for Holstein sires whose daughters are suited to grazing. However, he wants to consider what Melinda might want to do. She was home for the summer from her job on a dairy farm in New Zealand, where it's winter now.
Bechtel took his guests on a bouncy, dusty, tractor-and-wagon ride a mile back along the ridge from the farm buildings. He said much of the soil on the ridge is a mere two inches deep, with gravel underneath. That shallow soil was one reason he was concerned about having enough feed, especially after cutting back on the amount of rented land.
Drought (this year) is "always a possibility," Bechtel said. "Just because we had three-and-a-half to four inches this spring doesn't mean we're going to have enough (rain)."
He talked about his plans to plant an 85-day variety of corn and harvest it for silage. Then, Bechtel said, he would seed grass where the corn had been.
The dairyman said he hadn't done much reseeding until this year. Soil tests showed some of the pasture low in potassium, with phosphorus approaching the optimal level.
Bechtel's grazing season began early - the first part of April. Trouble was, some of the ground was overgrazed last fall. As a result, grasses and legumes in parts of the pasture were patchy.
Suggestions for improving it included grazing it, then clipping the regrowth and applying nitrogen.
Crawford County Extension Agriculture Agent Vance Haugen, the moderator of the pasture walk, offered this caution: Never put on more than 50 units of nitrogen at one time. Instead, apply the N in two or three applications.
Another idea to spur the grass to grow better was to create smaller paddocks and move the cows in and out of them every six to 12 hours. That would concentrate the cattle, make them eat the plants down more, and would deposit their manure and urine in smaller areas. A third suggestion was to simply haul and apply more manure onto the patchy spots.
Bechtel said grass on his farm is usually in shortest supply from the end of July through the first three weeks of August. If he ends up needing a summer forage, Bechtel could plant annual ryegrass.
But Haugen said that's essentially a "one and done" proposition, since it will provide just four to six weeks of grazing. Plus, annual ryegrass does need moisture, something that could be in short supply later in the summer.
One more idea to provide more grazing opportunities was to install cattle lanes. In the farthest pasture, said Haugen, the lanes could either be constructed on top of the ridge and right along the woods, or perhaps atop the spine of the ridge. Either way, lanes would allow for some back grazing.
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