CLARK — The year was 1999, and Greg Judy, 53, was bankrupt. He had no land, no cattle and no capital.
In a bind, Judy tried something that had rarely been done — he began ranching leased cattle on leased land.
The move inspired Judy’s first book, “No Risk Ranching: Custom Grazing on Leased Land,” in 2002.
The book was aptly titled. Judy was not out a fortune if he lost a herd of cattle. He did not have to take out massive loans on property he could not afford.
It was essentially a management service for cattle. He raised and grazed livestock for their owners, he worked his way out of debt and he started to buy land and cattle of his own.
How one farmer turned his fortunes around
Judy now owns three farms and leases eight more in Randolph County; more than 1,000 acres altogether, 600 in rich grassland.
He raises all-natural, grass-fed cattle and sheep on his property without chemical fertilizers or hormones. Not even a tractor.
In 2006, Judy began using a farming method called mob grazing or high-density grazing, championed by Ian Mitchell-Innes, a fourth-generation rancher in South Africa.
In 2008, Judy wrote a second book, "Comeback Farms: Rejuvenating Soils, Pastures and Profits with Livestock Grazing Management," that chronicled his experience with alternative grazing techniques and ways to revitalize scruffy, weedy pasture.
Mitchell-Innes contacted Judy after reading his first book, and the two have worked together ever since.
For the last seven years, they have held workshops on mob grazing on Judy's ranch in Clark. Last year, 80 students attended from around the globe.
Mob grazing dependent on frequent movement of cattle
Mob grazing differs from the more common grass-feeding method called management-intensive grazing. Mob grazing relies on frequent pasture rotation and strictly regulated water systems.
Under management-intensive grazing, livestock eat the grass when it is 6 to 10 inches high and still tender. This method, however, is poor in dry years when the grass reaches 6 to 10 inches at its maximum point. Years like this.
Mob grazing allows the pastures to fully mature before putting cattle out in that area. The animals will graze about 60 percent of the grass, stomping the additional 40 percent into the ground. The cattle are rotated every day.
The idea is that the cattle will drive grasses they do not eat into the ground and naturally fertilize the pasture while they graze.
“For every grass blade that gets trampled, we can get two back,” Judy said.
The trampled grass that sits low to the ground is called humus; because humus is so close to the soil, it holds onto the water. According to Judy, every unit of humus holds about eight times its weight in water.
“It doesn’t matter how much it rains," he said. "It matters how much you keep.”
Mob grazing has come to the attention of the ranching community, Judy said. He was among the first to employ the method and is invited to speak at conventions and serve as a consultant to ranchers. Judy is also a regular contributor to agricultural publications.
Rotating interns help spread the word
The staff on his ranch always includes two interns who get extensive experience in his ranching techniques. Jake Hartnett, 26, of St. Paul, Minn., and Meg Grzeskiewicz, 21, of Buffalo, N.Y., are working with him now.
Hartnett said he has a job lined up on a ranch in northern Wisconsin, adding that a reference from Judy made the employer more receptive.
Grzeskiewicz and Hartnett both said that the knowledge Judy has shared has been far more valuable than their respective college educations.
“Greg has really taught us to observe the animals; the animals will tell you what they need, and you just need to listen,” she said.
Out in the pasture
Every morning Judy and the interns stake a new area of pasture considered mature enough for grazing and line it with electric fencing.
Judy’s pastures are a combination of fescue and red clover. According to a study done by the MU Extension department of agronomy, adding a legume such as red clover to fescue pastures can help balance the cattle feed.
“They (legumes) will furnish a high-quality forage and serve as a source of nitrogen while the fescue is becoming established,” the study reported.
Apart from the fescue and red clover, the south poll grass cattle raised on Judy’s farms are given an additional 16 minerals. A trough containing these minerals, each individualized and served in powder form, is dragged from paddock to paddock daily.
Judy said the cows can sense what they are lacking in their diet and feed from the trough if they need, say, magnesium, for example.
The ranch uses no chemicals or pesticides. Judy even uses all-natural fly control. Instead of spraying to kill the bugs, he put up 450 swallow houses. According to a Maryland Cooperative Extension study, large numbers of swallows integrated with livestock can improve pest management.
Fly control is a necessity for cattle ranchers. "Five hundred flies per cow can drain three gallons of blood a day,” Judy said.
“Greg’s system works with nature," Grzeskiewicz said."If you try to fight nature, you’re going to lose.”
How natural methods produce healthy soil
A naturally fertilized farm supports healthy, naturally balanced soil, he said. Even during a dry year, he said, the humus created in his pastures has helped support moist soil and a large population of earthworms.
Earthworm castings have a neutral pH of seven, he said. If there were 25 earthworms per square foot across an entire acre of land, they could put down 100 tons of castings, or waste, per year.
“The earthworms are doing my fertilizing for me,” he said, smiling.
Judy and other mob grazers have reported that these techniques have helped boost microbe development and soil organic matter. Science has yet to come up with any definitive research on the subject.
Rocky Lemus, an extension forage specialist at Mississippi State University, is among the academics interested in the new practice of mob grazing. He said the estimated soil organic matter improvement is both exciting and possible, but questions about it remain.
"I think it could over time (benefit organic soil matter), but there is not enough scientific data to quantify at this time," Lemus said.
Alexander Smart, a professor with South Dakota State University's department of natural resource management, said he began to study mob grazing two years ago.
In an experiment that compared mob grazing to management intensive grazing, Smart found that sites used for mob grazing had greater decomposition of the organic matter he buried in the soil.
"This means there is perhaps greater biological activity going on," he said.
He emphasized that mob grazing needs to be taken on by experienced ranchers who are ready to concentrate on animal performance.
Smart and Lemus both said science is still catching up to the mob grazing trend, and it could take several years before adequate research is available.
Dealing with drought
Every farmer and rancher in the area felt the drought this summer that devastated crops in the southern Midwest, and Judy was no exception. Yet, he said he was able to avoid the worst of the impact by destocking his cattle.
By selling cattle early, ranchers can reap better prices at the market, Judy said.
“The earlier you destock a little, the further you can have grass last for the rest (of the livestock),” he said.
He reduced his cattle stock from 300 to about 200 head once he realized the drought was not going away.
The late rainfall this month has already begun to revitalize the pasture, he said, and will benefit his operation as he begins stockpiling feed for the winter.
Because Judy destocked early in the year, he has 200 acres of unused grass.
“I plan for what I know. I can ration out grass like someone can ration out feed. That’s what’s so powerful about this (mob grazing), I can manage the grass I have,” he said.
Farming of the future
Young ranchers starting out today need sizable loans to purchase their land for grazing.
The high price of pasture has all but eliminated small, independent ranches. A 2011 MU Agricultural Economic Newsletter put the average cost of good pasture in Boone County at $2,270 per acre.
This could make Judy’s method of leasing land, instead of buying it, a practical option.
“The only way young people can start ranching is to lease,” he said.
Judy thinks mob grazing without pesticides and chemicals also can be adopted by more ranchers.
The practice is already catching on. He said he recently began working as a consultant to a 40,000-acre farm in northern California, which will provide the San Francisco area with more grass-fed beef.
“We can feed the world with this type of ranching,” Judy said.