Feature

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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In this June/July Today's Farmer magazine

FEATURES

Dairy endures on Dill farm - Cover Story -
Thrifty thinking helps family survive market downturns
by Allison Jenkins

Farm to Food Bank
Missouri’s agriculture partners work together to combat food insecurity
by Kerri Lotven

Rations for the range
MFA works with cattle producers to find feeding solutions in any season
by Kerri Lotven

Moving bales, growing sales
Tri-L Manufacturing expands well beyond hay equipment to offer wide range of products that help farmers get the job done
by Allison Jenkins

Cover crops: Are they a real fix for water quality?
Recent Missouri study shows this popular practice reduces runoff, nutrient losses
by Adam Jones

Q&A with MFA (Flipbook link)
Learn more about your cooperative leaders
An interview with Jimmie Reading, MFA Incorporated Board Member

Protect health of bred cows this summer
Heat stress can cause pregnancy losses, disrupt reproductive cycles
by Dr. Jim White

DEPARTMENTS & OPINION

Country Corner
Food supply chain reveals its weakest links
by Allison Jenkins

UpFront
Relief on the way for farmers impacted by COVID-19
Interns experience agriculture on the job
Pollution precedent

Markets
Corn: Large corn crop anticipated, demand increasing
Soybeans: Look for more
Chinese purchases this summer
Cattle: Packing plants become a bottleneck
Wheat: Soft winter wheat production up over last year

Recipes
Cream weaver - As printed via Flip Book

Marketplace
BUY, sell, trade - As printed via Flip Book

Viewpoint
Focus on strengths in uncertain times
by Ernie Verslues, MFA President and CEO

Closing Thought for June/July TF 2020
Each month our photographer and our poet team up for a unique last page for the magazine.

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Click below to view the magazine as printed in a digital Flip book format.

Click to view the magazine as printed via a flip book

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Moving bales, growing sales

Necessity is the mother of invention.

This age-old adage has been the mantra of Tri-L Manufacturing since its humble beginnings more than 40 years ago. In the late 1970s, Bob Lynch and his family needed a way to move round hay bales on their farm in Ozark, Mo. The big round balers were just catching on in popularity, and handling equipment was hard to find.

Bob, a mechanical engineer by trade, took matters into his own hands. Turning an old milk barn into a makeshift machine shop, he fashioned a hay fork that attached to the three-point hitch on his trac­tor. It worked like a charm. Soon, neighbors were asking if he’d build them one, too. Demand grew, and a business was born. Bob, his wife, Marie, and their sons opened Tri-L Manufacturing in 1979.

“Dad was a problem-solver,” said son Robert Lynch, who runs Tri-L today with his wife, Robin, and their daughter and son-in-law, Cortney and Brett Ruether. “Anytime there was a problem, he was always able to figure out an efficient way to address it. We started with the bale fork, and then later moved to the spear. That’s what Dad always did; he simplified things as he went along.”

Today, Tri-L’s product line has grown from one to more than 370 different attachments and parts for tractors, skid steers and ATVs. Hay-handling equipment is still a mainstay of the company’s catalog, including an improved variation of the hay spike that started it all, but the company now offers cultivation and clean-up equipment, pallet forks, several types of buckets and adapter plates for just about any machine.

This expanded product line developed the same way the company started—out of necessity, said Brett, who joined the company in 2015 and serves as chief financial officer.

“Product lines have grown as farming culture has changed and diversified,” Brett said. “One example is the subcompact tractor and skid steers. As those have become more popular on the farm, we’ve developed more attachments for them. Every farmer, whether it’s on a large scale or small scale, has different needs. And they’re looking to us to help service their needs.”

Tri-L products are still designed and fabricated on the Lynch family farm, but the company has grown well beyond the barn where Bob’s inventive idea took root. Manufacturing takes place in a 19,000 square-foot production facility, and the farmhouse has been converted into office space. The surrounding property serves as proving grounds for new equipment.

“My favorite part of this business is seeing the product from the drawing board to the finished unit and doing testing to see what needs to be tweaked and changed,” Robert said. “We’ve never had a product that’s been a 100% perfect from concept to finish. There always have to be changes made.”

The company annually turns out thousands of products with around 25 employees, including office personnel, designers, machinists, welders, assemblers and painters.

“We have a phenomenal staff, who are talented and hard­working,” Brett said. “We really promote customer service, not only externally but also internally, trying to help each other and problem solve. That really carries through everything we do.”

Tri-L’s field representatives often come back with ideas for new products based on observations and feedback from cus­tomers and dealers. For example, the “Big Bale Grabber” was introduced in 2018 in response to the popularity of wrapped silage hay. This attachment allows the bales to be lifted, moved and stacked without puncturing the plastic.

“Our sales staff is really interactive with our customers, whether it be through phone calls or personal visits,” Robert said. “They find out what’s important to our customers and what suggestions they may have.”

Those conversations from the field helped launch two new products this spring—the Square Bale Accumulator and Bale Raptor—in response to growing interest in square bales of hay and straw and the lack of labor to help haul them.

