e3. Cow-calf Operation Utilizing Rotational Grazing

Ben Hepler of Hepler Beef describes his commercial beef operation and Red Poll operation.  We discuss electric fence equipment, watering, and breeds of cattle.



Cal: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Grazing Grass Podcast episode three.

Ben: [00:00:04] I tried to manage the pastures more so for field conditions rather than like if the animals are done grazing.

Voice over: [00:00:11] 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] Welcome back. I'm Cal Hardage host of the grazing grass podcast and on today's episode, we have Ben Hepler. He is a wonderful guest. He didn't even complain when someone may have been me forgot to click the record button. Let's get past that and get started on the interview. Ben, welcome to the grazing grass podcast. We're excited to have you here.

Ben: [00:00:54] Thank you for having me.

Cal: [00:00:56] Can you tell us a little bit about your farm and your operation and yourself?

Ben: [00:01:01] So, we have a cow-calf operation as a whole family, so it includes myself, my younger brother, my dad, and my grandfather, we all pitch in. So we have a commercial cow herd. And then I have a purebred redpoll herd that I manage. And everything is born on the farm and we raise it and finish it on the farm. So we're a cow-calf to finishing operation which is fun. And then we also direct market, all of that beef for the freezer trade which is nice. So customers know exactly what they're getting. And they don't have to question, you know, the value of their beef and stuff like that.

Cal: [00:01:52] Tell us where you're located in your climate.

Ben: [00:01:56] I'm located in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. As someone told me one time at a night conference we live 45 minutes north of Scranton. And their response was there are farms north of Scranton. That's like yeah, there's still Pennsylvania above Scranton. But we're the last exit on Interstate 81 before you get into New York State, so we're right in northern tier PA. We have hayfields in the southern tier in New York. So we straddle the border quite a bit. And the climate is probably humid temperate. So we experience all four seasons and generally speaking, we get about I think 40 inches of precipitation a year that includes snow. But if but as I was saying, if we go a couple of weeks without any precip we start to get into some droughty conditions unless you know there's a spring seep somewhere that that keeps things wet.

Cal: [00:03:12] Oh, yes. When is the average date of your last frost and then the first frost?

Ben: [00:03:22] Actually, now.

Cal: [00:03:24] Oh, do you? Oh very good.

Ben: [00:03:25] Yeah. I think the period of record is 15 years. So in the last 15 years, our last frost in the spring is about June 2nd, and our first frost in the fall in the last 15 years would be like September 12th.

Cal: [00:03:53] Oh, wow. You very abbreviated season from what I'm used to.

Ben: [00:03:59] Yeah.

Cal: [00:03:59] Our last frost in our areas, typically the first week in April, and then the first frost is usually around the first week in November. Give or take a little.

Ben: [00:04:11] Generally speaking, if we can get our garden planted. I mean, we had corn in the fifth of May this year, you know?

Cal: [00:04:20] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:04:20] So I mean, it's just your risk of frost.

Cal: [00:04:26] Right.

Ben: [00:04:26] But most of the time if we get the garden in a week or so before Memorial Day. That's pretty much a safe bet unless it's a cold spring.

Cal: [00:04:38] Oh, yeah.

Ben: [00:04:42] We actually had six inches of snow in the northern part of Delaware County where I work in the middle of May.

Cal: [00:04:51] Which is crazy for us because if we get six inches of snow for the winter, we think we're doing something.

Ben: [00:04:59] Oh wow. Yeah, we don't get no five feet to snow drips.

Cal: [00:05:04] No, now occasionally we'll get more than that but not typically. I really don't know what the average amount.

Ben: [00:05:13] Do you guys have ice storms down there more often though?

Cal: [00:05:16] We do the ice is bad because if that rain comes in right around freezing it drops just below freezing. It'll freeze the lines and stuff. Probably, I don't know eight to 10 years ago we had a terrible ice storm. And we were without electricity for two weeks. So that wasn't much fun.

Ben: [00:05:43] No

Cal: [00:05:44] The ice is a big concern.

Ben: [00:05:48] And see we don't get much of that.

