Rancher finds success after realizing he had things backwards

Morrie Goetjen spent years focusing on his cattle, but he now says it’s healthier soil that is the key

What do a policeman and cattle producer have in common? Probably not much, unless you are Morrie Goetjen.

The Calgary-area producer has been farming full time since the mid-’80s but since retirement has been able to really focus on his cattle operation.

Goetjen has land both northwest of Calgary and northeast of Cremona. The two areas are relatively close, geographically speaking, but very different when it comes to grazing management. “Our home quarter (near Calgary) is 100 per cent native grass,” he said, “We have some native (near Cremona), but not a lot. It’s lower in elevation, and we get a little better growing season there than we do here (near Calgary).”

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He has access to about 1,700 acres (one-third rented), and the only crop he sows is an oat-barley mix for swath grazing, which takes care of about 80 per cent of the feed requirements for his main cow herd.

“We used to be a mixed farming operation,” he said, “but I’ve converted the cropland to hay land and since then I’ve crossed-fenced the hay land and use that as a pasture mix now.”

The move was partly because Goetjen didn’t have the machinery for crop production, and partly because he loves having cattle. But it was the start of a journey that would change his entire approach to ranching.

The beginning

“I started learning about soil through Foothills Forage & Grazing Association,” he said.

A few soil tests revealed the soil was getting mined out and “the only nutrients in the soil were what we introduced chemically.”

Healthy soil means more (and more desirable) forage and that makes for better-conditioned cattle, says Morrie Goetjen of his “win-win-win” approach to ranching.
photo: Morrie Goetjen

Putting the management focus on the soil isn’t a top priority for many because it isn’t “sexy,” but years of neglect can cause for deterioration that can take hundreds to thousands of years to fix, said Goetjen.

Realizing some of his pastures had been grazed for two decades prompted him to begin learning all he could about soil rejuvenation — both through the grazing association (of which he’s now a director) and by attending grazing schools.

“I didn’t even know what I didn’t know,” he said.

Today, he talks about how — despite a lifetime in the cattle business — he had things backwards.

“I learned about the cows; then I learned a little bit about grasses and pasture management; and then I started to learn about the soil and the importance of soil health,” he said. “But it should be the other way around.”

Figure out soil, and learning about grass is easy and so is learning about cattle, too, he said.

“You can focus on the cattle, but your grass can suffer. If your grass is suffering, then your soils are suffering. But if your soils are good, your grass is good, your livestock is good, too.”

The first step to fixing soils on deteriorated pasture land is simple, he said.

“If your grass is in trouble, give it rest.”

This allows plants to photosynthesize so they produce and store carbohydrates and also acquire soil minerals. Both are needed for growth and reproduction.

While that’s happening, build infrastructure.

“You need to plant fence posts. If you want your land to improve, and you want to do it right, you need to put cross-fencing up.”

Dividing pastures into smaller paddocks (or cells) allows you to manage the grass and give areas the rest they need.

Cell grazing

Some ranchers complain one of the issues with cell grazing is that cows are always trying to break into neighbouring paddocks to get at fresh grass.

“If your cows won’t stay in, that means you’re out of grass,” said Goetjen. “That’s the best barometer you can have when it’s time or past time to move your cows, if your cows are breaking out.”

Constantly having to move cattle is also considered a drawback by some, but rotational grazing should be “easy,” he said.

“Once the cows get used to being moved, it becomes a piece of cake.”

Moreover, cattle don’t need to be moved every day. It depends on the size of the paddock and the herd, but Goetjen said he only rotates his cattle about every five days.

Another barometer of success can be found when you move well-grazed cows to a new paddock.

“As full as they are, the first thing those cows will do is put their head down and start eating. Those cows want to get the best stuff first before the next cow.”

One of the biggest benefits of rotational grazing is that it helps desirable grasses thrive. And more desirable forage makes for better-conditioned cattle, which are able to provide better-quality milk to support a calf, with higher weaning weights.

“It’s a win win win, all down the line when it comes to moving your cattle,” said Goetjen.

The results

By definition, not overgrazing means there will be feed left behind. But that’s a good thing, he said.

“The first thing I tell people who challenge me is first of all there is no such thing as wasted grass. That’s just plant food, that’s all that is.”

As the nutrients from decaying plant material make their way into the soil, the roots will take them up and store them along with sugars the plant has produced. This allows plants to grow and recover quicker during times of stress.

“In a drought year, my grass is more resilient,” he said.

In fact, perhaps the best indicator of success came during a dry year when a neighbour phoned Goetjen to say his cows were out in his hayfield.

Not having any hayfields in this particular area, Goetjen was a bit confused at first. He then explained to the neighbour that it wasn’t hay land but pasture.

Which brings him back, again, to the first ingredient in his recipe for building plant and soil health.

“If you want your grass to be better, you have to give it rest.”

About the author

Contributor

Jill Burkhardt, her husband, Kelly, and their two children, own and operate a mixed farm near Gwynne, Alberta. Originally hailing from Montana, she has a degree in Range Management from Montana State University. Jill’s agricultural passions are cattle and range management but she enjoys writing and learning more about all aspects of farming.

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