Few folks involved in holistic planned grazing or grass-finished beef would argue with the statement that Greg Judy is a leader in the field of sustainable ranching. His grazing practices have resulted in improved soils on his home farm as well as the land he leases. He’s built his business to the point where he could quit his town job (one of the happiest days of his life), and even provide 2 paid internships a year at his farm. His business model is so successful that he has developed a consulting business helping others achieve the same level of success, and through his on-farm education (including a yearly grazing school) he has reached approximately 5,000 inspired producers.
What more could he want?
Even healthier soil!
Surviving a Drought
Greg and Jan Judy have a home farm of 250 acres near Rucker, Missouri. With an additional 750 acres of leased farms, Greg is managing a total of 1000 acres of land (600 of which is pasture) near Rucker, Missouri. They raise South Poll cattle, along with sheep, horses, goats, pigs, and chickens. The cattle are 100% grass-finished on the perennial grasses and forbs grown on the farm. Greg is known for his high-density, mob-grazing techniques that have moved organic matter from as low as .5% on some of these played out soils to 5%. But, the drought of 2012 put those practices to the test.
“Our Holistic Management training helped us survive that drought in good shape,” notes Greg. “We had some rain the first week of May, but then it didn’t rain until the end of August. All my neighbors were feeding hay from July through September, but we took the necessary steps so we wouldn’t have to do that. Staring on June 1st, we were monitoring daily to see if we had any regrowth after grazing. But it was clear there was 0% regrowth. So by July 1st we put our revised holistic grazing plan into action. We combined both our grass-finishing herd with our cow/calf herd so we had one herd to manage and increase our recovery times. We also culled our cull cows and sent some grassfed steers a little early. We also got a really good price for our heifers. We knew we could keep our next year’s heifers when we had more forage. Those 2 actions (combining herds and destocking) allowed us to continue at the same stock density but increase our summer recovery periods from our normal 80 days to 170 days, and we preserved our cow herd.”
These actions resulted in Greg still having a profitable grazing year despite one of the worst droughts in that area, and still have stockpiled grass to graze through the winter and begin 2013 as a profitable grazing year. “The animal performance was incredible,” says Greg. “We can have washy grasses with a 38-42 inch rainfall. But, because we had less rain (13 inches), we ended up having really nutrient-dense grasses. So this winter we were able to have fat cows even with the calf still on her. The cows didn’t need as much feed because the forage was so nutrient dense. That helped us stockpile even more grass. They were only taking the top 1/3 of the plant.” So when Hurricane Isaac dropped 6 inches of rain in 10 days at the end of August, Greg’s pastures responded with a quick green up that helped him increase his stockpile. “We were able to get through the winter on that grass despite some big snows and cold weather,” says Greg.
The Next Frontier
But this spring, after monitoring his pastures, Greg was looking for other ideas to improve soil fertility. “I’m happy about all the improvements I’ve made with the cows and the grazing,” says Greg. “But, I’m still seeing more bare ground and weeds then I’m happy with. So I went to a workshop at the Rodale Institue by Elaine Ingham to learn about the soil food web and compost tea, and I’m so excited about the possibility of taking this land to the next level! The idea is to use compost tea to introduce aerobic bacteria to the anaerobic soil we still have. While we’ve done a lot for the soil, it’s still struggling so we see plants like ragweed.
“I figure it’s a pretty low cost experiment for a huge potential return. We’ll invest in a microscope and a brewer and a sprayer for the ATV. One pound of properly made compost can make 300 gallons of compost tea. You only need 30 gallons/acre of the tea if the soil is completely broken. We’ll use the material from the farm (the hay, leaves, wood chips, and manure) because it already has the bacteria adapted for this area. We may also try some compost from a Soil Food Web compost producer nearby.
“The key is you have to have your soil tested to see what is missing and then have the compost tested to make sure that it has the missing ingredients. Once we get the soil biology right, I think we might see the growth double, and the grass will be even more nutrient dense so breeding percentages go up as well as weight gains. We’ll also have more diversity of plants as the soil becomes more aerobic. There were pictures in Dr. Ingham’s presentation of prairie grasses with 18-foot roots! They had a picture of a 3-month old annual rye grass that had been grazed to 1-inch tall three times during the course of its life. The roots were over 4 feet tall!
“What that proved to me was that roots don’t die back when a plant is grazed if the soil is healthy. The plant just exudes food for the soil life through the roots. It still maintains its root structure and can still access water and minerals below ground to grow more forage above ground! This opens up a whole new way of looking at grazing, particularly in drought-prone areas. The compost tea can improve any soil, anywhere, so the possibilities are amazing! Since land is the biggest expense in ranching, if you can grow double your forage with compost tea, you’ve just bought yourself a whole new ranch for very little money.
“So we’re going to take our soil samples of some of our worst areas and get the compost ratios right to correct the soil biology. We can use that same compost for the better areas as well. You get the soil biology right, then you don’t have to add inputs. You don’t even have to add the compost tea again if you keep grazing right. You can’t beat that for a low-input solution!
“I learned some things at that workshop that stopped me in my tracks—like that the soil microbes are happiest under about 12 inches of snow. You need free-flowing water in the soil, so a nice moist soil with a blanket of snow for insulation makes those microbes happy.”
Greg is already sharing this information with his interns and planning the various test areas they will begin trialing the compost tea treatment. “I used to just want to focus on the cattle and grass,” says Greg. “But, I’ve seen an explosion of people recently who are 50 or older, who want to get into farming and do something real. They may have gotten burnt in the stock market and want to invest in land and animals and learn how to grow food for their family and their neighbors. They need help setting up their farm and understanding cattle genetics that work for grass-finished animals, and how to graze those animals. I like helping those folks make that transition successfully. It’s rewarding work.”
Greg also likes helping train the interns and helps them get jobs once they have completed their internship. “I’ve got a list of folks who are happy to hire any intern we’ve trained,” says Greg. His intern program focuses on helping the interns learn the basics of grazing, farm design, and animal management, then he encourages them to work for someone else for 5 years to really begin to hone their craft before stepping out and getting a farm of their own. “It takes 10 years to get really good at this business,” says Greg.
Greg is happy selling his cattle in wholesale semi-loads to businesses like Thousand Hills Cattle Company because he’s learned how to grow beef with low-inputs so he is able to be profitable even at wholesale prices. “Ian Mitchell-Innes told me I needed to focus on only a few things,” says Greg. “If I can raise cattle at a low enough cost, I can let someone else do the marketing and still make a good profit.”
So with a business profitable even in drought, Greg Judy is still looking for the next way to improve the soil health and business sustainability. “We’re also going to learn about Permaculture from Mark Shepherd. We want to grow more perennial crops like pawpaws, persimmons, and acorns that the cattle and hogs can forage on and improve our ability to capture more solar energy. Ever since we started focusing on the soil health, we realized there was more we could do, and we needed more tools. I figure I’ve got 20 years of real energy left in me. I want to really make this place take off!”
Stay tuned for results from Greg’s experiment in a future issue of IN PRACTICE. To learn more about Greg Judy and his 2013 Grazing School in Missouri with Ian Mitchell-Innes on May 9-11th, go to: http://www.greenpasturesfarm.net/index.php. Greg will be sharing this information about the soil food web as part of that grazing school. For links about Dr. Elaine Ingham and the Soil Food Web go to: http://www.soilfoodweb.com/