2. Multiple Species Grass-Finished for Direct Marketing


In this episode, we talk with Jonathan Kilpatrick of Bent Tree Farms about their operation and grass management.  Bent Tree Farms is located in southeast Oklahoma and they produce grass-fed beef, grass-fed lamb, and pastured poultry.

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Cal: [00:00:00] Welcome to the grazing grass podcast, episode two.

Jonathan: [00:00:05] Learning how to look at the cow look for signs of performance and keep them performing. That's how you're going to make money on the grass.

Voice Over: [00:00:20] You're listening to the grazing grass podcast, helping you produce forages for livestock grazing. Stay tuned and join our community at grazinggrass.com.

Cal: [00:00:23] I'm Cal Hardage, the host of the grazing grass podcast and we're glad you're here today. In today's episode, we are talking with Jonathan Kilpatrick of Bent Tree Farms. Jonathan, welcome to the grazing grass podcast. We're excited you are here today.

Jonathan: [00:00:38] Thank you, Cal.

Cal: [00:00:39] Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your operations?

Jonathan: [00:00:42] Sure. I manage Bent Tree Farms down in southeastern Oklahoma and we raise beef, lamb and we do some pastured chicken as well. We are grass finishing all our beef and lamb. We're operating on 780 acres of ground. It's a mix of open land, some heavily wooded, some just you know some brushy areas here and there. We also direct market all of our beef, lamb, and chicken. And we have a couple of wholesale accounts both for live animal sales. We've done some finished steers and cows as well as we sell some seed stock from our sheep flock. So kind of a mix of everything it's a diverse pie, so to speak of marketing channels. So yeah that's a quick summary.

Cal: [00:01:45] Yes. Now, you're located in southwest Oklahoma, or is it South Central?

Jonathan: [00:01:50] South Central, southeastern. We're just 20 miles southeast of ADA. We're right in Cole County. So you know, about an hour from the Texas border.

Cal: [00:02:05] Very nice. What forages are you mainly grazing with?

Jonathan: [00:02:09] Yeah, so we have, I would say just about everything on the property. I think I've started counting and I stopped it like now 55 or 60. And I include, you know, forbs and what some people would call weeds, you know, trees because I've seen cows eating trees. So we have a mix of annuals, perennials, warm-season cool season. We have just about everything. Right now the warm seasons are really starting to take off over the last couple of weeks. So crabgrass, Bermuda, we have Johnson grass, we even found some big bluestem coming in last year. So that was super exciting to find. What else am I missing? On the annual side or the cool season side, we have a lot of fescues, clovers. Let's see ryegrass. Yes, pretty much you name it. We've got it.

Cal: [00:03:09] What kinds of rainfall do you all get there? Annual rainfall?

Jonathan: [00:03:13] Yeah, we've already had probably over our normal annual rainfall. I think the last I looked we're probably about 30-35 inches for the year. We just got an inch and a half last week, which was really needed. We're getting dry, but it's like thirty-five to forty inches of rainfall is what they say for us.

Cal: [00:03:32] Oh, yes.

Jonathan: [00:03:33] It doesn't typically come very well-spaced out. It seems always come like you know, six inches at a time, but we'll take what we can get.

Cal: [00:03:43] Yes, the rain here seems like we're getting when it rains we get inches, not tense and accepted, turn dry on us. And we've been pretty dry without rain for, I'd say at least a month now.

Jonathan: [00:03:56] Yeah, it kind of it was raining a lot up until about the middle of May and then it turned off and it started getting really dry. But we caught a good rainstorm last week so we're doing okay.

Cal: [00:04:10] Well, good. Now, you mentioned you've got lots of varieties of forages and fobs there. Do you plant anything or you're just managing it so you have a nice polyculture?

Jonathan: [00:04:22] Yeah. I think we've kind of progressed through that. When I first started here, we did a lot of planting. We drill we have a Great Plains No-Till drill, which is really a good drill. So we were doing a lot of like sorghum Sudan, stuff like that. We've kind of just moved away from that to more of just perennials. And we do drill in some ryegrass in the fall. But we tried everything. You know, we did some oats, we've done no cover crops, blends, and we've just found that as far as the time, and the resource, it just made more sense just to kind of manage what we have, focus on that. You know, it's pretty costly to plant and then wear and tear on equipment. We just didn't find that when you penciled it out It was really for us in our circumstances. And with our soils, it just wasn't giving us the return we wanted. So we just kind of moved away from that. We'll do some ryegrass in the fall. And we've broadcast clover in a couple of places. But I feel like at this point, I mean, it's just management, just managing for what you want. And just really paying attention and being careful in what you want will come in. And we've seen that, like this spring, we had some of the thickest clovers I've ever seen. And this wasn't even an area that we had broadcast clover. I think it was just the year for clover or something. And I've talked to some other producers and they've said the same thing that it's a clover spring, so almost too much clover.