Cal: [00:05:51] Oh, yes. I'm told that our snow is a little bit wetter than the snow up north. But I don't know.

Ben: [00:05:59] Yeah.

Cal: [00:06:02] Beats me. So on the forages on your farm, what kind of forages do you have?

Ben: [00:06:10] So our whole farm is all cool-season grasses. Cool-season perennial grasses and then most of our legumes are our clovers. Generally speaking, our farm is mostly somewhat poorly drained in terms of soil type. So like alfalfa doesn't really work too well because it likes its roots feet dry.

Cal: [00:06:34] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:06:35] And so for cool-season it's a make-up of Timothy, Orchard grass, Reed Canary grass, Bluegrass, there's probably some Brome I see a couple of sprigs of Ryegrass when I'm looking for it.

Cal: [00:06:50] Oh, yeah.

Ben: [00:06:51] And then your white and red clover.

Cal: [00:06:57] Is the white clover and the red clover your predominant clover in the area?

Ben: [00:07:03] Yep, I think white clover also spreads through rhizomes but there's one that but yes. Those are the two predominant types over in the area.

Cal: [00:07:22] Now do you ever plan anything or adding anything to your pastures or hay?

Ben: [00:07:30] So on the property, where I have my red pole cattle we did an experiment interceding oats last fall just for fun to see if it would grow with the existing side and it did. I wasn't able to stockpile it for as long as I want it. So the cows did graze it off when it was probably six inches tall or so but in the past, we've experimented planting millet if we knew we had enough lead time for the cows to graze it, not just graze it as it was seedlings. But most of the time when we're experimenting with our seedlings, we'll do warm-season grass such as Sudan grass and our hay fields. And depending on the health of the sod, we try not to spray or till anything. It does come up variable but it gives an insight into the type of growth relationship that comes about when you try to introduce something into an established sod.

Cal: [00:08:46] Yes. So you mentioned stockpiling or trying to a little bit, Do you do much stockpiling of forages?

Ben: [00:09:01] Not really. Our falls are autumn I guess. They tend to become real wet and where my water lines are at the other farm. They're all above ground so by the end of October I'm kind of out of business because of the low temperature and at the end of October starts to get below freezing.

Cal: [00:09:29] Oh yes.

Ben: [00:09:31] I try to manage the pastures more so for field condition rather than like if the animals are done grazing or have eaten what I consider to be what they should have taken just because of how wet some of our fields are.

Cal: [00:09:49] So do you rotate your cattle fairly often? or how do you do that?

Ben:[00:09:54] Yeah. So depends on the group. I watch a lot of Greg Judy's YouTube videos.

Cal: [00:10:04] I do too.

Ben: [00:10:05] And you know, he's got that one big herd. it does make a lot of sense cause you do have to spend just about as much work moving 10 cows as it does to move, you know, 50 at least at my place, I can't compare it to 400 because I've never moved 400 cattle.

Cal: [00:10:26] Right me either.

Ben: [00:10:30] But the rotation is we tried to move our cows every two to four days. We've noticed that our grass starts to regrow if the moisture there, we'll start pushing new shoots about that third or fourth day and sort of preventing them from back grazing. We will keep moving along if it's reasonable to do so without running out of temporary tapes and stuff. We'll do a back fence so that way they literally can't go back to where they were unless they push the tape down; got to love solar fence chargers.

Cal: [00:11:20] Oh, that's true and that was my next question, was about what kind of fence charger you have and your fencing. What do you use for your fencing?

Ben: [00:11:30] So I'm here at this other farm I have a PowerMac like a number 12. It does a great job when the sun's out and it's dry. I'll be pushing 5000 volts of electricity going through it. And I have about two or three miles worth of electric fencing on it so it's quite a bit for such a small charger. But as soon as it rains night or if it's a cloudy day for a couple of days. It's kind of hoping that the cows just respect the fence because they have grass in front of them and they don't feel like searching stuff. The calves don't respect anything. For the first couple of years, I only had one strand of temporary along the dirt road and I was getting calls all the time. Your cows are out so well are the cows out or are they smaller because they're smaller? I'm less concerned. But yeah, luckily they're only along the road for a week and so it's a headache. But then at the main farm, we have a plugin charger. We have three of them split up between the farms.

