Published Dec 19, 2013

Curious farmers WANTED – on-farm livestock research with PFI!

By Margaret Chamas

The PFI livestock program on-farm research for 2014 looks great!  Members shared ideas, set goals, and critiqued projects at the Cooperators’ Meeting on Dec 5 and 6.  In 2014, several pre-existing projects will continue, as we try to improve accuracy and validity through long-term experimentation and observation.  A few new projects also join the ranks.  Check them out – and let me know if you want to try something too!

Through the Co-op Program, farmer-researchers define a question they want answered, and PFI staff help refine the question into a project to be implemented on-farm.  The cooperator collects data and returns it to PFI, where it is analyzed, summarized, and written up as a report.  Cooperators receive a stipend upon the completion of a project, and have opportunities to share their findings with other farmers through the Co-op Meeting (this year in December) and on field days throughout the summer.

Reports from the 2013 projects are not yet available on the PFI website, but should be in the near future.  Printed copies will be available at the Annual Conference, or you can email me for a copy.


Pasture monitoring

One of the longest-running projects, this recordkeeping and demonstration trial standardizes data collection for graziers looking to improve their pasture.  Participants dictate the changes they wish to make; commonly, interseeding new forage species or grazing at different densities or frequencies.  Oftentimes the question being answered is specific to that farmer: perhaps “can I improve animal health or performance by interseeding this legume?” or “can I ‘beat’ the summer slump by adding this forage to my pasture?”  Other participants just want to get a handle on how their pastures perform over time, and may adjust management in the future after getting a few years of solid data.  Forage diversity observations are taken on selected pastures or paddocks at least once a year, now moving to twice, to evaluate the cool- and warm-season species varieties.  Biomass samples will be collected at least once yearly, and if desired, forage quality tests can be run on the samples.  Depending on the farmer’s goals, soil tests may be run.  In addition, the animals are weighted and body condition scored on a few occasions, so that animal performance on those pastures can be determined.


Winter feed monitoring

Feeding cows (and their calves) over the winter is often the biggest expense in maintaining a cow-calf operation, because of the cost of stored feeds.  What can graziers do to reduce the amount of hay they need to buy in?  This multi-year recordkeeping trial has followed a farm for two winters now, looking at the amount and cost and type of feeds utilized, along with animal performance.  Was the farmer able to graze longer after making some change, or did they buy more feed?  Did animals suffer from a tighter feeding regimen, or were cows able to keep condition and calves able to gain?


Cover crop grazing

New to 2013, and only done on a small scale because of the rough spring, this recordkeeping and demonstration trial explores the opportunity of grazing cover crops in early spring.  Cover crops improve the soil they grow in, and can provide low-cost forage at a time when pastures could use some extra rest.  But there are weather-related risks; cover crops may not establish well, or a wet spring renders grazing unviable due to compaction and pugging.  The cost of establishing the cover crops is contrasted with the ultimate yield of forage and the grazing days obtained.  Is it worth the expense, in terms of benefits to the livestock?  Over time, will soil quality characteristics indicate other benefits?  Can grazing be integrated with normal cropping activities?  Trial and error and good management will inform us of the possibilities with this joint crop and livestock venture.


Poultry recordkeeping

A popular and relatively easy enterprise, meat birds grow quickly and don’t use a lot of space or labor.  But feed costs – especially organic feed – can be high, and processing is a challenge.  In its second year, the poultry recordkeeping project has provided examples of the costs and revenues of pastured broiler operations on two farms.  Producers tracked the feed, labor, and equipment costs of their birds, as well as final weights and product value.  New or potential poultry farmers can get a sense for what costs they might be looking at in their venture, and more experienced farmers can determine what is likely their biggest expense, and perhaps manage to reduce it.


Fly monitoring

Pests are…well…pests.  Too many flies can spread infections (like pinkeye) and cause cattle major discomfort, so that they’ll eschew grazing in lieu of getting away from the insects.  Two farmers have tracked the number of flies on their cattle, determining first whether it’s possible to accurately estimate fly loads by a quick in-field count, and second which treatments and weather conditions affect fly counts.  After two years, varying the type of fly control methods has given insight into effective strategies, and future work will consider evaluating animal comfort level as well.