Cal: [00:06:22] I agree. We suffered with tons of clover and I hate to say the word suffer because you want that clover. We have White Dutch Clover everywhere.

Jonathan: [00:06:33] Yeah, I mean I pulled some leaves off. I had some leaves that were as big as my palm like the three you know, the set of the three leaves. I plucked them off and put them in the palm of my hand. They're huge. It was interesting. There are a couple of times I even took some dry hay out there because the animals were just really too much protein. It was just crazy. So every year is different, though.

Cal: [00:06:59] Yeah. So what kind of clovers do you have there?

Jonathan: [00:07:02] Well, we have like the white clover. You mentioned Dutch white, I don't know. I call it mammoth white or just white clover. We have the stuff with the big leaves. I think that's a Dutch white, and then the, you know, smaller leaf white clover. I found for the first time this spring, red clover coming in our bottomland, which was really exciting. Because if you're grazing a lot of fescues, the red clover really works with that Kentucky 31. It helps just dilute that endophyte so I was super excited to see the red clover coming in. We also have arrowleaf. We have yellow hop. Let's see sweet clover. Those are the five main ones that we have. That's pretty much what we've got for clover.

Cal: [00:07:55] That's about the same as what we have, except the white was predominant this year. Normally, we have lots of air leaves and lots of red clovers, but not so much this year. We've even tried doing crimson clover, but we've not had good luck with crimson.

Jonathan: [00:08:11] Yeah, we put some out.

Cal: [00:08:13] I think it just blooms

Jonathan: [00:08:14] Right.

Cal: [00:08:15] So early.

Jonathan: [00:08:16] Right. We actually have a little bit of that. But it came in on a hay bale. Because you can see it's like a strip about a hay bale with wide where we roll that hay bale and there it is. So it's really pretty, but we don't have a ton of it.

Cal: [00:08:31] Oh, yes. Now you mentioned you roll out hay bale. So do you unroll all your hay when you feed?

Jonathan: [00:08:40] Well, yes, and no. I say I will say it depends. So if it's dry, I like to roll the hay out. I think it's easier for our size herd to get, for everybody to line up and get some hay. When it gets rainy like it has the last two winters we have gone to feeding in bale rings just to curb some of the wastage. Because there have been sometimes I mean, last winter, this past winter, and then the winter of 2018/2019 it was so wet that you roll hay bale out and it’s gone into the mud in 10 minutes. So we buy a lot of our hay so we just couldn't afford that.

Cal: [00:09:23] Oh, yes.

Jonathan: [00:09:24] So we stopped rolling out when it gets really wet and we just go to rings and that's the way we do it. I really don't like the rings because it's a little bit harder. I really like to roll it out. I really feel like the ground responds quicker when you feed when you roll it out. Bale ring, I think it takes like two years for you to see the good results of hay feeding with the bale ring. But you know you'll see results within four to six months when you roll it out. So I prefer to roll it out. Our size herd, I mean, some winters were feeding about 200 heads, and that includes calves, plus sheep and they all stay together all winter. So it's just too many rings to deal with.

Cal: [00:09:24] Oh yes. And I have to agree. I've noticed whenever I use a ring, you know that first year, and you just have that dead area where the hay is decomposing. And then you get the ring of forages around it. But then it's that second year, you really get the nice growth back.

Jonathan: [00:10:28] Exactly. I can show you like, if I took a drone picture, you can see where we fed with rings. And then you can see where you fed with rolling it out, you know, green steps of it. I do like the rings though. Like if there's an area where there's blackberries or some brush that I really want to kind of trample. I'll just even take a core. Like if I roll out a bale, I'll take a core and drop it right in the middle of there. And the cows will just trample that out. And it's great.

Cal: [00:10:56] Oh, yes.

Jonathan: [00:10:57] And I'll take the rings. And I'll try to place them strategically, you know, if there's some area, there's some exposed rock or something, we've got a ledge running right through the farm, and there's a hillside with a lot of rocks. So I've been tried to be pretty strategic about hay feeding on that and try to really fill in some of those areas. So the rings can be great for that. If you really want some heavier, you know, applications of hay and manure so to speak.

Cal: [00:11:23] Right. Yes. Now, before you start feeding hay, do you stockpile some forages for winter grazing?

