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Grazing green

While much of northern Iowa is known for its big square fields and 200-bushel corn yields, there's a place for pastureland and cattle, too, says Dave Petty.

"These river bluffs don't lend themselves to square fields," he says of his Iowa River Ranch, which falls along a seven-mile stretch of the Iowa River near Eldora, Iowa. He's turned the bluffs into grasslands for cows.

"I believe a properly run cow herd can make more money than row crops, especially on certain kinds of land," he says. "Lots of people look at pastureland and say, 'We'll take what we can get.' I look at it differently and try to keep something growing everywhere -- even the wheel tracks."

Three years ago, Petty won the Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for his progressive use of soil and water conservation practices with a cattle herd.

Here are eight of Petty's best cow-management tips.

  • Keep it lush

    Petty keeps at least four to six inches of forage above ground in his pastures. When it gets below that, he moves cows to another pasture. "Lush growth lets you take advantage of the two free things -- sunshine and rain," he says. "When the grass is six inches or taller, that's when it really grows.

    "Remember that what you see above ground is what you have below in the root system. If it's nubbed off like a golf course, that's what you've got underground, too."

Let the cows work

Actually, Petty says, there is one other free thing -- the work the cows do to harvest grass. "There's nothing cheap about mowing, raking, baling and moving hay. And after all, the cows have all day," he says.

Wide waterways and headlands in row-crop fields conserve more than soil. "They're a hayfield to me in the summer and stockpiled forage in the fall," Petty says. "After harvest, cows graze cornstalks, bean stubble and waterways. They pretty much balance their own ration. At some point, everything gets eaten -- in the fall, in the winter, some is even saved for early spring grazing."

  • Manage by age group

    Cows are grouped by age, body condition and calving date. "They all have different nutritional needs," he says.

    In one group are two-year-old cows; three- and four-year-olds are in another, and older cows are in a third group. "The two-year-olds are still growing themselves and raising a calf. They need the most attention," Petty says.

Spread the water out

"You want to spread the water supply out, so they don't overgraze the close-40 and undergraze the back-40," says Petty. He's invested in wells and miles of buried pipe to achieve this. "To me, those are 50-year lifetime investments."

Boost energy

Petty uses shelled corn as the means to give cows extra energy in the winter. He feeds five pounds per day (or 10 pounds every other day) to supplement stockpiled forages, cornstalks or hay. Even with the price run-up, corn is more economical than feeding extra hay, he says.

Encourage diverse forages

Most of Petty's pastures are bromegrass based. A seeder on his four-wheeler is used to frost-seed legumes (mostly clover) where needed. "One-third legumes will give you 40 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre," he says. "We use a little commercial fertilizer. But with one-third legumes, that pasture is pretty much self-sustaining."

  • Know the genetics

    Petty's cows are bred to be easy-keepers, naturally maintaining sound feet, udders and fleshiness without much supplemental feed. "I've studied this, and feed is 70% of the cost of keeping a cow. Easy-keepers need less feed," he says.

    A side benefit of knowing the genetics is that Petty can be more precise when he feeds the steers in his on-farm feedlot. A recent group went to harvest at 1,238 pounds, and 96% were choice or better. "Perfect," he calls it. "The $74-a-head premium is how I get paid for my time."

Give back

"I do a lot of tours for students and other producers," says Petty. "I'm more than willing to share because I've learned so much from tours myself. If I bring home just one thing from touring another farm or ranch, I think it's a day well spent. And if somebody learns just one thing from me that they can use, I feel very good about that."

While much of northern Iowa is known for its big square fields and 200-bushel corn yields, there's a place for pastureland and cattle, too, says Dave Petty.

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