Cal: [00:12:55] Oh, yes. And what kind of chargers do you have there?

Ben: [00:13:02] We had a speed right and then that got struck by lightning so right now there's a Gallagher in place of that at the moment. And then the two other locations are both Kencove chargers. Their company is in Pennsylvania. I think they have another warehouse in Indiana.

Cal: [00:13:23] I purchased a few things from Kencove. They worked out good for me. But yeah, they are in Pennsylvania. Now when you're moving your cattle you're doing one strand of wire poly tape, poly wire. Are you using some high tensile?

Ben: [00:13:45] So generally now for our perimeters, we have either barbed wire and then if I got creative I have a single strand of electric wire in between the barbs so I could hook up my temporary to get electric from. In terms of temporary fencing, we have tape, poly braid, and poly wire. We've tried all three.

Cal: [00:14:13] Do you have a preference?

Ben: [00:14:17] I like the poly braid, although with how my herd of redpoll cattle is a herd of twenty. So the paddocks I make are quite small and so I don't have to walk that far to make a paddock. So the pre-wound small reels from Kencove with the 660 feet the cheap strands of poly wire for $20. It's hard to beat.

Cal: [00:14:53] Right? Yeah.

Ben: [00:14:54] But for longevity and brake strength. The poly braid is definitely nice but for visibility, the poly tape is definitely the best. But, definitely snaps a lot easier and then strands go everywhere when the cows run through it.

Cal: [00:15:14] Yes. Now I'm curious so you've got Red Poll cows, and you also have a commercial herd. What breeding?

Ben: [00:15:23] So it's mostly Black Angus, we've had a herd of bull the last couple years, also we got some black bodies. But then if you go back through the cow families, there's some Charolaise some shorthorn, and some quite a bit of Devon rolling out there.

Cal: [00:15:43] Oh, yes. Now, do you notice a difference in your commercial cows versus your redpoll cows with the respect to the electric fence?

Ben: [00:15:58] It's about the same. When I first started over here, it used to be a Hayfield, I asked my grandfather if we could convert it to pasture so we went ahead and put a bunch of poly wire up. And I didn't want to have to deal with gates. And I also didn't want to have to deal with going and turning the charger off all the time. So I trained my cows to step over the wire when it was electrified.

Cal: [00:16:29] Yeah.

Ben: [00:16:31] So sometimes they respect it less just in case for some reason, if they bump into it and a temporary fence post falls for some reason they have no problem exploring and walking back over it to go places. But generally, they both respect them fairly well. Unless, for instance, we had a yearling heifer group that ended up three miles from the farm. And we think a bear or something scared them. It took them about a month to finally respect the electric fence. Instead of running through it all the time just from how skittish they became.

Cal: [00:17:20] Oh, yes, I imagined so I'd be pretty skittish. So I understand that. Now for your temporary posts, what are you using for that?

Ben: [00:17:32] So we use the pigtail step in the fencepost. I like those best they do get tangled because of the foot at the bottom. But I've been happy with them; I have put the rod post insulators on the shaft of the pigtail to put another strand to try to keep those calves from getting out onto the road and stuff like that which has helped. And I thought about getting a few of the New Zealand style multiple strand stuff. That like for instance, Greg Judy uses. But when I was ordering through Kencove, the ones from New Zealand were all sold out at the time and I just wasn't ready to pay for shipping from elsewhere in the country.

Cal: [00:18:34] Oh, yes. And that's understandable. I have a few of those pigtails. And I've got cattle and sheep. So I just run one wire and the sheep just kind of pick where they want to go. But I've thought about getting some of those that go on that shaft so I can run multiple wires. I've also got some Step In O'Brien's.

Ben: [00:18:58] Yep.

Cal: [00:19:01] You've got a long winter, I'm just curious how you manage them during winter. So you pin them up and feed hay to them? Is that what you do? Do you still try and rotate them or some? Or is it too wet?

