Iowa Public Television


Rancher Uses Rotational Grazing To Raise The Bar

posted on December 26, 2003

In a world built on conformity, what influences someone to be different? Why are some people compelled to break new ground; to walk a different path?

The answer isn't always about money or profit. And it isn't always about the altruistic pursuit of a better world. And yet, for Dave Petty, the man whose profile you're about to see, either one of those things could be true.

Petty, an Iowa grain farmer and cattle producer, has found there are ways to make a difference in his own little corner of the world while adhering to a few simple principles. David Miller explains.


Rancher Uses Rotational Grazing To Raise The Bar

For three decades, David Petty has been a Midwestern rancher and farmer. In the early 70s, Petty rented a few acres of marginal ground, put out a small herd of cattle and, without realizing it, began following a rotational grazing program. Since then, his work has changed the complexion of his north central Iowa farm, increased his profits and become the foundation for a mission to conserve the land for future generations.

David Petty, Iowa River Ranch: "We tried to make things the most economically possible to be able to grow our cow herds. As a lot of cow herds have diminished in size we've been able to grow ours which meant they had to be an economically feasible cow. And in the meantime, I'm trying to make a living off of this land, providing jobs for other people and adding value to all the products that we have available here in Iowa."

Most of the land that makes up Petty's Iowa River Ranch in Eldora, Iowa, is comprised of steep hills and river bottom. Once the fences were up he began looking for a method to maximize the potential of his pasture only to discover he was already following a program based on just such a principle. After that, it became a matter of tailoring the technique to fit his land. Over the years, with the assistance of friends, family and hired hands, he has tested the soil, seeded pastures with beneficial grasses, fenced several miles of riparian areas to keep cattle from eroding river banks, piped water where it was needed, and split his property into 20 grazing areas to provide the greatest benefit to land and livestock.

Petty is quick to point out that rotational grazing is more than just planting a few grasses and turning some cattle loose. A program like this has specific daily obligations including evaluating the condition of pasture and animals to avoid overgrazing. He further stresses that anyone considering the practice won't see a change overnight or maybe even in the first year.

The end result of Petty's labor and planning has been a 25% increase in animal production on the same amount of ground. This translates into lower feed costs and higher profits when the animals go to market.

David Petty, Iowa River Ranch: "...You have to go into it with long-term thinking. It means that you're going to have to be running that pasture a long time or you need to be pretty sure that pasture is going to remain a pasture versus be tore up for crop ground."

Any increase on the bottom line does not immediately translate into a call for expansion. Petty has only increased the size of his operation when finances and market forces permitted.

Brian Peterson is the state of Iowa Grassland Conservationist employed by the USDA's National Resources Conservation Service. Peterson encourages ranchers looking for a way to increase cattle production and lower costs to visit Petty's ranch.

Brian Peterson, NRCS: "I was impressed just the way Dave takes, he realizes he's in an environmentally sensitive area and he takes that challenge and turns it into an opportunity to implement practices that will benefit the environment but will yet work within his system and be profitable."

In the past, Petty has sold his animals to mainstream companies like Tyson Fresh Meats and Monfort but now the cattle go to the recently opened Iowa Quality Beef Supply Co-op. As a check on how all his work has affected the end product, Petty pays a few dollars to a broker for carcass data on each animal.

One of the main stays of his strategy is to devote half the land he works to pasture and the other half to grain production. He has improved his crop land by building terraces, not planting in waterways and leaving a buffer strip between the fence and the first row of crops. The work has helped the plants absorb more rain water and cut down erosion on his environmentally sensitive acres.

After harvest, Petty allows the cattle to graze both the buffer strips and the field. This technique gets all the left over grain while the cooler weather discourages the animals from wandering into any adjoining waterways.

Though Petty hires a few hands when he needs the help he has always relied on assistance from his daughter. Dresden, a junior at Iowa State University, plans to return to farming after a career in agricultural education.

Dresden Petty, Iowa River Ranch:"...I never saw anything wrong with living on a farm, growing up there, to me there weren't any drawbacks and my parents never said it was a bad thing and they seem to be able to make it work so I don't see why I shouldn't be able to come back and do the same thing."

Petty still travels to various conferences and farms to get a few more ideas for increasing his efficiency. To spread the word about his own successes and failures, he has combined speaking engagements with opening his ranch to other producers.

Petty and his family have gained notoriety for their environmental stewardship. In 2002, they received an award for Environmental Excellence from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their innovative ranching practices. In 2003, the Petty's were given the Spencer Award from the Iowa State University-based Leopold Center for Land Stewardship. This special tribute was given to them for significant contribution toward the stability of mainstream family farms in Iowa. Fred Kirschenmann is the director of the Leopold Center.

Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Land Stewardship: "I think that David stands out as an example that you don't have to make choices between economy and the environment.."

Overall, Petty's current successes, coupled with his love of the land and sense of stewardship, are what motivates him to continue his work.

David Petty, Iowa River Ranch: "I think that's part of what keeps you going, you know, there's a lot of days you come in awful tired but, you know, you either get up in the morning and do things or you don't and I've always been one to get up "

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: agriculture animals beef grass livestock meat news