Mike McElroy is the NRCS district conservationist in Greeneville, Tennessee. He bought his farm in 1991 when it was 4.7 acres of pasture with a 5-strand barb wire fence. He started in 1996 moving calves from field to field on his 4.7-acre property once a week. He says he “had no idea what I was doing,” but he kept researching rotational grazing and trying new management methods, like fencing, energizers, step-in posts, spring gates, and high tensile wires.
Early in 2000, Mike bought an additional 1.5 acres and installed 4-strand high tensile electric fence – in keeping with his low input philosophy. In 2013, he built a 3-stand high tensile electric fence through woods on the property line and used white vinyl tee post. He uses step-in posts for his multiple temporary paddocks. In 2010, Mike acquired more fields by leasing and now grazes 12 acres in total on Kentucky-31 tall fescue, orchard grass, crabgrass, bermuda grass, dallis grass, Johnson grass, Kentucky bluegrass, brome grass, white clover, and red clover. Mike only seeds 2 pounds of white clover and 4 pounds of red clover every three years. He broadcasts his clover in February.
In 2001, Mike struck a deal with a local dairyman. After some discussion, the dairyman agreed to let Mike pasture the dairy heifer calves from April to December instead of feeding them grain. Mike started taking full-weight class dairy heifers (Holsteins) between 400-425 pounds and rotating 10 calves daily when he received them the last week of March. He utilized intensive grazing for one-day durations, and by mid-December, delivered the first group of calves at about 800 pounds each.
Mike has continued to contract with the same dairyman. The dairyman has said “every heifer that returns from Mike’s farm has always bred.” When you are in the milk business, breeding heifers are essential. Mike asked himself, why is this the case? He has thought of the following factors:
- Good genetics
- Good environment
- Grazing management – good nutrition from forages
- Social movement of the animals, daily rotation
- Clean, city water
- Spray for flies as needed, three times a year
- Abundant free choice of minerals
Mike is going on his 16th season with intensive rotational grazing for short duration and long rest periods (up to 46 days). His soil and forages have steadily improved over this time period. This management system has improved grass growth, soil health, and animal health.
Mike began soil testing in 2001. Today, the soil’s organic matter content has climbed to an impressive range of 4.1 to 5.6 percent. As a result, Mike hasn’t fertilized since 2008, saving him about $600, or $100 an acre. His soil structure is granular and sub-angular blocky, which translates into good pore space resulting in better infiltration and root growth; and earthworms are plentiful with every digging.
Mike easily grazes 10 animals on 12 acres without the need of any hay. Prior to using his current system, Mike would use two 700 pounds of bales. His savings now are $40.00/bale or $80.00/year. Mike use to clip multiple times per year, but now he lets the calves harvest 100 percent of forages. He no longer clips, and sees no agronomic advantages in clipping his pastures.
In 2015, Mike’s grass became very tall by June due to precipitation. Mike was rotating 0.25 acre per day. Mike is planning to increase the size of the paddocks from 0.5 acres to 0.6 acres this grazing season to cover the entire 12 acres in 20-24 days, keeping the grass lower. He will adjust based on precipitation and may do this a total of three times. He will then go back to his 0.25 acre after 60-72 days grazing. This should keep the grass at vegetative stage during spring growth, he says.