The Grazing Guru
July 5, 2019
Written By Adam Buckallew
Raising Grass-Fed Beef on Perennial Pastures
Rip, rip, rip. The sound fills the summer morning air as red cattle indulgently chomp through a lush pasture on rolling verdant hills ringed with timber. Moving nonchalantly through the herd, rancher Greg Judy sports a broad grin.
“That’s music to a grazier’s ear,” Judy says. “Every time I hear that, I’m thinking cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching. That’s the sound of cows that are putting on weight and generating my profits.”
The herd of 340 South Poll cattle is making quick work of the paddock of grass they had been turned out to the previous night. The animals are all too happy to continue chowing down on forage, but Judy has no intentions of letting the cattle get too content in their surroundings. Soon, the full herd will be moved to a neighboring paddock set up with temporary electrical fencing where a fresh bounty of grass awaits. And they will move again before the day is done.
The twice-daily cattle rotation is standard practice at Green Pastures Farm in Rucker, Mo., which sits in the far northwest corner of Boone County. Here the herd is sustained entirely on perennial meadows that have allowed Judy to double his stocking rate and drastically reduce winter hay feeding. Judy, who farms with his wife, Jan, adheres to a holistic grazing plan which has revitalized his pastures and provided “a huge leverage tool” that has enabled him to expand his operation.
When Judy began ranching in the early 1990s, his enthusiasm for agriculture was nearly dashed by a bleak financial situation. In 1996, he was forced to liquidate his cattle herd to manage his debt, and by the end of the following year, he was on the verge of filing bankruptcy.
“We were following the same conventional cattle and grazing methods most people in the Midwest practice and it wasn’t working for us,” he recalls. “We were going broke.”
While searching for a way to save his family farm, he came across an article by Allan Nation, former editor of Stockman Grass Farmer, that stated, “Your sole purpose should be not to own the land, but to make a living from the land.”
Nation’s words were a revelation to Judy and spurred him to begin searching for idle pastureland available for lease in his area. He obtained his first lease in 1999 and began custom-grazing cattle. By focusing on leasing rather than owning land, Judy’s grazing business grew from 40 stockers to 1,100 head.
“I was getting paid to run other people’s cattle on someone else’s land, and all the while I was saving up a nest egg I could put toward buying my own herd,” Judy says.
The strategy quickly began to pay dividends, and by 2002, Judy was debt-free. The next year, he bought 22 South Poll cow-calf pairs that would go on to form the foundation of his present-day herd. Now that he has his own herd, Judy no longer offers custom-grazing services, but he credits the practice with getting his farm finances back on track.
The pastoral landscape where Judy’s cows graze is well-kept and almost park-like in appearance. But it’s taken some rehabilitation to get to this point.
When Judy took control of his newly leased properties, he knew he was dealing with land that had been overhayed to the point of exhaustion. The pastures were covered in broomsedge, a low-quality forage ranchers sometimes call poverty grass because it is often a sign of poor soil fertility.
“We were taking the farms no one else wanted,” he says. “The soil was bankrupt, the fields were covered in brush, and there was no fence or water. It took some work to get them into shape, but we were willing to do the work for an economical lease.”
Once he had taken care of the fence and water concerns, Judy’s priority turned to rebuilding the soil. He began by rotating his cattle over the long-neglected land to distribute nutrient rich manure and urine onto the dirt. When the herd departed for a new section of pasture, the trampled grass and cow patties left behind became fertilizer for future growth. The process has slowly recharged organic matter in the soil. Much of the land Judy’s cattle graze only had 0.5 percent organic matter when he took control of it.
“Now, we’re up to 5 percent, and you can see the difference,” he says. “The land soaks up rainwater like a sponge, and our pastures spring back faster after grazing with fresh regrowth.”
The steady traffic of cloven hooves combined with all-natural fertilization from the cattle has not only helped revive the soil, but also restored long-dormant native grasses like big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass that once ruled the prairie. The native plants add welcome diversity and warm-weather resilience to the fescue, orchardgrass, Timothy-grass, and redtop grass that make up the base feed source in Judy’s pastures.
Judy is unafraid to try new things on his farm. Whether it’s installing 450 tree swallow houses on the perimeter of his fields to control flies, or the decision to stock his cattle at ultra-high densities, he’s willing to endure his neighbors’ bewildered stares if it means boosting his profitability.
Running all 340 of his cows, calves and steers in one large herd on smaller-than-usual rotational paddocks runs contrary to the traditional management strategies of most Missouri cattlemen, but Judy says the practice has been instrumental in the success of his low-input cattle enterprise.
“We try to mimic nature and stay out of her way as much as possible,” he says. “We used to run three separate herds, but when we combined them, we got more animal impact and grass trampling, which has helped us build pastures capable of sustaining yearlong cattle grazing without having to put down any purchased seed or fertilizer.”
By moving his cattle in one large mob two times a day, Judy seeks to emulate the effect herds of buffalo, elk and other wild ruminants once had on the Great Plains’s bygone prairies. The concept is to keep the animals roaming in tight bunches as they would have historically behaved to protect themselves from predation.
“It’s all about grazing in the right place at the right time to support regenerative soil and pasture growth,” Judy says.
To ensure the mob doesn’t overgraze a pasture, Judy moves the herd every morning and evening. He only wants his cattle eating the top third of the plant, which holds the most energy and is most palatable.
“By removing no more than the top third, we’re getting a quicker grazing turnaround,” Judy says. “When we see the tips of the grass begin to look like sharpened pencils, we know the grass has had adequate recovery time and is ready to be grazed again.”
It typically only takes Judy about 30 minutes to an hour to move the herd from one enclosure to the next. When Judy pulls up on his four-wheeler, the cows know to expect fresh forage.
Throughout his more than 20 years of grazing experience, Judy has worked a variety of cattle and claims nothing performs better on a grass-fed diet in Missouri’s muggy summer weather than a South Poll. The breed is a four-way composite made up of Red Angus, Hereford, Barzona and Senepol genetics.
Red-hided South Polls are acclaimed by a growing number of graziers like Judy who prize the breed’s tolerance of heat and humidity, gentle nature, moderate frame and ability to excel on grassy pastures.
“We like a smaller, red cow with short, slick hair that on average weighs about 1,000 pounds,” Judy says. “The smaller cows won’t compact the soil in our pastures as badly as a 1,500-pound cow would when it rains. Three 1,000-pound cows will eat the same amount of forage as two 1,500-pound cows. And we get an extra calf to sell from the same amount of forage consumed.”
Judy sells South Poll seedstock to other cattlemen, and his grass-fed steers are typically finished after 24 months and are sold whole, in halves or by quarters. He’s dabbled in selling meat by the cut but says it’s too labor-intensive for his taste.
Judy’s mastery of the ways of raising grass-fed beef on perennial pastures has allowed him to grow the number of farms under his control to 16, four of which he owns outright. His success in controlling costs and economically maximizing his beef production made it possible for him to quit his off-farm job in 2009, one of the happiest days of his life.
As word of Judy’s methods and triumphs have spread, people from across the country have flocked to his farm to hear his story and share in his advice. He hosted his 14th annual grazing school on his farm this spring with 115 participants from 32 states.
“People are interested in learning how our low-cost approach to grazing can help them generate a profit and stay in business,” Judy says. “It all comes down to harnessing the power of perennial grass.”
As Judy gazes across his pasture at his fattening herd, he smiles in satisfaction. There’s nowhere he or his cattle would rather be.