Ben: [00:19:20] So if we can keep the ice off the water troughs, consistently or if I have like a continuous flow water trough that doesn't freeze until it gets like 26 or so out. We have kept our yearling group out until the middle of December before but we're fortunate. We have some projects that got implemented through the NRCS. So we have two manure storages and a concrete barnyard and two big pole barns and actually, we have an old dairy barn where we keep our calf group.

Cal: [00:19:56] Oh yes.

Ben: [00:19:57] So they all come in and then we spread manure every weekend and feed every couple days. So it's quite a bit of hay. We make about 800 round bales a year, to feed everybody

Cal: [00:20:14] Yeah, making that hay and feeding it gets to be its own job.

Ben: [00:20:19] Yeah. You know, and then for fun, you got to make a couple of square bales too just because you got nothing better to do when it's 95 out.

Cal: [00:20:29] Yes, just to stay in good practice. My dad was complaining when we had our hay bales that we didn't have any square bales so he could go get my nephew's so they could learn how to haul square bales.

Ben: [00:20:45] There's definitely an appreciation but I'm kind of lucky. I have an accumulator. And so I can at least bale everything and load it on the wagons with just myself and a tractor.

Cal: [00:21:01] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:21:02] But I still have to hand and load it into the barn. But at least that can be done in the evenings when everybody else is off of work. I had an older square baler that had a chute just long enough to get it onto the wagon. So I would bale a windrow and then get off the tractor go stack it. Bale another windrow get off the tractor go stack it. That gets old kind of quick, though.

Cal: [00:21:33] A lot. I completely understand. I haven't worked that hard within a week, you know, one of the best days in my farming history is when we got rid of the hanging equipment. We started paying somebody to do it.

Ben: [00:21:46] Yeah. I wish we could do that sometimes.

Cal: [00:21:54] I know every year we get a little irritated because the custom baler is not here when we want them here as he wants it to be completely dry. And we're like we think we've got enough dry days. Let's try.

Ben: [00:22:10] Yeah.

Cal: [00:22:11] You mentioned earlier on your paddocks, you've got above-ground water lines. Tell us a little bit about your watering system.

Ben: [00:22:19] So that one's unique because I put that all in myself. I had streams, so I don't own the property where my red poles are grazing. I lease it from a landowner and I wanted to try to take care of his property the best way I could. So if I ever had to leave, he would never know that cows had been there. So, fortunately, his father had dug a pond halfway up the mountainside that's fed by a spring that runs year-round.

Cal: [00:22:54] Oh yes,

Ben: [00:22:56] I have about 3000 feet of three-quarter-inch black plastic pipe, just thrown on top of the ground and then I have hydrants, but really, they're just kept cam lock Quick Connect couplers and then when I need to go I put my water trough there I take the cap off and I plug into my water trough. So I have multiple hook-up areas but I only have two troughs to deal with because the Gallagher float valve is quite expensive. So if I could get a bunch of hook-ups and not have to deal with them, I thought about the Plasson plastic you know auto-shutoff and quick coupler. But because I go right from black plastic to the hook up at the trough. There is some hoof action on that pipe. And I was worried I'd break the plastic connector of that Plasson. So I chose a one-inch aluminium cam fitting to hook up to my trough.

Cal: [00:24:13] Oh, yes. And do you put one trough in each paddock? And then you have two so you can alternate them? Or do you put two in each and move them each day for a few days.

Ben: [00:24:24] So yes. I do all that. It depends so because my farm is so wet. I have a section of pasture that has a low spot in the middle. And the paddock in that instance is only maybe 100 feet wide between the two troughs but if they get thirsty and I'd rather have them stay to one side and drink instead of tracking back through, oh yes in and having to travel to that other even though it's so close. I wanted to give them the most flexibility to try to keep up field pugging to a minimum.

Cal: [00:25:04] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:25:05] But generally, I'll hook up and use that trough for a little while. And then if I have another trough I just don't feel like going to get or if it's too far away, I'll just unplug it quick. Put the cap in they're only 100 gallon Rubbermaid troughs, so they're easy to flip over by myself, and then I'll just drag it to the next hook-up and plug it in for the cattle.

