Amazing grazing

As a member of the elite U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, Ron Locke’s job was usually shrouded in secrecy.

Even his wife, Judi, rarely knew what her “air commando” husband was doing, where he was going or when he’d be coming home during his 27-year military career.

But there’s nothing covert about what Locke has been doing since his retire­ment in 1998. He’s been raising cattle and forages in Dallas County, Mo., about 11 miles east of Buffalo. Here on the farm, Locke is an open book, relishing the chance to share what he’s learned over 20-plus years of managing an intensive rotational grazing system.

“In the Air Force, I lived in the fast lane, as they say. I was always somewhere waiting for the button to be pushed to send me on a mission,” Locke said. “It was exciting. But I longed to get back here to my land. Before, I had to be secretive about what I was doing, but it’s just the opposite now. I enjoy showing others what I’m doing on the farm.”

In establishing his R&J Ranch, Locke resumed the agricultural lifestyle he put on hold to join the Air Force as a young man. Raised outside Chicago, he spent childhood summers in Buffalo on the farm of his aunt and uncle, Bert and Iva Rambo, who instilled in their nephew a love of the land and livestock. When Locke graduated from high school and married Judi in 1972, the newlyweds moved to Missouri and bought a 40-acre farm nearby.

“It didn’t take too long to realize, however, that without cattle, without more land, without more means of income, it was going to be very difficult for me and my wife,” Locke said. “Another uncle suggested I check into the Air Force. It would be a guaranteed job and a great way of life, he said. And it was. But there was never any doubt in my mind I was coming back here. I feel like this is where I was meant to be.”

Even as his family made 12 military moves all over the world, Locke contin­ued to feel the pull of his farming roots and visited the Buffalo property at every opportunity. When he retired, he and Judy built their dream home on the farm and bought their first 12 cows—Show-Me Select heifers, Locke said. He’s grown the herd to around 65 head, mostly registered Angus.

His acreage has grown, too. The farm now encompasses 400 acres, with pas­tures divided into 27 paddocks averaging about 11 acres each. Those paddocks are seeded in a smorgasbord of forages, from cool-season fescue and clover to warm-season lespedeza and native grasses.

Those improvements didn’t happen overnight, however. Locke attended nu­merous conferences, sought expert advice and conducted his own research about forage and livestock production. Admit­tedly, there was plenty of trial and error as he renovated pastures, built fences, installed watering systems and adopted new technology and production practic­es to fulfill his vision for the farm. All of those efforts have resulted in an effective system that allows Locke to optimize his grazing and hay production, improve soil health and achieve profitable performance from his cattle.

“I used to tell people that I raised cattle,” Locke said. “Then a few years after intensive grazing, I started saying I raised forage. The cattle just harvest it for me. And now I’m really focused on soil health—all the biological processes that are going on in the soil. That’s where I get the biggest bang for the buck.”

MODEL MANAGEMENT

Military meticulousness is apparent in Locke’s management style. He keeps comprehensive records of his pasture inputs. He DNA-tests his entire herd and uses the data to determine which calves to keep, which to sell and which to butcher. His hay bales are labeled and then fed in the same paddock where they originated, returning removed nutrients and keeping the forage mixes as pristine as possible. Fertility precisely follows soil-test recommen­dations, and he religiously samples his fields every three years.

Such keen attention to detail has helped R&J Ranch develop into a model example of successful forage management and land stewardship, said Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist.

“Having the farm split into paddocks makes a grazing system much more versatile,” Jones said. “You’ve got a lot more options, from forage quality to quantity to diversity. If you want to graze that field hard, you can. If you want to convert it to a novel fes­cue, you can. If you want to put annuals in there, you can. It just really opens up the possibilities.”

From a conservation standpoint, Jones said, benefits of well-managed pastures include reduced soil erosion, better water infiltration, increased soil organic matter and improved wildlife habitat. Indeed, Locke says he’s seen wildlife flourish since he began focusing on the farm’s forages.

“When I got back here 20 years ago, we didn’t see any quail. There might have been one covey,” Locke said. “Now, I have four or five coveys of quail almost every year on the farm. We see a lot of deer and turkey here, too.”

“If the wildlife is doing well on your farm, it’s a good indication that you’re producing quality forage for your cattle,” Jones added. “Those go hand-in-hand.”

Like most Missouri farms, tall fescue was the primary forage in Locke’s pastures when he began implementing his rotational-grazing program. The majority of tall fescue, such as the common Kentucky 31 variety, is infected with a fungal endophyte, which benefits the plants but causes poor animal performance. Locke’s pastures tested more than 80% toxic. One of his top priorities is converting those fields of toxic fescue into newer varieties of “novel” fescue that contain animal-friendly endophytes.

