Our farm is in a phase of reestablishment. I started managing my family’s land in the winter of 2010. I am a new farmer, working with a few years experience, a college education and a small amount of capital. Currently farm work occurs on a part time basis. The land has been in the family since the 1960’s. The surrounding land primarily served for tobacco production well back into the 1800’s.
Prior to current management, the agricultural land on the farm consisted of a 29 acre hay field. For more than a 20 year period, tons of biomass left the farm each year in the form of hay. While only modest amounts of fertilizer and lime were put down every few years to enhance productivity.The property is made up of heavy clay soils. Our soils are mostly of the Cecil series, which is prominent in the upper Piedmont of NC. Topsoil averages about two inches in thickness. The land is generally sloped, and the current boundaries of the fields were long ago dictated by erosion. These eroded areas were abandoned as agricultural land and are now reforested. The acreage amounts to a total of 118, with 28.5 in fenced pasture, 80 in woodland, and 5 acres maintained in early succession habitat for wildlife. There are springfed streams on both sides of the property that mark the boundary lines, with two ponds as well.
The old log structures on the property are very much a part of the desired farm aesthetic. Log tobacco barns serve for drying lumber, hay storage, and miscellaneous use. An old tavern house with added electricity serves as the shop. The 60 year old chicken coupe was recently remodeled with no loss of rustic appeal. The old corn crib is used as a recycling center, and the cabin living structure that was originally built as a hunting lodge in 1920 serves for the family house.
Methods and Management
Long before I came home to run the farm, a grazing operation was the dream. Management Intensive grazing specifically with the intention of one day producing grass fed beef. When it came time to start work, a fence and water system were at the top of the list. There was no existing hay equipment on the farm and it remains outside of management plans to obtain any such equipment. This is strictly a grazing operation. The fence and water projects were planned, financed, and carried out on one mans labor. It took the better part of a winters work build the necessary 2.5 miles of perimeter fence and install 4,000 ft of water line. As expected, there was no funding left to purchase livestock after the system was built, so a group of stocker calves was found to graze on contract for the first growing season.
Soil tests were one of the first tasks taken up as well. Samples were sent to the NC State soil lab. After receiving the results, considerable time went into implementing a fertility improvement plan. After the first grazing season, consideration went into adding some fertility amendments. Specifically P, K, and Lime where needed in every one of the fields. It was not economically feasible to obtain organic mineral amendments such as rock phosphate, greensand, or potash. Additional deliberation took place and the final management decision was to purchase no amendments. Not even lime. Our philosophy is to feed the soil, so that it can feed the plant. Triple super phosphate and the like pass thought the system in a few months time at most. Synthetic fertilizers are just not what a pasture system needs. Pastureland needs slow release minerals that are available the entire growing season.
Shortly after the deliberation on soil fertility, and the first season of MIG, I attended the annual meeting of the American Devon Association. Greg Judy spoke about his results with mob grazing or what he formally called Holistic High Density Planned Grazing (HDG). High density grazing builds fertility into the soil with no off farm fertility inputs. Production increases on a yearly basis as does forage quality. This system relies on microbes, earthworms, carbon, and cattle. Feeding the earthworms is the biggest part of HGD. Some HDG operations report earthworm levels at approximately 1 million worms per acre or 25 worms per square ft. This is where the fertility and soil health comes from in this system. Earthworm castings have a neutral pH and contain copious amounts of macro and micronutrients. By grazing a mature sward at a high density for a short duration, a considerable amount of litter is trampled to the soil surface. This mulch layer combined with a high density of urine and manure distribution sets the stage for microbial proliferation. A long recovery period and a separation from equipment and any amendments that will harm microbial life are important as well.
This method of grazing deeply resonated within me. High density grazing seems perfect for renovating the brittle grassland system that we have here. The management intensive practices used the first year just did not put enough animal impaction on the soil surface.t The first season animals were moved twice a day most of the time. The day-to-day focus was on animal performance (a high rate of gain for the stockers), and leaving adequate residual. One of the biggest problems was with the prevalence of weeds. To fight back the saplings and briars, the roto-mower followed the daily movement of the herd during the second and third rotations of the year. This was a lot of work for one person to take up each day. Furthermore to accomplish this clipping the management time involved and the true cost of operating the tractor had to be overlooked. With only a minor shift in the management of this grazing operation a way was found to preclude the need for off farm fertility inputs and clipping. There are additional considerations for the class of livestock to operate this system with; other livestock and land-based concerns should be addressed as well throughout the HDG process.
