The tall, lanky cowboy from Idaho, Glenn Elzinga, immediately grabbed the attention of his audience with his relaxed manner and spot-on presentation. Sharing pictures and stories of growing his cattle herd from seven to about 600 head, Elzinga showed attendees of the Western Pennsylvania Spring Grazing Conference how the techniques he used can be replicated in western Pennsylvania.
According to the map, Idaho is about the same latitude as western Pennsylvania, but the altitude at Elzinga’s Alderspring Ranch is at about 4,500 feet. Moving cattle from pasture to pasture is done on horseback. He and his family moved to the ranch of about 450 acres in 1993 with seven head of Angus. He and his wife, Carol, have seven daughters who work with them in raising grass-fed beef they market online and in a few brick and mortar stores.
As the herd grew, they acquired grazing permits from the Bureau of Land Management. They now have 1,700 owned-acres and manage a total of 46,000 acres.
“When I approached BLM about converting the leased land to organic, they only said that they would be making an annual inspection,” Elzinga said. “I had no problem with that.”
Elzinga began his career in forestry in Maine and then moved to Idaho, where he worked as a forester with BLM for 10 years. Ranching full time was an opportunity to spend more time with family.
Using before and after photos of riparian areas, open pastures and steep grasslands, Elzinga showed how his family has been able to improve forage quality by improving the soil.
Elzinga knew he needed to do more to improve the forage for his cattle. He did some research and found two grazing gurus to help him out.
Ray Archulata, an internationally known Natural Resources Conservation Service soils specialist, recommended that Elzinga have samples tested for carbon, which he did.
He also visited Fred Provenza, who has studied how cattle select particular forages.
“If you want to know why your cattle are choosing particular plants, taste them,” he said. “You will find that they probably are sweet.”
In 2009, when applying for a project grant, Elzinga tested for organic matter. At that time it was 2.45%. By 2019, the test results showed 6.7% organic matter.
“You know the gurus would love to have you call and ask them your questions,” he said. “You have had some of them as speakers at this event in the past.”
Provenza spoke at the 2019 conference.
Alfalfa and quackgrass are common in pastures in Elzinga’s region.
“I couldn’t figure out why the horses were digging up the ground to find something to eat. I discovered they were digging up quackgrass roots. When I tasted them, they were like sweet carrots.”
When Elzinga began looking at the soil and the forages that they provided for his cattle, he wanted to do better.
“It took a paradigm shift,” he said.
Using many of the same techniques that no-till cover crop farmers are using, he began improving his soil. Moving his cattle daily to let pastures recover also helped.
Elzinga’s wife is a botanist, and she has helped him identify over 500 plant species, and she estimates there are over 2,000 different plants on their ranch.
As the soils and forages improved, the pastures could provide feed for more cattle. This improved the efficiency of the ranch and improved the bottom line.
“I call this adaptive stewardship grazing,” Elzinga said, which led to the ranch’s transition to an organic system, and the move away from pesticides and herbicides improved the soil’s biomass.
Elzinga has also moved to a herding system, instead of turning 200 to 250 cow-calf pairs loose to roam for forage.
When wolves were introduced to Idaho, there were only eight of the predators around. Today, in just three counties, there are 1,500 wolves — more wolves than people.
The wolves changed the way the Elzingas managed their herd. After losing 14 head in one year, something had to change. They adopted a herding system in which people are always with the animals. Cattle graze during the day and are moved to a holding pen overnight. The tent for the cowboys is near the pen, and they have dogs on guard as well.
“You are always learning,” he said.