Cal: [00:25:36] Oh, yes. On the cattle, you mentioned the commercial herd and then you have your red pole herd. Why do you go with red pole for your purebred herd?

Ben: [00:25:50] That was a journey that started back when I was in eighth grade. So I'm 27 now and I went to a grazing conference in Williamsport, pa when I was in eighth grade and met a couple from two towns over in my county. She was talking about how these redpoll cattle were so great. I could finish them on the grass and they are heritage breeds no one has them. So I thought oh, no one has him I like to be different.

Cal: [00:26:21] Yes.

Ben: [00:26:22] And so I bugged my grandfather for two years and finally we bought some. We bought two heifers calves the following year. And then they stayed in business for a while. So when the two heifer calves ready to breed, I took them over, bred them got two more heifer calves, took them over breed then got two more heifer calves.

Cal: [00:26:49] Yes.

Ben: [00:26:50] By that time they had sold out and so I actually had the opportunity I bought their herd used one of their bulls for a year. I had another gentleman up in the Catskills in New York, actually, where I ended up working for my job now. And I bought his herd as well. So, I'm done buying everybody's herds. I'm going to build my own now. But I kind of you know, the Devon do a really good job for grass finishing; I had seen that because we had used the Devon bull for a while. I didn't like the fact that now and then we had the horn to gene kind of presented itself.

Cal: [00:27:36] Oh right.

Ben: [00:27:36] And so you had to deal with them. It was interesting to me that these cattle marketed themselves as being able to finish on grass, but in their history had been a dual-purpose breed for dairy and beef.

Cal: [00:27:51] Right. Yes.

Ben: [00:27:53] And I have pictures, both on Facebook and in my old livestock history books from like, 1915 that show them and, you know, they look like a fattened ready for harvest animal, but they're producing 11,000 pounds of milk a year.

Cal: [00:28:11] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:28:13] It's was funny. I will say that because of that dairy gene, or it's not a gene, but trait I guess I would call it sometimes some of the animals don't fatten on grass as I'd like them to.

Cal: [00:28:33] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:28:34] But through partnering with other breeders. I get my sires from a guy in North Carolina. And that's been working quite well, for kind of changing my trajectory towards being an all grass finished herd.

Cal: [00:28:52] Oh, yes. The red pole breed has always fascinated me. It started as a similar time for me it was high school, and a dairy production book from the 40s showed all these red pole cows and I'm like, what, and we had a dairy. So I've been fascinated by redpole. And I've told my wife we're going to buy some red pole heifers, but I haven't quite done it yet, but I'm hoping to in the future.

Ben: [00:29:19] Yeah, they're fun. I mean, they're a lot less excitable. If you keep them together as a group, they're a lot less excitable, I think than Black Angus. However, those two foundation cows of mine were intermingled with my commercial herd. And they became as excitable as the Black Angus in our herd, so, you know, just herd mentality.

Cal: [00:29:52] Right. I understand that.

Ben: [00:29:56] But definitely, if you go see them every day or every other day. It's amazing how cows pick up on a pattern so nice and so used to just a scheduled routine. Even changing a side by side, because you use one side by side to move and you use a different one to tag calves. They'll know that different side by side is there to catch a calf and not to move and everybody scatters.

Cal: [00:30:35] Oh, yes,

Ben: [00:30:37] So you have to constantly remind them that pieces of equipment or even the way you do things can be so interchanged that they have to kind of just be ready for anything.

Cal: [00:30:51] Oh Yes, right,

Ben: [00:30:53] And that which is a lot of fun.

Cal: [00:30:58] Well, Ben, we've enjoyed this conversation and we've got our famous four questions. And I listened to the BiggerPockets podcast and they have the last four questions the same for their podcasts for each one. So we have our four questions. Our first one's what’s your favorite related grazing grass related book or resource or tool?

Ben: [00:31:24] I'm actually sitting right next to my bookcase right now. So I have to look at them all.

Cal: [00:31:34] I'm always excited to get a bookcase.