“We had a guy who came to us asking, ‘Can you do this?’ So we did,” Robert said. “With the bale accumulator, you’re gath­ering 10 square bales at one time, and the Bale Raptor is lifting them at one time. One person can essentially do all that would normally take three or four people to do.”

That kind of practical problem is what Tri-L employees love to solve. Equipment to clean up fencerows and fields are other solu­tions that have been developed and introduced over the last 10 years. Among those products is a skid steer-mounted tree puller that can grasp trunks up to 9 inches wide. Row-crop and cattle producer Glen Bailey found this attachment to be handy for not only uprooting trees but also moving fences on his farm in Cur­ryville, Mo. He’d seen the puller in action a couple of years ago at a “demo day” hosted by MFA Agri Services in Vandalia, Mo.

“I bought it to help clear trees from some land I bought, but what impressed me the most was that I was able to pull out some old hedge posts with concrete around them,” Bailey said. “I needed to move a fence line that was too close to the creek. If I didn’t have this tree puller, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get those hedge posts out. I would’ve had to saw them off.”

Similarly, when Dennis Isgrig of Mexico, Mo., needed to clear some overgrown ground, he turned to Tri-L’s Bigfoot Cutter, which he purchased in December through his local MFA. The 6-foot-wide rotary mower, which attaches to the front of his skid steer, is powerful yet highly maneuverable, he said.

“I bought it to clean up about 60 acres of CRP so they could get re-enrolled,” said Dennis, who raises 3,700 acres of row crops and runs a 100-head cow/calf operation. “I had borrowed one of these cutters from a friend a few times and knew it worked well and was reasonably priced. It’ll even mow down small trees and brush, and it’s great for pond dams in my cattle pastures, too. Before, all we had was our big mower, so we were always borrowing one for smaller jobs. I decided it was time we had our own.”

Any Tri-L product is available through retail loca­tions of MFA Incorporated, which has been a dealer for more than 20 years. The partnership is “mutually beneficial,” said Robin Lynch, who joined her hus­band full time in the business about 15 years ago.

“MFA has been an important part of Tri-L for half of our company’s life,” she said. “We work with a phenomenal buyers’ team there who collaborate with our sales force, giving us input and coming up with new ideas to help MFA stores and their customers.”

MFA chooses to offer Tri-L equipment because it’s both high quality and affordable, said Ryan Mauzey, MFA Farm Supply Divison product manager. Tri-L purposefully strives to provide that balance with every product it makes, Robert said.

“We try to make a product that’s heavy enough not to tear up under normal use, and then we’ve got to be economically priced as well,” he said. “So, you have to make it just heavy enough.”

With the company transitioning into the hands of the next generation, Robert said he believes what has made Tri-L so successful in the past will be the key to its future, too.

“As equipment changes, as needs change, we will just keep adding products,” he said. “The customers are our boss. We have to cater to them. And being a family-owned company, we can quickly address those needs.”

For more information about Tri-L Manufacturing and its growing line of products, visit www.tri-l.com or call 800-759-4159.

 

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Rations for the range

A low fog hangs over the pasture where Lyman Pittman and his son-in-law, Tylor McNiel, feed several hundred head of cattle on their Texas County, Mo., ranch.

“This is the old MFA Bucket Rattler,” Pittman said, referring to the 14% protein range cubes he’s dispensing from the portable feeder on his pickup truck. MFA has offered this popular ration for sever­al years, and both Pittman and McNiel have seen the benefits of feeding the cubes.

“The cows come running for it,” said McNiel, who is married to Pittman’s oldest daughter, Lacey. “At the beginning of this winter, I had one cow I wasn’t sure would make it through to spring. She’s the first one to the truck every day now.”

On this dreary day in mid-February, the farm was in the thick of calving. Though the herd calves year-round, many of the babies are born in the spring.

“For some of these calves, it’s their first day in the world, and it’s cold and damp,” Pittman said. “This is the toughest day of the year for them.”

It’s in conditions like these where cattle benefit from a feeding supplement such as range cubes, according to MFA Director of Livestock Nutrition Dr. Jim White.

“In general, supplementing the forage base in the winter is needed to meet the animals’ nutrient needs, maintain productivity, body condition, calf vigor, all those things,” White said. “Feeding a supplement prevents a decline in animal performance due to in­adequate forage quantity and/or quality. It is usually easier to maintain body condition on cows than it is to replace body condition if it has slipped.”

Land in this part of the state is better suited for cattle than crops, and Pittman’s farm has been in the family for generations. The veteran cattleman pulled up a picture on his phone, showing an old news­paper clipping from 50 years ago that was recently reprinted.

“A large real estate transaction involving 1,016 acres of Texas county farm land is expected to be consummated March 23. Dwight Pittman of Suc­cess, Mo. is buying property along with 300 head of cattle, machinery and a two-bedroom home.”

“That was my dad,” Pittman said. “He was a tim­ber guy. A lot of this was all woods at one time.”

According to the article, that purchase in 1970 doubled the size of the farm, and it has since grown further. Pittman and McNiel still maintain the timber business in addition to raising cattle. They usually begin feeding MFA range cubes in January and stop in mid-April.