“I learned that every 10% of toxin equals a 10th of a pound in lost gain per animal,” Locke said. “That was eye-opening to me. Since then, I have done my best to transition my pastures over to friendly endophyte varieties. I’m over halfway to having Kentucky 31 eradicated on my farm.”

GOING NATIVE

The addition of native, warm-season grasses is also integral to his pasture plan. A subset of plants once present in grasslands across the Midwest, these forages are adapted to grow well in this region’s soils and climate. During the summer, when cool-season fescue shuts down, native grasses continue to thrive.

“I wanted to establish native grasses because I understand forage and its curves,” Locke said. “Fescue does well in the spring and fall. I needed something in the middle of that curve, that July and August period when we didn’t have any fescue.”

About 15 years ago, Locke planted his first native fields, starting with Eastern gammagrass. While he found the species challenging to establish, taking nearly two years to grow enough to graze, Locke now has a robust stand of the highly productive bunchgrass. He has since established paddocks of big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass and intends to plant more.

“People need to understand how deep the roots on those native grasses grow,” Locke said. “They’re tapping into resources that fescue can’t touch. In those drought periods, you end up with lush, green grass, and the cattle just go nuts. They love it.”

In all his pastures, weed control is important, Locke said, but especially in the native fields. The availability of specialty her­bicides with the active ingredient, imazapic, such as Panoramic and Plateau, has been a “game changer” when it comes to fighting weed competition, he added. These herbicides are nontoxic to certain native grasses and prairie flowers when applied as labeled.

“Weeds are usually the biggest issue that folks have in estab­lishing native grasses,” Jones agreed. “If the weeds come on early enough, they’ll canopy over your forage seedlings, which can take three or four weeks to emerge. If the weeds get ahead of those seedlings, they can essentially kill your stand.”

FLEXIBLE FORAGES

With such a diverse menu growing in his pastures, Locke can graze his cattle nearly year-round. Timing of the rotation depends largely on the rancher’s astute observations.

“I watch the paddocks,” Locke said. “My goal is to not bring an animal back to a field until the forages have rested about 40 days. That gives the forage ample opportunity to regrow. There would have to be a really strong reason for me to let the herd graze any earlier than that.”

His paddocks are laid out like a patchwork quilt, connected by a network of lanes. When he gets ready to rotate the herd, Locke simply opens a gate, turns the cattle into the adjacent lane and leads them to their new grazing ground. He keeps the main herd of around 50 cows together as they move from paddock to paddock. Replacement heifers and bulls are also rotated, but not as intensely.

“One of the main things I stress to people when they’re talking about intensive grazing is to consider putting in lanes,” Locke said. “It makes moving the cattle so much easier. I fought it my­self for years, thinking it was wasted forage. That was just stupid. 

It’s not wasted at all. I can turn the cows into a lane anytime and use that forage. It’s there if I need it.”

All the paddocks are equipped with permanent waterers fed from either buried or above-ground water lines. In areas without shade, Locke uses a portable “cow umbrella” that covers 50 animals at a time.

Once cattle are moved into a paddock, Locke then subdivides it for strip grazing. He uses pigtail step-in posts and electric poly wire to fence off smaller sections of the pasture and grazes the herd there for a limited time, usually about 24 hours. Then he moves the portable fence and opens a new strip. This method helps reduce forage waste and gives Locke more control over the pasture being grazed.

“Starting out with a larger paddock and then shrinking it down with nonperma­nent poly wire gives you a lot of flexibili­ty,” Jones said. “You don’t want to confine yourself when you’re setting up your paddocks. The ability to strip graze makes your system much more versatile.”

Such an intensive management strategy is just what the term implies—intensive—but as a retired military man, Locke is no stranger to demanding jobs. After all, he points out, with great effort comes great rewards.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s satisfying to see what you’ve accom­plished,” Locke said. “I literally go out and drive across my farm sometimes just admiring some of the things that are out there. I can’t help it. It’s fulfilling a dream; I guess that’s the only way I know how to describe it. I fulfilled another dream in my former career, and now I’m living the life that I always wanted, being on a farm, raising cattle.”

Rotational-grazing resources

From installing watering systems to establishing native grasses, several opportunities for technical and financial assistance are available from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services and Soil and Water Conservation Districts. To learn more, talk with the personnel at your local NRCS or SWCD office or visit online at nrcs.usda.gov or mosoilandwater.land. And remember, your MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location has all the inputs and expertise you need to effectively manage your forages.

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