Splendor in the grass: Appreciating Augusta’s largest crop (Sunday, June 5, 2011)

Rebecca Martinez/staff

MOUNT SOLON — To the untrained eye, it might just look like grass.

But it’s never just grass. Not to a cattleman.

The rolling fields of Augusta County are carefully planted with crops of orchard grass, fescue and clover.

“They may call themselves cattle ranchers or shepherds or what have you, but if they weren’t good at raising grass, they wouldn’t have livestock,” said Extension Agent Jason Carter, of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Grass doesn’t just happen. You have to manage soil fertility, and you have to manage other plants. The grass is what provides the foundation for livestock agriculture, but it will be outdone by weeds if pastures aren’t managed.”

Cattle farmers are grateful that the recent rain has let up, so they can cut the grass that’s been growing since winter, dry it out and store it for a rainy day. Or, rather, an icy winter or oppressively hot drought day that would keep their cattle from grazing.

In a business where a cow’s weight makes all the difference, every ton of feed counts.


Making the Cut

Home from Texas Tech in late May, farmer Robbie Reeves’ son Brandon, 21, jumped on his father’s 7320 John Deere tractor with mower-conditioner attached and cut about 5 acres of grass. The giant machine chopped the grass and blew it into neat windrows. Brandon would later drive a tedder over it to spread out the grass and allow it to dry evenly.

Reeves sent Brandon out on a cloudy day, when the threat of rain loomed, but didn’t want to wait much longer to get the first cutting of the year.

“When it is just shooting its head, it has the most protein,” Reeves said of the grasses, worrying they’ll ripen and be less valuable. If the hay gets rained on too much before it’s stored, the most nutritious parts of the grasses could break off or wash away.

Reeves feeds about 75 percent of the crops on his 250 acres of land and sells the remainder to horse owners.

He appreciates the rain — “It makes things grow,” he said — but said two or three days of good, dry weather makes the hay suitable for storage without the likelihood of mold growing on it. If the hay reaches 40 percent moisture, it can be wrapped in plastic and fermented for silage. If it reaches less than 16 percent moisture, it can be baled dry and stored in the barn.

Long before the snow comes, a farmer needs to anticipate how much hay each of his cows will need come winter.

“Regardless of whether they consume grass or start feeding hay, that cow needs 25 or 35 pounds of feed a day, said Virginia Tech researcher David Fiske, who is raising 200 cows for Virginia Tech at McCormick Farm in Raphine.

Extension agent Jason Carter said a farmer needs to decide what crops to grow on what soil, how much to allow the cows to graze and for how long, and how much hay to make during the year. If an acre of grass is left to grow long, a farmer may be able to cut it once in the spring and again in the fall. “The first and the biggest challenge is … maintaining soil fertility,” Carter said.

At the end of the year, he recommends farmers do a soil test to determine whether there is enough nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — or “NPK” — in the soil, and whether it has the right pH, or acidity. Carter said farmers often need to buy NPK in synthetic forms to establish a pasture, but once cattle have grazed it a while, the soil is mostly recharged by the nutrient content in the cows’ manure, requiring touch-up of potassium and lime — to combat soil acidity — from time to time.


Splendor in the Grass

Cows and sheep — called “ruminants” because they rechew their food as it makes its way through their four stomach chambers — can do so much more with grass than any homeowner.

“Ruminants are designed to take that plant fiber and break it down and turn it into carbohydrates and protein,” said Carter. Hay can be a bovine super-food, compared with weeds, which offer poor nutrition and sap resources from healthier grasses. “Any kind of farming … to make it profitable, you have to use what you get the most benefit from.”

The extension service offers tables describing the various nutritional content of various types of grass, and recommends that farmers diversify their crops. Ideally, a farmer would offer a balanced diet of two types of grass — popularly fescue and orchard grass — and a nitrogen-fixing legume, like clover, which is good for the cattle and the soil.

Dairy cattle need to gain more weight more quickly than beef cattle, so dairy farmers often devote their crop land to nutrient-packed and easy-to-stretch corn when they can, and buy surplus hay from other farmers. After a year or more of grazing on grass, beef cattle from the county are often shipped to the Midwest to be finished with corn and grains, because those crops grow easily there.

One acre of hay makes two tons of feed, while one acre of corn makes 15 tons of silage. Still, grass grows well here.

“We have a limited amount of land in the Valley that’s suitable for crop production,” Carter said, adding that young cows thrive on grass.

Carter said grass is the ideal crop fro the Shenandoah Valley because it has a shallow root system and doesn’t mind the rocky ground, it doesn’t require as many nutrients as corn or grains, and it has a long enough growing season to reproduce. It’s more cost effective for farmers to raise cattle on grass here before shipping them out west rather than ordering all the corn steers would require to finish.

Still, the steers won’t reach a marketable weight if they’re not grazing constantly and efficiently on good food, which is why Carter said farmers need to pay attention to what they’re putting in their cattle.

“That’s why good livestock producers actually are grass farmers first.”

About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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