HANOVER – CAROLINE SWCD
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I started this job with the district in 1999, so come Labor day I will be beginning my nineteenth year. I began fooling with horses and cattle about 1960 when I got my first horse. It took me a long time to figure out that as a stockman , my first job was to be able to grow grass for feed for the livestock. Since that big revelation it has been a steady progression of learning just how to do that. Don’t get me wrong….I am not tooting my horn because I have made so many mistakes along the way that it is shameful to recall them all. Some of those mistakes were my fault because I am a little bull headed.
Some of those mistakes are not my fault because I was doing what I was taught…..Some of the teaching was conventional wisdom and some of it was university research.
I think my strength is that I can recognize what is not working and attempt to try something different hoping for a better result. This in itself has taken me down many a blind alley. But I have tried not to be one who repeats the same process over and over expecting different results.
It took me a while to get here but for the last eight or ten years I have been on a quest to find ways to do things more holistically and with lower inputs and in concert with nature.
My personal livestock endeavors transformed from a sideline business to a hobby about that time when my neighbor and cattle partner died and I returned to riding horses for pleasure. I sold the cow herd down to two good old lame cows that were too good to slaughter and yet too unsound to sell to anyone else. Those two cows are gone now, but I am back up to four registered and one commercial cow to breed this fall. The commercial cow raised a set of twins on her own this past year so she is a pretty good one too and I will probably sell her as a commercial cow next spring after weaning her fall calf and breeding her back. Three or four good cows Is my goal and I even registered a heifer this year for the first time in three or four years….
But I digress. At that time I was raising cattle by the university tested paradigm….I was performance testing and measuring growth and doing all of the approved management practices and soil testing and fertilizing and spraying for pests both plant and animal and was a regular customer at all of the farm supply stores. There came a point where decisions had to be made and poverty avoided.
About that time I was exposed to several outside the box thinkers who are still widely denounced as impractical and quixotic. But what they were saying registered with me. I won’t go into all of them and their methods but I decided that there had to be a better way.
I quit buying fertilizer and lime. I greatly reduced my use of pesticides for both weeds and insects. I attempted to embrace nature and diversity. I recalled some of the techniques practiced by the farmers of my childhood right after world war two. I knew farmers who used horses and mules and recall when 8N tractors were the thing many coveted. Almost every farm had a surplus army jeep as a farm vehicle. I remember good bountiful crops before the age of chemistry. I remember when all farms were diverse with multiple species of livestock and crops. But yield goals were changing and small farms were becoming big farms and specialization in farming was well under way …… by the time I got to college. My specialty became Beef Cattle and I have worked with registered angus ever since…remember, I still have five.
But now in my doterage I recognize what we have lost….we have lost diversity. We have lost the interrelationship of crops and animals. We have lost natural interrelationships of animals fertilizing the land. We have lost natural production cycles. Nutrients are commodities that are moved on and off the farm with abandon. We have lost wildlife habitat. The greatest symptom of that is the decline in Bobwhite Quail. It is theorized that this is mostly due to loss of habitat.
The answer to every problem today comes in a chemical jug. Now I am not knocking progress and we have found solutions to many problems and have the ability to produce more every year….until something happens in the supply chain, Or until nature discovers a work around. One of the great challenges today, is due to the use of Roundup for everything . We now have roundup resistant weeds that are super aggressive..
Nature abhors a vacuum and she will put something there to cover the soil and her solution is often a bigger problem than the original problem you thought you took care of with the chemicals. I sprayed some fence line because the grass was shorting out the electric fence….Killed the grass fine….but now I am fighting multiflora rose and wild blackberry and pokeberry and tree of heaven and cedars and so forth that were never there when the fescue was there. Today I mow fence lines with a push mower….No it is not easy but it is easier than dealing with the multiflora rose….
Now to the points of all of this. Yes there are a couple of points to be made.
The first is stocking rate. The conventional definition is number of animal units that can be successfully managed on a given amount of land.
For simplicity an animal unit is generally considered to be 1000 lbs of animal generally regardless of species. The problem is that many people have no idea what their animals weigh.
Virginia Tech generally recommends that it takes two acres to carry one animal unit. My position has been for years that Virginia Tech is in the Mountains of Southwest Virginia with a different climate and distinctly different seasons and pasture species than we have here at the juncture of the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont. I have contended for years that three acres per animal unit would be a better target. Since no one has heeded my advice in that regard, I am relatively safe in changing my recommendation to four acres per cow.
But people want to have what they want to have. So they rationalize. Well I buy all my hay any way. I buy my feed. I don’t want the horses to get to fat….clover makes them slobber, too much grass makes them founder, my horse is an easy keeper….the county allows two horses per acre…..and they plant grass every year or have dry lots.
