ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
Gerald Rziha?s innovative efforts to enhance grass productivity has earned him the first Grassland Award for Marion County.
The Tampa agribusinessman uses native grasses, cool-season grasses and crop-land acres in a balanced, year-round forage system for the herd of 60 cows with calves he tends, plus the 200 to 250 calves he backgrounds in the fall.
What sets Rziha apart from many area farmers and ranchers who run cattle on grassland is the combination of cross-fencing native pastures into smaller paddocks?subdivisions of the larger pasture?and then intensive, rotational grazing.
?In addition to having cross-fenced that native pasture, I?ve also established two paddocks of fescue, and fenced in existing grove meadows,? Rziha says.
?The goal is to rest the grass,? he says of rotational grazing. ?You let (the cattle) take off half of what is available out there, then you let the grass rest and grow. Otherwise, the cattle go out and eat the same thing?the most tender shoots.?
By putting more cattle into a smaller area for a shorter time, they eat all the grasses, and not just the most tender.
?Then you take them out for 30 days and let it grow back,? Rziha says. ?Then they go back in and eat the top off again.?
Even with six paddocks to rotate the herd through, allowing them to graze only two or three days in each one does not give the cattle enough time to fatten up.
?I have to use additional acres, like cultivated land in a crop, or these other pastures?brome and other native pastures?to lengthen out the rotation,? Rziha says. ?In addition to the grasses, I also graze sorghum sudan, and in the fall I graze a turnip-and-wheat mixture.?
The rotational grazing strategy is relatively new in this area, but has been practiced in other parts of the state for 15 years or more, and in other parts of the country for more than 30 years. The practice originated in Africa.
?The goal is to increase the quality and the quantity of the grass, to get a more healthy grass, and a more desirable feeding as you give that grass more time to rest,? Rziha says.
?You get a different and more desirable and nutritious species of grass,? he adds. ?There?s probably 50 to 60 species of grass out there, and some are more desirable than others. If you reduce the pressure on it by giving (the grass) some rest, the more desirable ones will increase.?
He said he has already seen improvement in his pastures the three to four years he has been trying rotational grazing.
?You?re going to improve the quality of the grass, and the quantity over time,? he says. ?So economically, it will benefit us. At the same time, we will have more productive soil because there will be healthier grass on it and there will be more volume.?
He admits rotational grazing is more management-intensive than traditional strategies.
?There?s no such thing as a free lunch,? he says. ?You have to manage it intensively. If your goal is just to get a bunch of cattle and put them in April 15 and take them out in October 15, and check them once a week and make sure they have water and minerals?then you have a whole different set of priorities.
?If your goal is to maximize the use and increase the quality of the grass because you don?t have as many acres, then you have to spend more time with it. So it depends on your outlook.?
Rziha and several like-minded farmer-ranchers in the area formed an organization called Flinthills Grazers three or four years ago.
?The goal of the organization is three-fold: to educate ourselves, to improve ourselves and to share information and network,? he says. ?We get together and share ideas, bring in speakers, and have taken tours of other operations.?
It was through this organization that Rziha heard about an opportunity to convert his operation in an economical way.
?Through the organization we learned of ranch by Cassoday that was being taken over by a feedlot company,? he said. ?It had been totally cross-fenced. The new owners wanted no fences because they wanted less management and fewer employees. So a neighbor and I got free materials by removing the posts and wire for them.?
Rziha?s operation includes 700 acres of crop land, 160 acres of native grass, 14 acres of brome waterways, 20 acres of brome and 24 acres of fescue pasture.
All of his tillable acres are terraced and he?s also put in three ponds and a drop-water structure to hold the soil.
He said his goal in conservation is ?to produce as much food and fiber for the people of the world while also improving the soil.?
He realizes not every farmer-rancher will buy into his rotational-grazing model.
?Not everybody rides the same kind of horse,? he says. ?You?ve got to do what you like to do and what?s going to work for you. Not everything is going to work for everyone. It?s probably not for everyone, but it is for a significant number of people.
?The first thing you should do is investigate it. Check out your grazing group.?