By Connor Lynch
CASTLETON — Beef farmer Doug Gray was having trouble with his cattle. He had 5-acre paddocks on his 40 acres of pasture, but the cattle wouldn’t graze it all. Instead, they preferred to stick near the water bowl and bawl at him after they’d eaten his pasture down to nubs.
With his sandy loam soil, that was putting his pasture at risk. His soil has poor water and organic matter retention, and exposing it could slow regrowth or damage his pasture.
Besides, the cattle started complaining every few days, wanting to move to the next paddock.
Gray’s solution was innovative enough to score him the Mapleseed Pasture Ward at the Beef Farmers of Ontario’s annual general meeting last month. Gray went home with $500 and a bag of forage seed.
Here’s how the system works. Gray has the 40-acre plot broken up into about 10 4-acre paddocks. He uses a tumblewheel fencing system. A steel wire is strung through what look like wagon wheels with the outer rim taken off. The wire is electrified, to discourage the cattle testing it. He uses the system to break up his paddocks into narrow strips, 20 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. That forces his 35 cow-calf pairs to eat the entire strip, evenly, down to about six inches, before they get moved along.
His partner, Bonnie Wilson, moves the tumblewheels twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. When she wants to move the cattle between strips, she takes one end of the wire and walks it forward. The tumblewheels keep the length of the wire off the ground. Then she attaches the wire to the next post, moves the other end, and repeats with the other wire on the back of the strip. The whole process takes about 15 minutes, Gray said. It’s not very labour intensive, but “it does mean you have to be here to do it.”
He developed his grazing system because his pasture land is such poor quality, but any beef farmer would benefit from using it. “You can pasture a lot more animals on less land.” If Gray dropped his strip grazing system and let the animals simply roam, he figured he’d have to cut his cow-calf herd in half. Once an area is grazed, he gives it at least a month to regrow. In a typical year, he doesn’t have to feed hay at all during the summer. In a looser system, he’d likely have to feed his animals at least some.
In fact, Gray said, on better soil than his, farmers would likely see more benefit than he does. With better pasture regrowth, they’d be able to fit even more animals on the same acreage. “I’d really recommend it for any farmer.”