Forage by Steve Quirt
There was a time that you needed to grow or locally source most of the feed that your livestock consumed. The option of calling up Pozzi Hay or Tobys Feed for a truckload of sweet, Nevada alfalfa hay didnt exist. You could hold more animals on less acreage with imported feed, only if the numbers came up black.
The records dont go back that far, but early farmers and ranchers in Northwest Marin, especially in the 1880s to the turn of the Century, spent half the year growing winter oats for the horses that plowed the land for potatoes to be planted in the summer. This was a dry land farming rotation that worked well - except that it filled in Walker Creek and Tomales Bay with topsoil.
Livestock forage farming has been here awhile. Gary Thornton, who is one of the Marshall family that started farming and ranching here in 1856, told me that as a kid in the 1950s and 60s, he spent more time on the tractor than he did in school. The family grew three hundred acres of barley and oats each season to feed the dairy cows and assorted livestock. They were forage farmers as well as dairy operators, which was standard practice until cheap fuel, centralized production and international trade became easier and less expensive than growing feed on farm.
Did I say “international?” Yup. Its about the significant amount of offshore corn that goes into dairy and livestock feeds. Shannon Andrews, a Portland feed ingredient trader for San Francisco-based agricultural commodities distributor Wilbur-Ellis Co., said she cant meet demand.
“I have customers that are looking for six rail cars a month of corn, and I cant get that quantity coming from anywhere in the U.S.,” she said, adding that the harder-to-find, high-protein feed is coming from China and other countries because “its where you can get it.” Taken from SeattlePI.com
- States Organic Cows Starved For American-grown Meal - By Shannon Dininny - ASSOCIATED PRESS
Today, importing feed to ranching operations is the norm, especially when the grass dries up. In order to keep in business, ranchers need to have an optimized herd size - optimized to what their pastures can produce, what the market pricing demands and to how much the price of imported feed affects the operation. Its just the way it works right now.
The advent of non feed-lot cattle production like local grass-fed has been both a boon and a bother to producers who choose that market. Boon because its popular and profitable right now, bother because it takes a lot of local grass to produce an 800 lb calf. Cattle are routinely moved around as the grass dries up, even as far as the cool pastures of Oregon, in order to get the weights and conditions required for the widely variable grass-fed markets and standards. Often the cows are finished on increasingly expensive imported alfalfa.
All of which makes the experiments going on with local forage production increasingly relevant. Think about it - we have a long winter spring growing season and cool summers in coastal Marin, that beg for dry-farmed grassland forage production. Just like the old days, but with some a modern perspective on resource management and carbon concerns. No more filling up Bays and Estuaries with topsoil.
Gary and Steve Mahrt planted two forage crops on about 25 acres out on Fallon Road. By June they cut and bagged the field hay, disked in the stubble, and replanted sorghum and oats. Northwest Marin boasts deep topsoil with good water retention and the ability to draw up moisture from deep aquifers, and in can support two cuts of grass.
The field will lie fallow for a month or two, then return to grazing, replenishing fertility. David Evans, of Marin Sun Farms, thinks this can be a positive pasture management tool, “I think that keeping livestock on the field for three years is about right to restore fertility to this kind of rotation.” This kind of rotation management can be practiced with little or no inputs, and without irrigation.