Currently the cattle operation consists of a family owned group of 17 stocker calves. These animals were bought in late November and are grazing through the winter on stockpiled forage; they are scheduled for sale next summer.Winter grazing takes place with minimal supplemental hay feeding. We have grazed through a total of 10 inches of snow this winter, and are going strong on stockpiled forage. The animals have not been limited on feed intake in any of these events. When snowfall occurs, the animals are moved to the most densely stockpiled portions of the pasture, so when they stick their head down through the snow they are more likely to find a mouthful of grass. The calves have to work a bit for their feed on these particular days; but are always closely monitored to observe individual rumen fill. We look at hay as a feed supplement. Only when the animals cannot obtain enough feed from the pasture should it be fed out. Hay absolutely must be limited to have a profitable grazing operation. This requires a year around forage inventory and budget program, which then dictates the grazing schedule and stocking rate.
Currently the pasture is a mix of: Fescue, orchard grass, white clover, purple top, fox tail, Johnson grass, Dallisgrass, Crab grass, Sericea lespedeza, Common lespedeza, blackberry, scuppernong, milkweed, passion fruit, shining sumac, black gum, sweet gum, and broom sedge. Some of these ‘weeds’ are highly sought after by the animals, especially passion fruit, milkweed and scuppernong. It is the intention to transition away from the woody native species toward a mix of cool and warm season grasses with adequate legume component.
The fencing consists of a Hi-tensile perimeter that follows the wood line in most areas. Every post was grown on the farm. End posts and any other load bearing posts are Red Cedar, and the line posts are White Oak and Cedar. Several fields are fenced with two strands for the perimeter and one strand of wire is used in a few areas. There are two large fields with single strand hi-tensile divisions spanning the middle of each field to make for ideal length temporary lines. Temporary poly-wire lines and step-in posts are used to make divisions for either one or two movements each day. A six-strand holding pen was constructed where animals are trained to electric fence before movement into the main pasture. The water system, consists of 4,000 feet of polyethylene pipe. There are approximately 12 locations where water is accessible; we use the portable tank method. Water is accessible in all parts of the farm and is sourced from the household well. A grant was recently submitted to acquire funding for a solar powered system that would provide water to the pasture.
Custom grazing was the first farm enterprise. This did not pay a lot for the scale of the operation but provided a good season of experimentation with the grazing system and also helped for making connections with local cattlemen. These are thought provoking times in the establishment of this farming operation. Spawning new enterprises is a major priority, but the possibilities seem so vast that it is difficult to reign in the imagination at times. Currently the focus is on using the established grazing system to produce as many products as possible. All additional livestock will be incorporated into the grazing system. Hair sheep, hogs, layers, broilers, can all be grown on the pasture and are under consideration.
Among equal priority is to establish income from the forested land which makes up 2/3 of the farm. Shitake mushrooms and other edible fungi will certainly be a part of this plan. Additionally I have a strong interest in obtaining a band saw mill that will supply lumber needs for the farm and produce a salable product.
Custom grazing on leased land and starting up a farm brewery both hold a high place on the list as well. The current priority is to focus on improving the pasture with HDG. As the pasture improves and funding is accumulated, additional species will be incorporated and the search for the ideal grass based beef genetics can begin.
For the current time though we enjoy the seasonal advantages of stocker calves. The stockers provided for a quick implementation of a cattle operation and allow for profit from the pasture during early stages of improvement. The ideal yearly timeline for the stockers is to purchase animals in mid fall and graze on stockpile forage until spring growth occurs, then the animals are expected to achieve a high rate of gain until the first days of summer when the animals are sold. The main considerations here are getting animals over wintered affordably, avoiding summer draught, and being able to take a break from daily cattle chores for a period. Consideration has been given to grazing dry cows over stocker calves while first implementing the high density grazing practices. To start with though, we have stockers and will start them with HDG when the green grazing season begins in 2011. Additionally, there are a few select animals within the stocker group that have a small frame and can be finished on grass. As a trial, a few of these animals will be finished on grass and sold in freezer quarters spring 2012. If the demand were available we would not hesitate to finish any of the rest of the group for grass fed ground beef.
Marketing initially took place in the form of presenting myself as a grass and livestock manager to individuals for custom/contract grazing purposes. This was a challenging endeavor; the practices of custom grazing and MIG or HDG are not common in my area. After several unsuccessful discussions, I refined my marketing methods and was able to convince one person to let me graze their cattle. Getting a foot in the door was the hard part, but now I have experience and a positive reference to add to my marketing pitch. It feels great to be a paid professional grazier.
On local food production, my neighbors are beginning to realize the exceptionally high standards that I have for producing a quality product. I already have the first two heifers selected for grass finishing spoken for, and the harvest is more than and year away. As we begin producing meats from the farm in quantity and the necessity for a larger client base occurs we will gravitate toward the city of Greensboro. GSO is only 25 minutes away and has a growing culture of people who care where their food comes from and how it is produced.
Starting up this farm has been the most difficult and rewarding endeavor that I have ever undertaken. I am closely bound to this land and cannot wait to see it actualize its potential as the years pass. There is much more that could be discussed on the philosophy and practices of this operation. Please prompt me for additional technical information on our practices. This method of grazing deeply resonated within me. High density grazing seems perfect for renovating the brittle grassland system that we have here.
By: Worth Kimmel