Jonathan: [00:11:31] Yes, we do. So last winter was actually the first time we really made an effort to do it. And it went really well. So we have about 90 and 100 acres of bottomland and it's predominantly fescue clover. So what we did, because we couldn't keep the cows off from like, say, August 15 till after a frost. And my goal was I wanted to get a couple of heavy frost on that fescue, to really sweeten it up. Because in the wintertime, the cows eat the fescue like candy, in the summer they tend to avoid it. So what we did when we went, like, say, after September 1, when we had to graze that, we just opened up the paddocks and gave them maybe twice as much. So they were skimming it. And they were hitting all the warm season stuff that was growing. And my goal was for them to not touch the fescue because I was trying to hold that and actually got that. I'll be honest, I got that tip, Greg Judy does that. So that seemed to work really well. And we actually fed some hay for a couple of weeks until we got some heavy frost on a couple of areas who wanted to hit early with some hay feeding so that we could maybe put some seed down like some ryegrass, we've done that. And that works really well. And then, right before Thanksgiving, we move the cows down and we strip graze that. And what I ended up doing to try to stretch it because there's no way I was going to be able to, you know, if I had just grazed it off, we would have probably been done down there in three to four weeks with all the animals. So what we did is we kind of gave them a strip as their protein supplement, essentially, or allowance. And then we just would roll out some hay like a bale or two of hay. And that worked really well, we saved a lot of money. And we were grazing down there until I think the January 5th. So I totaled up, you know what we saved by doing that, and it was thousands of dollars. So that was really exciting, and a lot of fun. And the cows loved it. And they did super well. So we're trying to figure out how we can stretch that without, you know, fertilizing anything, don't really want to spend money on that. That was the extent of our stockpiling. But it was super fun. I would much rather set up a fence in January than rollout hay. Even though you did end up rolling out some hay. But it was fun. It's super fun. And if I could graze all winter long, I totally would. I would never start the tractor if I didn't have to.

Cal: [00:14:09] Yes, that's my goal. I would love to graze year-round, not worry about any hay. Now, let's go back. You mentioned Greg Judy, and I love his videos on YouTube. And I'm so glad he started them. And you mentioned about grazing, send the cows through early and think coming back. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Jonathan: [00:14:29] Yeah. So because we don't have enough land to just I know, some people when they're stockpiling, like, depending on the stockpile date. I know. Like in some parts of the country, its August 15th still say okay, any rain you get after August 15th. That's a stockpile rain; don't come back on the grass until you're ready to graze it. We don't have that luxury with the way our businesses are set up in our farm setup. So I kind of have to go down and graze there. Otherwise, we'd be feeding a lot more hay. So what I did is instead of grazing and leaving a typical residual, I would just lighten up the stock density and just try to get the cows to hit the warm season stuff. And pretty much, you know, August, September, it's still pretty hot here. So they're not going to want to touch the fescue anyhow. So they'll graze off the Johnson grass, they'll hit Bermuda you know, whatever else is down there crabgrass and then they kind of left the fescue behind and it kept growing. And then we fed some hay for a couple of weeks, we got a couple of hard frosts, and it was like, okay, now it's time to go. And I really think you know that really helped sweeten it up. And I think the cows, I think it worked. I don't know what we'll do this year if we'll do the same thing. And we'll just go down and start grazing it off. I don't know. It's something I'm still kind of learning. Does that answer the question?

Cal: [00:15:53] It does just explain that a little bit more. I know we started stockpiling just a few years ago and doing that and, you know, my first year I was really excited about the results. The second-year was a little dry and I grazed my pastures a little late, and I didn't have near to the amount of stockpile for ages I wanted than last year was just a good year, right? All year, because we had so much rain.

Jonathan: [00:16:18] Yes, last year was a great year.

Cal: [00:16:21] I'm trying to do a better job this year. But I really love to stockpile. Now, do you do daily moves not only stockpile but also year-round?

Jonathan: [00:16:30] Yes. So we do at least a daily move. If not, sometimes two, three times a day, it really depends on the season, where we're at on the farm. Time of like, year, like in calving, I really try to avoid multiple day moves, because we've got so many little calves. So it yeah, we do all the above, I should say.

Cal: [00:16:57] Now, I think you grass finish some beef. Do you keep them in a separate herd from your cow herd?

Jonathan: [00:17:04] We do?

Cal: [00:17:05] How do you manage them together?