Ben: [00:31:37] So I've read I'm probably inverted right here. So if I show the book it'll be backward but a book I read two years ago was Fertility Pastures by a gentleman in England. And his name was Newman Turner and that's what it looks like. Yeah, it's backward.

Cal: [00:32:02] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:32:03] That was a lot of fun. He was a dairyman. That was all grass purely for the sake of cost. But I've also read Quality Pasture, by Allan Nation, and I appreciated that book as well. So those are probably my two favorites so far.

Cal: [00:32:27] Oh, very good.

Ben: [00:32:29] I mean, I could go on. I can't rule out Joel Salatin because I did a book report on salad bar beef in ninth grade. I came to the teacher I said can I read this book? She said, if you can find foreshadowing, you know all this literature. I don't want to say alliteration, because that's not really. But it couldn't just be a textbook. And so I went through the book and I found all three of them. I said, here they are. She was fine to do what you got to do.

Cal: [00:32:54] That's wonderful

Ben: [00:33:09] I mean it helps that Joel. I think he majored in English anyway, you know, early on, so he's a book writer from the get-go.

Cal: [00:33:18] Oh, yes, his writing style would fit that. Yes.

Ben: [00:33:21] Yeah.

Cal: [00:33:22] Our next question. What tool could you not live without on the farm?

Ben: [00:33:26] Without adding undue stress and irritation from adding infrastructure causes temporary fencing, which I think would be the one thing that I could probably not do without just because of how flexible it is. If you change herd size, you can change pasture size.

Cal: [00:33:47] Oh yes.

Ben: [00:33:48] If you know what's going to rain the next day, you can fence out a wet area. I mean, the flexibility that temporary electric fencing gives you when used properly is an amazing tool to tell.

Cal: [00:34:04] When you are beginning your journey as becoming a grass farmer. What do you know now you wish you'd known them?

Ben: [00:34:14] Well, it's tough because I've had this journey since I was 10. I have a photo of myself in 2002 standing amongst a bunch of guys that are in their 60s and 70s staring at a water trough that we had just put in on the farm.

Cal: [00:34:33] Oh, yes.

Ben: [00:34:35] To do rotational grazing, So in terms of honing the skill, though, learning the difference between what is overgrazed and what and what isn't. When you're dealing with tall grass I think that has helped me immensely so what might look like the cows have just stepped it all down and didn't eat anything. Sometimes is actually when you're supposed to move them because it'll rebound so quickly. That tromped over-mature grass, you know wasn't helping you in the first place.

Cal: [00:35:18] Right. Yeah, we're good. Where can others find out more about you?

Ben: [00:35:22] So I do have a Hepler Beef Facebook page. It's different than Hepler meats. That's our long-distant cousins from the other side of the state. We do almost the same thing. They have a butcher shop. But I'm Hepler beef and, I post things from time to time. And that's probably the best way to find out more and learn what we do here in the endless mountains of Pennsylvania.

Cal: [00:35:58] Wonderful. Well, we'll post a link to your Facebook page there in our show notes. And, Ben, we appreciate you being on our podcast. Thank you.

Ben: [00:36:07] Yeah, well, this was fun. This was my first ever podcast to attend and be the person speaking with it. So thank you.

Voice over: [00:36:15] This is the Grazing Grass Podcast, helping you produce forages for livestock grazing. Be sure to join our community at grazinggrass.com.

Cal: [00:36:26] Yeah, I am sorry.

Ben: [00:36:29] That's okay.

Cal: [00:36:30] We'll run through all that again.

Ben: [00:36:35] Don't worry, I can talk for hours.

Cal: [00:36:37] Ben, welcome to the grazing grass podcast.

Ben: [00:36:42] I think the intro was recorded.

Cal: [00:36:48] Did I bumped it and turn it off.

Ben: [00:36:50] Well, either way, you can do the intro out. So that way, I don't laugh. I can do this.

Cal: [00:36:59] Okay, I'll do it again. And then we'll go through that.

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  • Fertility Pastures by Newman Turner (Amazon*)
  • Quality Pastures by Allan Nation (Amazon*)

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