Blog report from Myers Grass-finishing Livestock Field Day
By Margaret Dunn and Luke Gran
Jacob and Sarah Myers hosted a grazing livestock PFI Field Day on a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon June 13th. 47 people attended the event, ages young and old, from farms just down the road and as far away as 160 miles.
Jacob Myers received an Animal Science degree from Iowa State University (ISU), has worked for Iowa Select managing central Iowa hog buildings, and is currently the herd manager of the ISU Swine Farms in Ames, Iowa. After work and on weekends, he has been improving pasture productivity, building up his beef herd, reclaiming pastures lost to tree encroachment, and marketing grass-finished beef. His wife, Sarah Myers, recently completed a degree in Veterinary Medicine. Her knowledge about disease prevention and treatment with livestock is a remarkable asset to the beef business. Together, they have been developing a grass-finishing program for their beef cattle since 2002.
Jacob began a detailed talk about his farming history, the story of how his family came to rent these 130 acres of rugged, central Iowa pastureland. He expressed tears of joy, overcoming recent family sickness, stress reflecting on what his family has overcome, and the 40-head cow/calf herd they manage on grass.
They shared details of their business including disease management, holistic treatments, genetics, calving schedules, fencing, watering arrangements, and rotation of pasture.
Holistic methods of livestock treatment
Jacob and Sarah both want to manage their livestock as free from antibiotics and other toxic treatments as possible by practicing good pasture management, preventative care, vaccinations, and superior genetic selection. They are assessing adding goats to their pastures to reduce woody encroachment, but see the deworming protocols necessary as a concern.
Myers planned to use the dewormer Cydectin on his cattle, as it does not harm dung beetles, and thus would benefit the soil ecology. However, Cydectin is one of the few treatments left that is effective against many small ruminant parasites. The possibility exists that resistance could develop or spread to the cattle, so Myers opted to stop treatments overall and instead focus on management to reduce parasite loads. Sarah is also utilizing the “Famacha” method of watching for and detecting anemia, which signals a high parasite load, and they perform quarterly fecal egg counts.
Jacob bought a large quantity of mixed genetics bull semen on Craigslist for a great value and has been using it to develop his genetic line using old-style Angus and Simmental sires from the 1960s and 1970s for superb grass-finishing qualities. They avoid single-trait selection and emphasize moderation in multiple areas rather than exceeding performance in one area.
Jacob is working to calve in late spring (around May) and keep calves on the cow for up to 10 months, straight through the winter. He says that the calves learn more about grazing and forage selection that way, and it keeps them fed and happy. Animals are to be marketed at 24 months of age.
The Myers do not own the land, so they negotiate any fence improvements beforehand with their landowner. They split up their larger pastures into smaller ones with a single hot electric wire and solar fence chargers.
Jacob shared a simple pump method he uses to water his cattle. Using an electric direct-drive water pump connected to a hefty car battery, he can move water uphill. He has used this simple system to move water 200 yards up a moderate slope to a ridge top. Jacob is also trying to use some gravity-fed systems, and installing perforated tile to better drain some swampy pasture areas and retain that moisture in a simple watering pool at the bottom of the slope. One of his restrictions on pasture/paddock size, especially now that he is not moving cattle multiple times each day, is that he cannot get too far from water or must employ laneways that cattle would use to get to a water source.
Observation, adaptive management
Perhaps most impressive at the field day, was listening to the method of pasture management that Jacob has developed. He identifies pasture species, their growth stage, and then targets the animals’ movement through the pasture to put on weight gain and also to control plant growth and overgrowth. If it is raining often, he will sometimes move cows every 12 hours to prevent trampling and poor forage utilization. This “adaptive management” strategy is an essential skill to learn to be an excellent grass-finishing beef farmer. This emphasis on flexibility is a central requirement in any grazing program. Jacob wishes (if the time were available) to be moving the cows more frequently to see even MORE dramatic increases in utilization efficiency.
Jacob focuses not on pounds per acre of animals raised, but keeping good healthy cattle and balancing time moving cows and his commitment to family.
A key to Jacob’s development as a grazier has been Practical Farmers of Iowa coordinated “Pasture Walks”. Additionally, with friends Bruce Carney, Andrew Bexten, and Jake Wheeler, this group gets together on their own to conduct regular pasture walks throughout the year. They are always experimenting and trying new things, challenging themselves and each other to examine their systems and look for ways to improve.
Jacob’s winter grazing strategy
To save costs, and to improve the levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLAs) and Omega-3 fatty acids his customers demand from a grass-finished product, the Myers take great care to graze through the winter by “stockpiling” pastures. “Stockpiling” requires planning ahead in the summer to grow certain pieces of pasture out through the fall for December, January, and February grazing. Last winter, Jacob only had to feed about twenty bales of hay due to the wise use of stockpiled forage. In addition to producing healthier meat (CLAs are not as high in grass-finished cattle finished with winter hay) “stockpiling” has tremendous input cost savings potential for graziers.
Due to the time constraints managing a full-time job, Jacob doesn’t spend much time seeking out new customers. Existing customers and any new referrals call him and he schedules his processing time with the customer, who picks up the meat at the local locker of their choice.
Where is the profit?
Jacob was asked about profit, to which he responded, “there is not much”. Enough to make him continue doing it, but not enough to provide him a full-time income.
Perhaps another topic for a future event at PFI – what does it take to make a grazier farm like the Myers, more profitable? What are the successful business models to take this work to a full-time income earning option? What marketing is most efficient and profitable to invest time doing?
Wonderful meal, community
The field day concluded with a delicious banquet prepared by Sarah Myers and family. Special thanks to Jacob’s father, the grill-master! The juiciest grass-finished hamburgers, beef and beans, arugula, pasta salad, chocolate sheet cake, fresh strawberries, blueberries, and REAL whipping cream!