Nebraska grazier returns his farm to its native grass roots

by Allan Nation

HARTINGTON, Nebraska: Marvin DeBlauw thinks his farm's future lies in Nebraska's agricultural past. He is slowly converting his grain-based farm back to the native grass pasture from whence it came one hundred years ago.

Today, his primary product is grass-finished beeves, but he eventually plans an even greater retro conversion to more winter-friendly bison. With the bison, his farm will have "squared the circle" and completely returned to its roots.

DeBlauw traces this decision to totally turn his back on modern agriculture to his having become "totally burned out" while trying to run the 240 acre farm as a confinement dairy. "I got the grazing bug and wanted to graze for 12 months a year."

Surprisingly, it is that old nemesis of the prairie - corn - that has allowed DeBlauw to achieve his goal of a 12 month grazing season. DeBlauw plants corn for grazing for use during the summer slump and for winter.

"I have been grazing corn since 1992," he said. "Being a beef finisher, I have to concentrate on forage plants that have a lot of energy."

In addition to corn, DeBlauw grazes alfalfa and has added high energy, non-lignifying Alice white clover to his grass pastures. "Legumes have doubled and tripled the production from my mature grass stands," he said.

Grazed green corn (before it makes a seedhead) is used to finish grass steers for slaughter in the late summer. The steers weigh 1000 to 1150 lbs at slaughter in September. The beef is marketed through Nebraska Natural Meats Coop.

Dry standing corn is also used to over-winter cows and yearlings. No hay is fed. DeBlauw likes to use high-lysine corn for winter grazing. He uses Baldridge Grazing Maize for the green season corn.

DeBlauw said grazing standing corn is very easy once the cattle get used to it. In winter he rations the corn out with a temporary electric fence, one row at a time.

His permanent pastures are a mixture of brome and native warm-season grasses. While part of his farm has never been plowed and was naturally in native warm seasons, he has seen the warm-season grasses gradually volunteer into the brome since he started rotationally grazing. DeBlauw has a small cowherd and also buys stocker calves. However, beef cattle are not expected to have a long-term future on his farm. He has refenced his farm's perimeter fence with multiple strand electric fence so that he can add bison to his pastures.

Due to the premium prices for female bison over males, DeBlauw plans to start by buying male bison calves and finishing them on grass for slaughter. He plans to eventually discontinue the beef finishing operation and go exclusively to bison.

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