Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Grass-fed, Pastured, Free Range and Rotational: What's It All About?

This page includes links to helpful websites, and of course, you can always check out the blogs I follow as they are full of information that inspires us!  The information here is gleaned from many sources, which I will credit.  Don't quote me; go directly to the "horse's mouth!"  :)


We raise grass!
One of the main benefits we reaped when we moved here in November 2009 was having pasture for my horses so we didn't need to board them any longer.  It didn't take long for me to get the itch to have "a couple" of chickens for our own eggs, but that was where we stopped.  There had been two cows pastured here before we bought the property, but we had no thought of having a cow ourselves.  Then about a year after we moved here, a man who came to do some work remarked, "You've got an awful lot of grass going to waste here.  You oughta have a couple of cows."

Inception!  An idea was planted and began to grow . . .  I turned to the internet and began researching cattle with the vague idea that somewhere I had heard of miniature cows.  Perhaps we two senior-aged greenhorns didn't need to be deterred by the enormous, semi-wild bovine creatures we thought of when we thought of cows.  I came across several "mini" breeds: miniature Herefords which I ruled out because of the incidence of cancer eye in hot climates like Georgia; lowline Angus which were a miniaturized version of the classic beef cow; and one I'd never heard of before--Irish Dexters.  The more I investigated, the more interesting Dexters seemed.  And so we got Sara, our first Dexter cow.

There's a lot of information about Irish Dexters on our Dexter Cattle page.  What is important here is that they efficiently convert grass, and grass alone, to beef and milk.  The more we read and learn, the more convinced we are that grass-fed, pastured meat (whether chicken, beef or pork) is the way to go.

Sara charges gleefully onto new spring pasture, 2012.

There are many websites with information on the benefits of grass-fed beef, poultry and eggs.  Just try googling "Why eat grass-fed beef" and see what happens!  Here are a few good websites:  (from a study done in Great Britain)

In summary, here are some of the benefits of grass-fed meat, milk, and eggs:
  • Grass-fed meat is lower in fat
  • Grass-fed beef has 2 to 4 times more Omega-3 fatty acids; pastured eggs can have up to 10 times more Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Grass-fed animal products are higher in CLA, conjugated linoleic acid, a "good fat" that may help fight cancer and has been shown to reduce risk of heart attacks
  • Grass-fed beef is higher in Vitamin E, an important antioxidant
  • Grass-fed animal products are lower in Omega-6 fatty acids which have been linked to diabetes and obesity
  • Grass-fed meat is higher in beta carotene and Vitamin A; pastured eggs are higher in Vitamin D
  • Grass-fed animal products are ususally raised without added antibiotics and hormones
  • Pastured animals are free to be animals, spending their lives roaming in nature instead of cooped up in a barn or feedlot
Herb with our pastured (mostly grass-fed) pigs eating supplemental acorns

Natural farming with free-range animals is the polar opposite of factory farming, defined by as "a farm in which animals are bred and fattened using modern industrial methods."

This sounds very progressive, right?

The online Merriam-Webster definition sheds a bit more light:  "a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost."

Aha!  Now we're getting somewhere.

Hmm . . . Let's check a definition from
"At the very basic definition, a factory farm is usually a large industrial facility where livestock are crowded together.  Technically, factory farms are known as Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operation (CAFOs):  Defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as "New and existing operations which stable or confine and feed or maintain for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period more than the number of animals specified." Also the EPA notes that factory farms have, "No grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season."

Wait a minute!  Didn't you grow up thinking cows eat grass?  And sheep, too, and goats (when they're not busy eating the laundry off the clothesline?)  Well, guess what?  Pigs and chickens and turkeys eat grass, too, and thrive on it.  Since animals obviously can't eat grass when crowded into a pen for economic convenience, the answer more and more farmers are coming back to is the idea of letting the animals free-range.  Cows move about freely, grazing at will, chewing their cud in the shade, scratching an itch on a tree and getting a drink when they're thirsty.  Chickens scratch and peck to their hearts' content, taking dust baths when they want.  Pigs graze or root in the soil for grubs and tender roots, loll in the shade and wallow in mud or water.  Watching an animal being an animal as God intended it to be, it's clear that free-range animals are happier.

That doesn't mean we let our animals wander down the road or onto our neighbor's property. They are safely confined by fences, even moved to different pastures according to our judgment, but they are free to be themselves. Whether you call them factory farms, industrial farms or CAFO's, you won't find animals on them like our pig below.  This happy pig could serve as the national spokes-pig for free-range farming!
A pig runs happily through the pasture

Many people who go in for natural grass farming nowadays are using intensive rotational grazing ("IRG").  IRG usually involves the farmer moving animals from one electric paddock to the next one on a daily (sometimes less often) basis.  Each paddock needs a source of water and shade.  The animals occupy a smaller space which they eat down in less time, trampling some grass and their manure into the ground as they graze.  Often cattle will be followed with chickens which scratch and spread the manure while eating any parasites. This type of grazing often eliminates problems with parasites.   There is less need to bush-hog (mow) behind the animals as they have trampled into the soil any leftover grass.  The soil is enriched by the manure and organic matter trampled into it.

