Doug Gray and Bonnie Wilson started Piper Creek Farms in 2002 with five head of Limousin cattle on 40 acres.
They started 2019 with good news at the Beef Farmers of Ontario annual general meeting — the Mapleseed Pasture Award from Mapleseed and the Ontario Forage Council.
Why it matters: Intensive grazing systems show efficient use of pasture and also encourage wild species habitat.
The award recognizes the environmental improvements they’ve made on their 105-acre spread, as well as exceptional pasture management in their cow-calf operation (now a 65-head herd).
It’s a system Gray called modified mob grazing.
Mob grazing is when a large number of animals are moved into a narrow strip of fresh pasture. The cattle graze it off, then they are moved on quickly again. The cattle might be moved two or three times a day.
With modified mob grazing, a tumble-wheel fencing system comes into play. The cattle are moved into a fenced area, and a portable fence is attached behind them that does not allow them to go back to the strip that was already grazed. This allows a paddock as much as five extra days of rest time between grazings.
The system uses 10 five-acre paddocks and one extended-rest area that is continuously grazed when required, as well as two other reserve paddocks available if needed (depending on rainfall).
If the reserve paddocks are not required, the hay is used as stored feed or stockpiled for fall grazing.
The award also acknowledged Gray and Wilson’s extensive use of frost seeding to rejuvenate the pastures and encourage a variety of grasses and legumes.
Frost seeding is usually done in March, said Gray.
“We will broadcast grass seed, primarily red and white clover and some timothy, on the snow on the pasture ground. It sits on the snow until the snow goes away, then it rests on the ground.
“The idea behind frost seeding is, you get warm days where the soil opens up and cool nights where it closes up again. It opens cracks in the soil to allow the seed to enter in and germinate.”
Gray credits the Species At Risk Farm Incentive Program of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, which allowed him to make the improvements to watering, which the award also recognized.
They don’t allow the cattle access to surface water, he said. They have put in an automatic watering system with a solar-powered pump for an above-ground line, which has a number of outlets that allow for shorter trips to water as well as quick and easy movement of stock tanks.
The solar power is also used to charge the battery for their electric fencing.
SARFIP personnel monitored the program to ensure Piper Creek’s compliance with the program, and they saw that their grazing practices were actually preserving some of the ecosystems for species at risk — some endangered aquatic plant species, as well as toad, frog and lizard species.
The biologist they hired in 2016 also discovered these practices were improving the habitat of the bobolink and eastern meadowlark.
“I was wondering why we were seeing so many more on our farm than on other farms, so we had her come down,” Gray said.
“The birds were out there because of our grazing system providing an ideal environment for their natural habitat.”
Wilson noted it’s a perfect recipe for preserving the bobolink habitat.
“They can get right down in the tall grasses and nest,” she explained.
“Mob grazing is the reason it worked out,” Gray agreed, as the method left more tall grasses in place by the second week of July, when the birds generally fledged.
Piper Creek has very light soil that is perfect for mob grazing, he noted.
“It’s classified as Pontypool Sandy Loam and Brighton Sandy Loam. Light land doesn’t hold water. It has low natural fertility that restricts crop growth. With mob grazing, that allows the land to rest and grasses to grow.”
Gray said that he and Wilson are second-career farmers, following a few years in the auto industry. They are both members of the Northumberland Cattlemen’s Association and the Beef Farmers of Ontario Advisory Council.
Gray is also a director with the Northumberland Federation of Agriculture.
Both were raised in rural Durham Region communities, and Gray always loved to help out on neighbouring farms.
Wilson actually bought her own hobby farm in Kinmount with summer stockers.
“We moved here, built our house and kept adding property,” she said.
As Wilson talks about her work with the cows, her smile and voice signal affection.
“They see me coming with the four-wheeler and know they are getting fresh grass. We go from one paddock to the next, and the water goes with them,” she said.
“They are creatures of habit. Once they know the routine, there they are standing at the gate.”
The cows are out on the grass all summer, and they calve in the spring and fall. Their practice is not to handle the calves at all (if possible) until processing time.
In a presentation he prepared for the recent AGM, Gray gave a slide show on their practices that featured a shot of a cow and her calf that he said shows what it’s all about. The babies are born on the pasture on a nice bed of tall grass, suckling on clean teats and enjoying a good long rest afterward.
It’s a good life for the cows, he added, and a quiet, manageable herd for their owners.
As a bonus, there’s the $500 award and bag of forage seed as part of the Mapleseed award — not to mention the recognition of their peers.