“There are a lot of advantages to feeding the cubes,” Pittman said. “We’ve got a lot of territory on this old rocky farm, and I can take these cattle anywhere I want to. They will travel wherever I want them to go. And when we want to wean these calves, they already know how to eat feed.”

Through the winter, Pittman and McNiel feed roughly 4-5 pounds of range cubes per head, per day. The cubes are delivered to their farm from the MFA feed mill in Lebanon, Mo., though their local MFA Agri Services is in nearby Houston, Mo., where they work with manager Darrell Scheets and warehouseman Wayne Harper.

“Our range cubes cost about 10 cents a pound, so we spend about 40-50 cents a day,” Pittman said. “Hay probably costs 4 or 5 cents a pound, but we would have to feed a cow 30 pounds. It’s $1.50 versus 50 cents.”

The math makes sense for their operation, he said. It also helps ensure their cattle are getting adequate nutrition when it’s most needed.

“I just think everything is better about it,” Pittman said. “We like the way our cattle act when we feed the cubes. They prefer it over fescue hay. I know they’re going to eat the feed, and it’s going to do them some good.”

White points out additional advantages to the range cubes, such as their versatility, con­sistency and beneficial nutrition.

“It’s flexible where the cubes can be fed,” White said. “Meaning, a person can feed it on the ground with minimal waste. Like­wise, it’s also available in a variety of different formulations that provide the animal with a comprehensive supplementation of vitamins, minerals, trace minerals and protein. It can also be used as a vehicle for adding medica­tions or feed additives when hand feeding and intake can be controlled.”

Pittman looks across the herd, pointing out certain cows and commenting on their body condition to McNiel and Harper, who are along for the ride.

“I’m not sure why more people don’t grasp onto the cube idea,” Pittman said. “A friend of mine, a good cattleman, told me about it originally as an alternative way to feed cattle. I can feed these cows range cubes and get rid of half the hay. I just think everything about it is better.”

Pasture plans

As blue skies and green grass of spring replace the dull gray and brown of winter on the ranch, McNiel recalls how this pasture was covered in trees not long ago.

“You couldn’t get through here with a truck. The oaks and hickories were so thick,” he said. “About six years ago, we decid­ed we needed more space to expand our herd. That’s when we began working on this.”

Around the same time, Pittman and McNiel began talking with MFA Range and Pasture Specialist David Moore.

“Darrell mentioned what they were doing and asked if I’d visit with them,” Moore said. “When I got there, Lyman and his daughter were riding around on a side-by-side with a sprayer, and each of them had a wand to spot spray brush. That kicked off a conversation about what he was trying to accomplish and how we could make it more efficient.”

Moore proposed they bring out MFA application equipment to speed up the process of controlling the tree sprouts.

“I asked them how many tankfuls they had gone through already and suggested it might be easier to bring out one of our spray rigs,” Moore said. “Lyman asked what product I’d recommend, and if memory serves me correctly, my answer was Remedy and Tordon 22K. He thought that would be fairly expensive, but he was willing to give it a try.”

Pittman committed to trying Moore’s recommendations on a smaller field before scaling up.

“After that, I didn’t hear from him for a while,” Moore said.

But during that time, Pittman was still working toward his goal. He put together his own spray rig to get into some of the rougher hills on the farm, and McNiel went to work operating it.

“David helped us tremendously,” McNiel said. “We’ve learned a lot from him. He’s probably taught us the most, but we’ll talk to anybody and everybody. We can make grass as efficiently as anyone can now.”

The contrast between the treated and untreated portions of the property were clearly evident, McNiel said.

“I remember one field where I ran out of chemical about half­way through,” he said. “The difference between the two halves was unbelievable. When you get rid of the weeds and all the other competition, so much more grass grows.”

When Moore was invited back to the farm, he noticed the difference, too.

“They’ve significantly opened up many acres of the farm that were formerly inaccessible,” Moore said.

In 2017, MFA hosted a forage tour and grower meeting on the property to highlight the work Pittman and McNiel had done and allow other growers the opportunity to ask questions.

“We’ve won the war on sprouts, but it’s a process,” McNiel said. “Once you get your sprouts wiped out, then you have the buckbrush and sage grass to deal with.” 

To stay on top of weed control and continue expanding both their land and herd, McNiel and Pittman have been spraying herbicides on roughly 4,000 acres annually—2,000 in the spring and 2,000 in the fall—for the past few years.

“When you talk about spraying that much acreage, that’s a lot of dollars,” McNiel said. “But, we’re to the point now where we only have to do a little bit of spraying for weeds, and then we’ll spread phosphorus to help with the sage grass.”

They are still renovating parts of the farm, McNiel said, but they have a handle on it. They know what they need to do to reach their target. They’re also trying out MFA’s Nutri-Track precision fertility program on about 40 acres.

“Our goal is to run a thousand cows,” McNiel said. “When you have ground with sprouts and weeds growing on it like we had, you’re not producing very much grass. To us, noth­ing grows more grass than good weed control.”

For more information on feed supplements or pasture renovation, contact your MFA or AGChoice location to con­sult with an MFA livestock specialist or range and pasture specialist.

 

 

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