After learning about IRG at a two-day natural farming seminar, we gave it the "good old college try."   And then we decided it wasn't for us, and we switched to a form of modified rotational grazing (MRG).  Why MRG instead of IRG?

The "I" for Intensive is just that!  You have to move the animals frequently, even daily.  Each time you move them, you have to move electric posts, wires, and ground rods, unless you pay to install permanent fencing.  And we were also having to move water tanks.

At the farm where our seminar was held, they had laid out and installed water lines to bring water to every paddock.  They have nice, flat pasture.  They are making money on their farm, and intensive grazing helps them make more, which justifies the expense of water lines and wagon-mounted shade shacks.  We have very hilly, irregular pastures mostly devoid of shade trees.  We don't sell anything; we do this to provide our own food and for our own pleasure.  So we can't possibly justify the labor or expense of getting water to all corners of our property.

That's why we ended up doing MRG where the animals spend a longer time (from one to several weeks) on a larger pasture, being moved when they have grazed enough (but not too much) on a particular pasture.

When "moving pasture," sometimes the animals walk and sometimes they run. It's all up to them!
Okay, we've spared ourselves the obligatory daily labor of moving fences and filling water tanks, but that labor has to be repaid somewhere else.  You don't get anything for free!  One thing we have to do is drag harrow our fields after the animals leave.  The goal of drag harrowing is to break up piles of manure and spread them out a bit, as well as scratching the hard surface of the soil.  This way birds, insects, and weather will break the manure down faster.  That means a more even “application” of our natural fertilizer, a reduction in parasites, and it also makes regrowth grass more palatable to the animals.  Horses, especially, will not eat the lovely rich green clumps of grass that grow up around piles of their manure.  Who can blame them?!

Our Kubota L tractor with the drag harrow.
If you live in an area of the country like ours where most farmers don't do any rotational grazing at all, you’ve probably driven by a field and noticed that most of the grass is grazed pretty short with lots of tall green clumps of grass scattered all over.  That's a sign that no one has drag harrowed that field—and that nice green (manure-y) grass has gone to waste while the animals over-grazed the rest.

Most farmers around here turn all their stock out in one huge field and just let the animals move around at will.   It may sound logical—and easier, but that creates its own set of problems. Remember those uneaten clumps of grass scattered through the very short grass?  Animals tend to graze and re-graze the same areas because the new grass that comes up is more tender.  But eventually they wear it down and uproot it.  They are also likely eating grass contaminated with their own parasites.  This necessitates a chemical worming program.  The chemicals kill not only worms, but also good bugs like dung beetles that would help break down the manure naturally.
The Lower Pasture, recently bush-hogged.
A second task we have to do with our MRG is to bush-hog (mow).  Sometimes we might do this right after the animals have moved in order to cut down weeds, brush, and uneaten grass, thus encouraging the grass to regrow.  At other times, if the weather has been cooperative, the grass might get ahead of the animals, with lots of it growing tall and forming seed heads.  Then we wait for the seeds heads to ripen, signaled by the grass turning golden.  First we drag harrow in order to scratch up the soil and make it more receptive to seeding.  Then we bush-hog which lays the grass down where the seeds come in contact with the soil, ready to sprout if we get some rain.

Since we keep the animals in the (roomy) barnyard during part of the winter and feed them hay while we rest our pastures, we accumulate a lot of manure in the barnyard that we would rather have on the pastures.  This led us to invest in a manure spreader to spread manure. It's part of our plan to improve our pastures and let the animals spend more time pastured and less time in the barnyard.
Our ABI Classic manure spreader in action. 
Maybe it's the novelty, but this is one "task" we consider fun!  Bush-hogging and harrowing are pretty fun, too, as we get to enjoy time for reflection while accomplishing a task that has tangible results we can enjoy looking at for a sense of accomplishment.

One final task we do is preventively deworm our animals.  Since they spend longer grazing on one area, we give them D.E. (diatomaceous earth) mixed with loose mineral salt.  They love the salt, even mixed with D.E., and the microscopic sharp edges of the D.E. effectively kill internal parasites.  Every vet we've ever talked to has told us D.E. doesn't work.  So we took stool samples from cattle, horses, dogs and cats and tested them--no parasites!  That was enough for us.  We'd far rather use a natural product that doesn't harm the earth or beneficial insects until we actually encounter a problem it can't fix.

There you have it--why we do what we do and how we go about it.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post on pasture based farming. I have finaly found a blog that is doing exactly what I want to do. Looking forward to reading all your future and past post. Keep up the good work.


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