SILOAM SPRINGS -- Nick Braschler wants to be a good steward of his farm, the land, and the water.
His efforts have led him to seek alternative grazing methods as an answer to many questions he comes across while farming, including his bottom line.
"Feeding hay for 120-plus days during the winter was how you raised cattle," he said, describing his grandfather's methods of farming, "With rotational grazing practices, we ended up feeding hay for only three weeks all winter."
He was able to dramatically cut feed costs and improve the return on his family's investment.
"Our goal was to decrease the number of days we needed to feed hay," Braschler said. "Instead of the cost and time of cutting, baling, hauling, and then feeding hay all winter, we looked at the possibility of managing our pasture better to extend our grazing season."
The farmer, the soil, the cows, and the water all benefit from the implementation of new grazing methods.
"When we cut our hay cost in half, that meant that half of the calves we had to sell to cover feed costs before, now that money goes straight to our bottom-line," he said, describing one benefit he has seen.
These practices have also resulted in a much calmer temperament in his cattle, as well.
"It takes the 'rodeo time' fun out of it, but I can pen 70 head of cattle by myself -- calm as a cucumber."
Ground water quality benefits as well -- rotationally grazed land does not require as many nutrient inputs, and deeper roots can absorb nutrients further down in the soil, both of which decrease the quantity of contaminants entering groundwater.
"Prevention is the best approach to protecting our water from contaminated runoff," said Nicole Hardiman, executive director of the Illinois River Watershed Partnership, a local non-profit that works with producers to implement practices that improve water quality.
The Illinois River Watershed Partnership has money available for qualified producers wanting to switch to this type of grazing system.
"When you rotate frequently, every day they get high quality forage, but they eat the weeds too -- sometimes they go straight for the weeds," Braschler said.
This saves money on weed control and improves the soil by reducing the amount of chemicals added to the ground, he said. Moving livestock frequently can prevent soil compaction, which in turn increases the soil's infiltration capacity. Greater infiltration capacity inhibits the occurrence of runoff, which may carry plant nutrients, manure, and pesticides into nearby water.
"We started seeing bobwhite quail," Braschler said, which is likely due to the height and types of native grasses and plants that are now allowed to grow in his pastures.
"I've also noticed some new native grasses begin to pop up in the last few years that weren't there when we started," he added. Native plants attract native animals; a restoration in those ecosystems can bring back all kinds of life. The deep and dense root systems of foraging plants also protects soil from wind and water erosion.
Braschler gave some recommendations on how to get started with a rotational grazing practice.
"Start small by cutting one field into two, or better yet four paddocks," he said. Then, lay out a plan around water, shade and working pens. The Brashlers took their 80 acres and created 22 paddocks to rotate cattle through.
The Illinois River Watershed Partnership has an Online Learning Center that is a great resource for those wanting an introduction to this alternative grazing method.
"The first time we stripped out our pasture with hotwire and solar chargers, we got a lot of raised eyebrows and I think others thought we were crazy," he said with a laugh. "Some just straight-up told us we were!"
Now, Braschler's spring calves get the benefit of grazing on green grass until the day they are sold. He said it takes about a week for the cows to get used to the new system.
"It is a complete paradigm shift for the farmer and the cattle, but we've learned that both can adapt rather quickly and actually thrive," he said.
Speaking of thriving, Braschler and his wife, Valerie, are also raising four kids. Brashler is the youth and worship pastor at a small church in Gravette and serves as the director of chaplain services for Simmons Foods in Siloam Springs.
"Stewardship is a really important value for me and my family," he said. "I see everything I have been given as not my own."
Braschler said his family's farm has helped him instill values into his children's lives, careers, relationships and their faith.
"My next focus is on improving our water source and continuing to learn more about how we can improve soil and pasture quality," he said. "I want to leave it better for the generations that follow me, whether it is my family that farms this land or someone else."
For more information on rotational grazing, contact IRWP at email@example.com.
Morgan Keeling is with the Illinois River Watershed Partnership