Cattle people do it too…they stock for the best production time of the year…cows get fat in the spring while the producer struggles to make spring hay around the spring rain showers and about a third of the hay gets wet with quality lost. Then we hit a spell of hot dry weather like this weeks (today is 21 July 2017 ) 104 degree days and no rain for several weeks and the cool season grasses just give up and go to sleep. I have seen people this week feeding hay that was intended for winter…Hay feeding initiated now is likely to carry on through September or until we get meaningful rain from a hurricane. In the last couple of decades we have seen summers like this about one in three. Yet people continue to stock at two acres per cow or less, because that is what we have always done. My thought is why not stock for the worst of times to be sustainable and have luxury in the good times. Then you can background your calves rather than having to send them to market …the easiest money to make in cattle is in backgrounding weanlings….if you have the forage.
I was on the farm of a producer this week who does not feed any hay….He has not fed any hay for the last couple of years….his stated goal is for his cows to graze 365 days per year. This producer does several things differently from the conventional cattleman.
First his stocking rate is four acres per cow. He had about eighty acres and about twenty cows. And he had pretty big cows. For those of you who have seen my cows his were nearly as big as ours used to be and the current ones are now. Three of my five are still pretty big. One of the five is but a weanling heifer and one is a smaller cow who produces like a big one.
This producer has grass right now….fescue up to my knees and swithchgrass some of which was over my head. He is not Making any hay….he is managing his grazing and stockpiling forage.
He rotationally grazes…he controls where the cows graze and more importantly where they do not graze. Simple one strand hot wire fence….
He allows his pastures to rest and recover after grazing.
Yes I said switchgrass….he has a twelve acre field of swithchgrass and that is where the dry cows are spending a good part of their summer and they are fat and sassy.
I have used and advocated using Summer annuals to do this same thing for several years. But I was convinced to plant some native warm season grasses in the coming year. I am planning on beginning my preparation this fall. I am thinking of a plot of switchgrass as well as a plot of gamma grass and a plot of indiangrass and bluestems.
The first advantage is that the summer annuals cost me seed and planting cost every year. Once the native warm seasons are established they have little to no maintenance costs. The stand I was in was twenty years old and had not had any lime or fertilizer or pesticide since it was established.
The native warm season grasses will put roots down 12 to 15 feet or until they hit bedrock which makes established stands able to withstand our hot dry summers.
Below is a picture of corn in my neighborhood this weekend which illustrates how dry we are….some areas are getting rain but we are in a drought year after a wet spring. This is pretty characteristic in our area about one in three years. Pastures are dry, dormant and crunchy unless you have some Bermuda grass. It is still green.
The NWSG will also provide a break from the heat stress on the cows grazing endophyte infected fescue….The endophyte is hardest on the cows when it is hot and dry….a logical alternative is to graze something that is not endophyte infected during the heat of summer….That is what I have used the Summer annual cover crops for. This year though even the pearl millet and sorghum sudan are rolled up and suffering from the lack of rain….this is one of those years that will reveal what your stocking rate should be….Due to its deep roots and native hardiness, the switchgrass field I was in was tall and lush and leafy and excellent forage and the cows were slick and clean and fat and not suffering with the heat stress.
The NWSG will also make good quality hay but it must be managed a little differently than cool season grasses. To me however the real value is the ability to fill the void of summer slump in the cool season grasses with a crop that requires little in the way of management or inputs. Yes it is different than what we have always done but it is the grass crop that was predominant in Virginia before we brought in the cool season grasses and pressured the warm season grasses out of our pastures..We did this by over grazing and over stocking….The NWSG are extremely productive but they can not stand continuous grazing and their growth point is about 12 inches and not 3 or 4 inches like the cool season grasses.
The NWSG will require a different management. But it is not rocket science. All it takes is an open mind and a willingness to try something different. Why would I not try something that can reduce cost, improve animal performance, reduce inputs, address summer slump, provide an alternative to fescue toxicity and make life simpler and possibly more profitable.
We have one local producer in the area that is grazing two large swards of warm season grasses and he is liking them very much. I just spoke with him yesterday on how he is grazing and managing with the warm season grasses.
Raising livestock is simple…..the hard part is keeping it simple…
As I embark on this new adventure I will try to document my steps and comment on any success as well as any failure. Dr. Pat Keyser of the University of Tennessee has developed a management sequence that is yielding good results and I am going to try his method of establishment. My first obstacle is lack of equipment so I have to find a method to plant my small paddocks in something akin to a no till fashion. I still believe that tillage kills soil and want to avoid tillage. And no till is an excellent method to plant these warm season grasses. But the seed is not cheap and I want to have a successful stand with the initial planting. I will have to use some herbicide to get a stand started and reduce competition but I feel like it is a good trade off to use a herbicide in one year in return for a stand that may last me the rest of my life with very few inputs. My goal will be to begin grazing it the second summer after planting.
I am targeting four of my paddocks, two on the horse side and two on the cattle side of my property.