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Graziers walk the walk to share ideas

September 25, 2007|By JEFF SEMLER

One hundred seventy-six years ago, Isaac Long settled on a small parcel of land outside the river port city of Williamsport on what is now known as Spielman Road. Today, the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth generations of Longs still farm those 162 acres.

Lawrence, the patriarch of the current clan, is semi-retired at 86 but still lends a hand during busy times. The day-to-day operation is under the direction of the father-and-son team of Galen and Brooks. The youngest generation, Caleb, does most of his farming on his knees like most toddlers do with toy tractors and plastic cows.

The Longs are currently milking 60 cows with hopes of expanding to 75. Last Thursday, they hosted a Pasture Walk, which for the uninitiated is just like it sounds. We walk the pastures and talk about what is going on in the fields and what the host is doing from a management standpoint.

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It is sort of a lecture and oral test. Other graziers who attend will oftentimes critique or question what is going on. This is not a malicious attack, but rather to provoke the host to think about their decisions. Oftentimes, the decisions are well founded and well explained and that is the key.

Pasture management is not a cookbook endeavor, which makes it frustrating for many who attempt it. The Longs, like many modern-day graziers, look at what they are doing as sort of going back to the future. Their predecessors operated pasture-based dairies; the difference is in the management. Many graziers today, the Longs included, move their cows on a daily basis into and out of smaller pastures (paddocks) instead of the earlier method of turning cows into a large pasture for several days to a week.

When asked why they are doing what they are doing, there always seems to be reoccurring themes. On Thursday, they were familiar themes: animal health, a lifestyle choice, lower inputs-increased profits, and cows were made to graze.

Several of these topics make "conventional" dairymen shake their heads and mutter, we have now crossed over into preaching. While I will admit I have yet to meet a grazier who isn't passionate, most of them have "this is what works for me and what works for you is OK with me" attitude.

Many graziers know their cows tend to last longer because they are not as stressed since most don't push for maximum production. They also get plenty of exercise walking the hills and dales of their pasture. This makes their feet and legs last longer. Most cows on pasture don't suffer from feet problems and warts like their counterparts that walk on concrete most of the day.

Reducing inputs to increase profits is another reason for the increased interest in grazing. Will this work for everyone? No. Some folks have a greater cash flow demand and some have a greater debt load to service, but for many grazing is an option. Inputs can be reduced in two areas right off the bat. Healthier cows reduce vet costs and cows grazing reduce fuel costs because the cows are harvesting their own feed.

The lifestyle aspect is often a reason given by graziers who do seem to be more relaxed. They are not doing less work/management, just different kinds. Instead of riding a tractor, they are walking fields, moving fences and switching cows into paddocks based on forage resources. They are also managing forage resources. They still have to feed cows in dry weather and in the winter.

The thing that is difficult for many folks to remember is there are lots of ways to milk cows and be profitable; do what works for you. The hard thing to overcome is the short memory of people in general. What we think of as conventional dairying actually started in the 1970s from the toehold of two major shifts in agriculture - the first being the industrial revolution at the turn of the 20th century and the second being World War II.

Both required a greater workforce and thus drew people out of the fields and into the factories. What replaced these people was mechanization and specialization. Until World War II, most farms were just that, farms. Few if any were categorized as dairy farms or hog farms, etc. That is because your average farm milked some cows and raised some hogs and chickens and maybe even had a small orchard.

So you see, farming is farming - the only difference is the way you choose to do it. If you are interested in pasture walks, mark your calendar for Oct. 18, our next scheduled walk; and if you are interested in other farming topics, check back here, the winter educational program calendar is coming soon.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu

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