By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
A sixth generation beef farmer with a love of grass and a swath of advice told hundreds at a Spring Grazing meeting in Brussels to look in the mirror and be “linger grazers” if they want to raise healthy cows and have a great life.
Affectionately known as “The Grass Whisperer”, Troy Bishopp has been a grass farmer for 36 years at Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, New York. A grasslands advocate and Conservation Professional at Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, Bishopp raises dairy heifers, grass-finished beef and backgrounds feeder cattle on 180 acres of owned and leased cool season pastures.
Brussels Agri Services Ltd owners Tim and Donna Prior and their team brought Bishopp in from New York to give lessons on life, with a few tidbits on how to grow grass and raise cattle.
Like any good conversationalist, Bishopp started off talking about the weather. “I have no snow, you got snow, nobody has snow,” he said. “A lot of us don’t know what is going on with the weather and that is one of the many problems we have to face.” However, the biggest problem most farmers have is the person they meet in the mirror.
Showing pictures of his farm with lush, green pastures compared to other pastures eaten to the ground and exhibiting signs of erosion, Bishopp said the biggest difference is not fertilizer or weather, it is mindset.“It’s not the cow, it’s the how,” said Bishopp. “We are the problem.” Whether from a lack of goals or disinterest in learning new methods of grazing, it’s the farmers themselves that need to change. That change begins with creating a context for your farm and your life. A context is what moves people in the direction they want to go and it starts with setting long-term goals. Without goals and context you cannot be where you need to be.”
Bishopp shared his goal statement which merged farm and family life and revolves around creating space for the next generation. The best way to do that is with permanent sod, he believes. It reads: “We want a stress-free life, with our topsoil covered with diverse pastures, harvested by animals, whereby recycling solar energy and activating the biological life to produce a sustainable profit for us while regenerating our community with local food and creating a savanna for wildlife and a place for the next generation to thrive.”
Bishopp said his most important tool is the next generation, which is what drives his position. He said most farmers look at tomorrow and profits but families and farms would be healthier if they looked 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the road. Yet, he also believes farmers should have a toolbox of strategies to be able to deal with all the vagaries of farming. Charting is a critical one.
Bishopp charts data from his pastures, including growth rates to determine when cattle should be moved from one pasture to another. It used to be that pastures on his farm would recover after 15 days in the spring. With drought becoming a yearly issue, these same pastures are now taking up to 38 days to fully recover. "We have to be proactive.”
These annual charts then become planning tools, allowing farmers to project cattle movements up to three months in advance. The best part about this is that they are “true”. Many farmers look across their field and use their eyes to believe the grass is growing an inch a day, said Bishopp. You won’t know if that is accurate until you actually measure and chart it.
He said farmers need to have sacrifice pastures and barnyards for rain events to keep cattle off the fields, and “always, always, always” have hay in the barn to supplement when faced with drought or severe weather events.
Pastures need to be managed. Bishopp said there are farmers running low on hay now who have already let their cattle into pastures that were eaten too short last fall. He said those farmers have lost before they even began because grass cannot recover if not given a chance to grow.
He understands that finances drive most decisions which is why he has opted to farm and have two other jobs. Custom grazing beef cattle provided a steady income on his 100 acres and he chose that “steadiness” to reduce stress and make sure there was work and money for his employees.
On the Bishopp farm, it’s all about grass and rotating cattle before grass is eaten too short to recuperate. He has many strategies along the line of regeneration agriculture and mob grazing (short duration, high density grazing with a longer than usual grass recovery period) to make sure each pasture has lush regrowth. That includes winter pastures, which are left to go to seed before the cattle enter. The cows eat and stamp seeds into the ground. This pasture is left to reseed naturally creating some excellent late summer pastures, explained Bishopp.
His thick pastures also provide ecosystem services because the healthy soil underneath the grass can absorb heavy rains. If there are washouts, the water doesn’t take soil with it because all the soil is covered. Three watercourses on the farm sequester water. “We should start charging the town for our ecosystem services instead of beef,” said Bishopp.
However, he was quick to point out that what works on his farm may not work on all farms. He encouraged the hundreds of farmers in attendance to develop a full toolbox of strategies. Use your mind to think about your financial resources, land capacity, infrastructure, soil fertility, biological life, plants, animals, time management, equipment and mentors, he advised.
Moreover, invest in yourself, urged Bishopp. “Here’s a tidbit for you…get a mentor. Read books. Watch Youtube. Learn your craft as grazers.” Bishopp said he considers himself a craftsman and takes his skill at growing grass as seriously as a woodworker does making a cabinet. Mentors are a key part of that. They let you rant and they have wisdom. “They are in book form except they breathe,” said Bishopp.
Swinging back to life advice (which, in Bishopp’s world, is also farming advice) he recommended more farmers adopt “linger grazing.” Bishopp defines that as observing the little things and thinking about how they affect the big things. “We need to observe when we walk the land because it’s the little thing that affect big thing…like our happiness.”
One of the joys on his farm is that planting trees and creating healthy pastures welcomes nature back in. Leaving a field to seed has so many benefits including reseeding the pasture and providing habitat for birds
Other advice Bishopp offered during the spring grazing session included:
● Invest in quality. Bishopp said on their farm, his father was frugal and often bought cheap gates to move cattle. “It took years of getting crushed by cows and gates to say ‘maybe we should get a better system’.” They built a corral with quality materials and said it was one of the best investments they ever made.
● Think smart about fertilizer: The Bishopp farm has many hills and the poorest soil is at the top of the hills. Too steep for a tractor and manure spreader to travel, Bishopp lets his cows do the work. “We bring the hay up there and let the cows do their business,” he said.
● Invest in perennial grasses: The longevity of the grasses and their long roots are an excellent prevention against drought, which is common in New York.
● Take the lead in cow education: “In New York cows are bad. They are targets. But most of the people who talk about cows do not have any. I think farmers should be the leaders in this discussion. Somehow we are getting beat but with education and vigour, we can turn the tide.” Cattle may burp and fart, but their system turns grass (which humans cannot digest) into food that humans can digest, all the while fertilizing the fields with manure.
● Don’t buy more cows: Bishopp says he sees it over and over again… as soon as there is a good growth year, farmers add another 10 cattle. “We ALWAYS add more cows,” said Bishopp. The problem is, the farmers don’t think what will happen 30 days from then when drought hits or even just how it fits into their overall grazing plan. Generally, farmers have too many cows and too little land which results in overgrazing on fields that never get time to recover. Bishopp likes to have more grazing days than more animals. “We went from 180 grazing days to 240 and found there is more money in that for us than to have 10 extra cows.”
● Make time for camping: Having a plan and pasture with lots of feed means there are more free days for fun stuff like camping. Bishopp’s plan predicts the day when cows need to be moved to the next pasture which gives him space to camp in between. “We had 39 camping days last year,” he said. “To me, that is the most important – more important than money.”
● Be resilient: The world is changing and there will be more food disruptions, climate issues, and laws about fuel and fertilizer. Farmers need to think about resiliency and that starts with grass. Bishopp joked a lot during his presentation but he was dead serious when he advised people to enjoy being farmers by rolling in the grass because it’s a building block of life. ◊