Jonathan: [00:17:08] Yes. So we do right now? We have a little finishing herd. It's something I guess I could go either way on it. I'm not quite sure. I guess there are a couple of schools of thought there are some people that will say leave them all together and manage them as one herd. And then you've got people who will run multiple herds. I feel like for the management aspect when you've got 150 to 170 animals out there in one herd. Picking out your fattest animals can become a little bit like a needle in a haystack. And I'm not saying like, not that you can't see them. But if you want to compare an animal to another animal, if they're not standing side by side is really hard. So like right now I've got nine steers in a group, and I have a cow in there that had twins. So I'm just putting her with the grass fats, just to give her a little bit more nutrition to help support those twins. But I can compare those animals and like evaluate, okay, which ones are ready to go and a lot easier than if they are in a big herd of 180 animals.

Cal: [00:18:22] Oh, yes,

Jonathan: [00:18:23] Logistically, it's easier to sort off. Okay, I've got a haul to the processor, it's a little easier to sort off animals out of a group of ten or twenty or something, than one hundred and seventy or one hundred and fifty, or whatever. I think we also will flake some alfalfa to them. Just to give them a little boost, try to keep their dry matter and take up what we've just found we're still building our soils and our forages. And I think if we were willing to give them all the time they needed, they would be fine in the main herd. But, you know, we've got customers knocking down the door wanting beef, so at this point in the business, it just makes sense. I think to kind of push them a little and get them is getting the grow. We were getting last spring I was doing a pretty good job tracking weight gain and flaking a couple of flakes of alfalfa plus giving them basically all the grass they need, like once a day moves just huge paddocks. We did some leader-follower grazing as well. Yes, we were getting three, three, and a half pounds of gain. I mean, that's really good. I think for us that’s really good. So yeah, we manage them separately. You know, in the future, maybe we throw them all together, I don't know 95% of the time or 90% of the time it's just me here by myself. So when I need to load up cattle or work them, it's easy to work them as a smaller group. So if I had you know, a second hand here a lot maybe we just run them in a bigger group or something. But for our system, it works pretty well.

Cal: [00:20:06] Right. You've got to do whatever works for you. I tell people all the time we have good animals, sometimes we sell because they just don't work for us. And that's the cow that throws her head and goes the other way when I show up because I don't want to deal with it. I've got a job off the farm. So when I get home to do it. I'm busy. Now, I think you mentioned earlier, you run the sheep with the cattle?

Jonathan: [00:20:31] We do.

Cal: [00:20:32] Are they bonded and stayed pretty well together?

Jonathan: [00:20:35] Not at all. No.

Cal: [00:20:37] Do you have like one wire for paddocks?

Jonathan: [00:20:41] Oh, yeah. So I don't know. I'm not like saying that, there are some people that will say their sheep and cows stay together. And I would love to see it because I've not seen it. Now that's not to say the sheep in the cattle won't graze together because they will but typically our sheep-like to get as far away from the cows as possible. We have you know, livestock guardian dogs with them. Obviously, if we didn't, we wouldn't have sheep-pod because the coyotes would [inaudible 21:10]. But I think it's more the dogs' fault than the sheep or the cows. I think if we didn't have the dogs, the sheep would probably stay close to the cows. So we run them together the whole year, except for lambing, we will put them off by themselves to lamb. It's easier to manage the lambing aspect and you don't have to worry about cows, trampling lambs, and all that stuff if they get excited when they go to move or something. But now, like they've been back together for about two and a half weeks I think. The lambs are getting, you know, pretty good size so they can, you know, hold their own against the cows. I mean, sometimes I'll mob them up pretty tight, and I'll keep them pretty tight in the paddock. But a lot of times I'll give the sheep like a couple of paddocks and then the cows are in one paddock. So the sheep typically have more room to run than the cows do with our system. It works pretty well that way.

Cal: [00:22:19] It’s a lot like what we have when we move cattle, the sheep kind of just go where they want. They don't listen too well to me. When you're moving your cattle and the sheep are you doing single wire, you're doing multiple wires, hot wires, or do you have paddocks with semi-permanent fences? What kind of fencing do you have?

Jonathan: [00:22:43] Yes, so all of our internal subdivisions are high tensile three-wire high tensile. And then for like daily moves, we just use a single strand step-in post for the cattle. We can control the sheep pretty well with a single wire. It's about fifteen inches off the ground. It's the fourth clip on the O'Brien's posts if you're using those. You've got to space your posts pretty close together. Ten yards or less, maybe even seven. Keep the wire tight. And as long as the sheep don't get hungry, you're fine. You will probably have some fence jumpers. You just get rid of those so they don't teach the rest of the flock how to get out but you keep the wire hot. They'll stay. But I don't really. Except for lambing, I don't really set sheep fences up. We pretty much let the sheep have the entire paddock that the cows are in. Our paddocks are small enough that they're only getting well it depends on where they're at but you know, between six and maybe fifteen acres max. And then the cows moving through there within a couple of days anyhow. So does that make sense? So like the sheep get the larger area the cows are confined to the single wire, you know the poly wire and then they're all out of that paddock within a couple of days.