Apple cider vinegar supplementation

From old wive’s tale to health food hype to farmyard science – can ACV really provide all sorts of benefits to livestock, like better haircoat, better efficiency and gain, and greater proportion of female offspring?  This randomized and replicated trial, new for 2013, is working to answer those questions.  Several meat and dairy goat producers took uniform groups of animals and individually drenched half with ACV, or added it to the animals’ water tanks.  Performance and health observations were taken throughout the summer, and the gender of kids from the mature does will be recorded next spring.


Ivermectin use in organic hogs

What is keeping organic hog production from being as efficient as conventional?  A simple yet sophisticated randomized replicated trial hopes to determine whether internal parasites are impairing weight gain and efficiency in organic hogs.  Uniform pens of growing-finishing pigs were either dosed with ivermectin or left untreated, and fed the same ration through finishing.  Animal starting and finishing weights and feed consumption were recorded and used to compare feed efficiency, gain, and cost of gain.  Variations on this project will continue into the future, to explore other possible obstacles to improving feed efficiency in organic hogs.


Alternative swine rations

Pigs are omnivores, right?  They used to be the waste disposal system for farm households, right?  Well, can low-cost, high-forage, “leftover” diets be used to successfully raise hogs to market weight?  And what will that do to the meat?  In this randomized and replicated trial, a group of growing-finishing pigs were fed forage, household and foodservice scraps, and some grain, while a subset got similar diets with no grain, and lots of dairy product.  The final carcass weights, composition, and fatty acid concentrations were tested to see if there were differences in meat quality as well as carcass weight or yield.


Those are the existing projects, and will continue into the future.  Keep reading to check out what’s new for 2014!


Once vs twice daily milking

Dairying is a tough sport.  Lots of labor, lots of energy and equipment costs, and lots of high-quality feed.  Managers are tied to the twice-daily milking schedule, and there’s barely enough time in the middle to get everything else done. …or is there?  A dairy goat producer has looked into milking only once a day, which will cut labor and equipment costs roughly in half, drop the feed bill, and provide better quality of life – supposedly while keeping milk production at 80% of normal.  Can it work?  This year she’ll switch most does to once-daily milking after about 60 days in milk, and track their production, the milk components, her labor, and other costs like feed and milking supplies.  A handful of animals will still be milked twice, to see what yield is being lost through once daily milking.


Duck breed comparisons

Small, sustainable, and niche farms must find a balance between the allure and history of heritage livestock breeds, and the need for efficient and consistent production.  One farmer wants to compare two duck breeds, both fairly uncommon but one quite unique, to identify a promising dual-purpose (meat and egg) duck.  Two groups of ducks, one of each breed, will be raised in identical conditions, and their feed use, growth, meat quality, and eventual egg production will be monitored.


Improving pastures with warm–season forages

A few graziers have specific pasture improvement goals and aggressive techniques.  Interseeding fast-growing warm-season annuals should provide forage during the “summer slump,” and may compete with domineering species like brome or fescue, allowing for future pasture re-seeding and improvement.  These farmers will track what and how they seed, how they graze, and do some forage sampling to evaluate the costs and benefits of these management practices.


Grazing for reduced parasite loads in goats

Internal parasites are a big deal in goats, as they have become increasingly resistant to many dewormers.  With proper grazing management, it may be possible to reduce the incidence of parasitism.  Farmers will employ their choice of several grazing strategies, and track the degree of parasitism through FAMACHA scores and fecal sampling.  Possible strategies include interseeding certain forage species, reducing grazing time and increasing rest time on pastures, and brush grazing.


Effect of haying vs grazing on forage yield

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a hayed field regrows differently than a grazed field – namely, that the grazed field has better and faster regrowth.  But during early spring, the flush of growth of cool-season grasses often means there is more forage than can be grazed before it becomes overmature and low-quality.  Haying preserves quality…but is it worth the other supposed detrimental effects?  Through plot management, hayed and grazed paddocks will be compared for rate and quantity of regrowth.  Over time, balancing the need for stored feeds in winter, compared to animal demands in spring and summer, will result in proper pasture allocation to haying, grazing, and stockpiling.


Interested in trying something on your farm?  Any of these projects strike your fancy, or do you have ideas on your own?  The PFI Cooperators’ Program is always looking for new participants.  Sign on to an existing project, or send an idea for something totally new!, or (515) 232-5661