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Beginning Ranchers Recognize Benefits of Rotational Grazing

To see JeAlex and Jennifer Menzel_Fencennifer and Alex Menzel working their 200-acre cattle ranch in Cass County, it’s difficult to picture them in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

Their Georgia home had enough room for Jennifer to raise rabbits and for Alex to raise a few chickens, but they had farming on a much larger scale in mind. They got their chance after moving to the Kansas City area seven years ago.

“I’ve always been interested in horses and animals, so when we moved to Kansas City from Georgia, we thought, ‘let’s buy some land and have horses and chickens,’” Jennifer says.

That 10-acre homestead near Raymore, where Jennifer and Alex live with their three young daughters – Emma, Ella and Eva – wasn’t enough to calm the farming urges of this couple, though. So in 2009 Alex and Jennifer purchased the first 160 acres of their farm northwest of Archie.

Thus began their lives as tag-team, beginning farmers. Jennifer teaches biology three days a week at Johnson County Community College, and Alex works fulltime in Kansas City. So Jennifer works at the farm two days each week, plus weekends. And Alex gets to the farm when he can. Sometimes they are actually there together.

“Time management is critical with us both working and with caring for the kids,” Jennifer says. “The fact that either of us can do things down at the farm has been beneficial.”

Generally speaking, Jennifer runs the business side of the operation and handles the veterinary care. Both Jennifer and Alex have undergraduate degrees in wildlife biology and doctorate degrees in agricultural and consumer science. But Jennifer says she honed her veterinary skills through books, videos and trial and error. Jennifer jokes that Alex is her “farm hand” but both share the physical work on the farm.

Jennifer says that has been a good lesson for the couple’s daughters.

“It’s good for the girls to see that their mom can do the work, too, not just dad,” she says. “And it gets them away from the TV and cell phones.”

Alex and Jennifer agree that communication is key to making sure all of the necessary farm work gets done.

“We talk daily about what needs to be done, and whichever one of us will be at the farm next takes care of that,” Jennifer says.

There has been plenty of work for each of them. When they purchased the farm, it was being used as a continuously grazed pasture that was overgrazed, had very little plant diversity, no adequate interior cross fences, few watering sources and poor fertility. The cattle had access to the ponds and streams and were also grazing and degrading timber areas on the farm.

“We knew that there had to be a better way,” Alex says. “The first place we called was NRCS.”

Alex attended two grazing schools sponsored by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and immediately made the switch to a rotational-grazing system that features 14 paddocks for 65 head of cattle. He and Jennifer have utilized federal funding through NRCS as well as state cost-share funding through the Cass County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The federal and state programs have helped pay for part of the costs to spread lime and other nutrients as indicated by soil tests; to install electric fencing to create the paddocks and to keep cattle out of the ponds, streams and timber; and to install a watering system featuring tire tanks, ponds and both above-ground and below-ground pipelines. One of the ponds features a solar-powered pump. The Menzels also plans to incorporate native, warm-season grasses into two of their least-productive paddocks.

“They’ve been very interested in learning about the latest techniques,” says Katrina O’Farrell, NRCS soil conservationist.

Alex says their neighbors have been good mentors. However, he says it became clear to him and Jennifer that it can be difficult for veteran farmers to adopt new ways of doing things, including rotational grazing and paddocks with diverse forages.

“Most of our neighbors had heard of rotational grazing, but their thoughts were that it was hard to move cows from place to place,” Alex says. “But moving cows is not a problem; they are ready to go to the new grass when you open the gate.”

He adds that being a beginning farmer was probably a benefit in terms of adopting the newer techniques.

“We started out knowing nothing, so we didn’t have any habits to break,” he says. “It’s probably harder to talk people into rotational grazing who have been doing it the other way for a long time.”

The Menzels credit O’Farrell and Jamie Bokern, a technician with the Cass County Soil and Water Conservation District, for helping them plan and develop a good grazing system.

“There are a bunch of ways that we could have divided this place into paddocks, but it’s not easy to do it in a way that provides water in each paddock,” Alex says.

Alex says the rotational grazing system was invaluable during the summer drought of 2012.

“If we hadn’t done the water improvements, we wouldn’t have had any water,” he says. “We would have been in big trouble.”

O’Farrell says Alex and Jennifer have been eager cooperators.

“We’ve only had the contract with them for a year, and they have most of the work done already,” O’Farrell says. “It usually takes people several years.”

Alex says the NRCS and SWCD financial and technical assistance has allowed Jennifer and him to do the work to improve the farm.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this at all without their help,” he says.

However, O’Farrell and Bokern point out that the Menzels have done a lot of work that isn’t part of their contract with NRCS or the SWCD.

“They’ve cleared a lot of brush and built a pond all on their own,” Bokern says. She adds that their efforts to improve the farm’s forage base, grazing system, wildlife habitat and to protect the natural resources on the farm led the Cass County SWCD to select them for its grassland farmer of the year award. They also were later selected as Missouri’s regional award winners.

The farm’s condition has improved so much already, O’Farrell says, that NRCS is looking forward to using it as a future grazing-school location.

Jennifer and Alex aren’t finished making improvements just yet, however.

“Our goal is to feed hay less and less, to the point that we feed very little,” Alex says.

That fits well with their broader goal of being farmers.

“We would retire from our other jobs and do this full-time right now if we could,” Alex says.