Cal: [00:24:08] Oh, yes. On the sheep, you're just lambing once a year?

Jonathan: [00:24:12] Yes. We started lambing this year, I think on May 10th our first lamb was born and we're pretty much done. Most of it is done within I would say sixteen days. And then you'll have a few that tapering off but I would say the bulk of it 75% to 80% of the lambing is done within sixteen to eighteen days.

Cal: [00:24:36] Now I was shooting for May 1st with my use and I find the ram the hardest animal to keep away from the females.

Jonathan: [00:24:47] Well, actually, last year, we have one ram that we pulled the rams out. We give him thirty-five days and then we pulled them and we had one ram that somehow got back in with the flock and he was in there for, I don't know, maybe another seven days. So we did have a few late lambs this year and that's why. So wasn't planned, but I guess we ended up with a few more lambs anyhow.

Cal: [00:25:14] Oh, yeah. That's always good, a few more. But we have our last four questions on our podcasts that we're going to ask every guest that's the plan at least we'll see how it goes. So the first one is what's your favorite grazing grass related book or resource website?

Jonathan: [00:25:34] Wow so hard to pick one but I'll try to do my best. My favorite grazing book would be Kick the Hay Habit by Jim Gerrish, it's a super practical book really breaks down and lays out how to minimize hay feeding, making hay, and extend your grazing season. So it's just chock-full of really practical information and ideas and Jim Gerrish is the legend.

Cal: [00:26:04] Oh, yes, he is.

Jonathan: [00:26:05] Probably my favorite book right now.

Cal: [00:26:07] Very good. What tool could you not live without on your farm?

Jonathan: [00:26:12] My Leatherman multi-tool couldn’t live without it. I don't know. I feel like I use it probably ten to fifteen times a day. So yeah it's my favorite tool.

Cal: [00:26:28] What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started grazing?

Jonathan: [00:26:34] I was thinking about this question. And I was I feel like everything. Well, I started grass farming when I was like, 12 years old. So like, I knew nothing. You know, I was 12 when I started with grazing some dairy goats and poultry. And you know that kind of thing. Just small so I mean, there's so much I've learned even just the last couple of years, and there's so much to know. So it's hard to pinpoint one thing. But let me just say maybe like, one thing, I think, that I've really learned in the last like three to four years is Ian Mitchell, in his talks about grazing, the energy or grazing for performance. I think that's something I've really learned is how to look at the cow and focus on the performance side of the animal, instead of looking at the landscape, and being way more comfortable leaving a lot more residual grass behind.

Whereas I would have been too concerned about wasting grass, you're never wasting grass, you never use the grass because a) you're leaving something to cover the ground, and right now we need to keep the ground covered, or we're going to lose all our moisture. And you got to feed the soil life. And 2) maybe your next rotation around the cows will eat it like you never, you know, I've seen that happen where you leave something behind, and you come back thirty to forty days later, and the cow likes that for some reason that time around. So yeah, just learning how to look at the cow look for signs of performance and keep them performing. That's how you're going to make money on the grass. If you focus too much on trying to landscape with your cows or your sheep, you're probably going to lose money; you're probably not going to have animals that are going to do very well. Especially when you're doing what we're doing and we're, you know, trying to put a quality grass-finished beef on the market. Super important so that would be one thing. I mean, I could probably talk about that for twenty minutes. But that would be something I've really learned in the last couple of years how to manage that and keep the cows moving.

Cal: [00:28:48] Yeah, very important. Where can others find out more about you?

Jonathan: [00:28:52] Sure, the farm website Bent Tree Farms. It's https://www.benttreefarmsok.com/. That's the farm website. If people are interested in ordering beef or getting some of our products we're on Instagram and Facebook, benttreefarmsok is our handle there. I'm on Instagram. Personally, I don't do too much with that other than post pictures of the baby and fun stuff here and there. That's just Jonathan Kilpatrick. So, yeah, that's probably the best places you can get in touch with me or find out more about us.

Cal: [00:29:30] Wonderful. I appreciate this Jonathan. I think it’s been a great conversation.

Voice Over: [00:29:35] This is the grazing grass podcast, helping you produce forages for livestock grazing. Be sure to join our community at grazinggrass.com.

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Book(s)/Resource(s)

  • Kick the Hay Habit by Jim Gerrish (Amazon*)

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