Diversity Increases Profits for Small Livestock Producers

Final Report for FNC03-479

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $13,940.00
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The project farm consists of approximately 100 acres of which 89 acres are usable pasture. The pastures have been utilized for cow/calf production since 1989. In 1996, the entire farm was improved by implementing a rotational grazing system consisting of 22 paddocks with developed watering points. The livestock operation was changed in 1997 to produce grass-fed beef for direct marketing while still maintaining a conventional cow-calf approach.

Previous to the managed grazing system and direct marketing approach, the farm was not a viable source of income, but only provided enough income to offset some of the costs of providing a rural lifestyle. Implementing the management-intensive grazing program resulted in an almost immediate increase in farm profits due to lowered feed costs while allowing an average of 45,000 to 50,000 pounds per acre per day of live weight of grazing animals. Traditional livestock management techniques were employed, such as providing high quality and diverse forage, to eliminate all but a few farm inputs. For the past six years the inputs have been reduced to salt, kelp meal, and purchased hay. Hay is fed an average of 30-35 days a year.

Hair sheep were incorporated into the operation in 2001 and free-range laying hens added in 2002. The benefits of livestock diversity were immediately clear with the sheep utilizing more of the forage and the poultry reducing insect pressures and adding needed fertility. The sheep have been managed in a similar fashion to the beef, with no additional inputs, pharmaceuticals, or chemicals. The fundamental difference in managing the sheep is that they are allowed to utilize a much larger area of the pasture where the cattle are contained within the paddock systems and rotated regularly. The poultry feed is purchased as a custom blend from a local pastured poultry producer [http://www.eatfromthefarm.com] and contains no chemicals. No pharmaceuticals have been used in the production system since 1998.

Wildlife management tools have also been implemented that increase habitat opportunities, especially for game birds. Practices that included development of wildlife corridors, feed plots, and nesting cover have been employed. [http://masterwildlifer.org/]

A Missouri Department of Agriculture Sustainable Demonstration Award was received in 2003 to begin this project. [http://agebb.missouri.edu/sustain/] Due to the time frame of the grant cycle, the project overlapped 2003-2004 to acquire additional information for the use of grazing cover crops in a market-garden system.

Goals: Small livestock operations can achieve additional profits through diversity and sustainable practices. Single family livestock operations often have overlooked on-farm resources that can be utilized to turn a loss or a humble income into a profit center. Time (in-house labor) is a resource that many small farms can afford to invest into their business if the investment offers an attractive return. This project illustrates how a little free time, thoughtful planning, and some common sense approaches can result in economic, environmental, and social benefits.
The goals of this project were to increase on-farm profits and increase utilization of the pasture resources while reducing off-farm inputs and environmental degradation. The goals were to be achieved through the incorporation of market-garden crops, summer and winter annual cover crops, and novel or endophyte-free tall fescue. Pasture-based livestock operations in SW Missouri have become dependent on endophyte-infected tall fescue. This variety of fescue is known to cause health issues in ruminants and equines, but offers some drought and over grazing tolerance and can be managed as stock-piled forage for winter forage. The long-term philosophy of this project is to renovate permanent pasture without the use of chemicals while taking advantage of the inherent fertility in permanent pasture for crop production. Renovation will include increased use of native grasses and improved forage varieties of perennial grasses and legumes as well as annual forage.

Planning: The practice of rotating crops and livestock has been utilized for hundreds of years. It is known that managed grazing of ruminant animals increases soil fertility. This integral resource includes many small and microscopic life forms, minerals and compounds, air and water. Many of these components can be destroyed or made inactive or unavailable through continuous cultivation and applications of chemical fertilizers.

A farm, or more importantly nature, is like a math equation. If we recall an elemental algebraic rule and apply it to our farm practices, we must realize that any action on our part will result in a response by nature to maintain the equality. Nature can be described as the perfect mathematical model always seeking to remain in balance. This project attempts to consider a great number of variables while utilizing established sustainable practices of cultivation, livestock management, and wildlife considerations.

The Process: The methods for this grant included mechanical killing of existing sod, seed bed preparation, utilization of forage variety cover crops, market-garden produce, poultry, and ruminant livestock. It was believed that chemical-free renovation, organic growing methods, and livestock could be used to establish a sustainable, diverse, and profitable farm enterprise.

Areas of permanent pasture were selected for market-garden crop production that offered minimal erosion characteristics, deeper soil, fewer stones, and would allow livestock exclusion using portable or temporary electric fencing. Initial preparation included the use of a Model HR-35 Howard Rotavator with depth control wheels. An onboard electric seeder was installed on the Rotavator for cover crops and pasture renovation and to reduce the time and trips across the prepared areas. This equipment serves as a conventional tine tiller, but is designed for high ground speed operation to incorporate crop residue and for pasture renovation.

The selected plots included two one-acre temporary growing areas and approximately .6 acres of permanent strip tilled growing areas. The permanent growing areas are one tiller width (96 inches) and were utilized for early and late season crops of lettuce, greens, beans, cucumbers, and peas. The larger one-acre areas were late planted in late summer and fall crops such as melons, pumpkins, okra, corn, and winter squash.

The strip tilled areas were utilized in 2003 and 2004 while the one-acre plots were intended to be used for one to three growing years followed by renovation to improved pasture. Initial preparation of the one-acre plots began in February and consisted of one or two shallow (1.5 inches) passes with the Rotavator to kill the existing sod. Approximately three weeks later, another pass with the tiller set to maximum depth (approximately 6 inches), was employed along with the application of early cover crops such as wheat, oats, turnips, and clover. The permanent strips were tilled and planted similarly, but some strips were early planted with greens and lettuce. All planting throughout the project were made with seed.

Subsequent cool season crops were added to the permanent strips as the season progressed. This flattened the production curve and extended the supply of fresh produce to be sold at a local farmer’s market.

The one-acre plots were shallow tilled to kill the cover crops as soon as the ground temperature approached proper levels for late season vegetables. The soil was slow to warm in 2004 and the growing period was beginning to be squeezed between planting and needed harvest dates. Planting took place in early July with the soil still on the cool side. This along with torrential rainfall shortly after planning reduced the melon production to nil. However, pumpkin, okra, squash, and green beans produced at above expected levels.

The one-acre plot utilized in 2003, which performed well for green beans and pumpkins had been planted in feed grade wheat and oats, annual rye, and purple top turnips over the winter of 2003-2004. This plot was tilled in February to produce a prepared seedbed for renovation. With the assistance of Ms. Nadia Navarette-Tindall of the University of Missouri approximately one pound of native Festuca paradoxa seed was planted in a pure stand along with strips of pure Legend Lespedeza and Max Q tall fescue. The balance of the plot was planted with the remaining Max Q and interseeded with the Legend Lespedeza. Areas were segregated with borders of pure stands of Kenstar red clover to assist in observing the results.

The results were mixed. The Festuca paradoxa struggled with untimely low rainfall and weed pressure. The Legend Lespedeza and the Max Q produced well for the first season in spite of the extreme competition from ragweed. Mowing was used to mitigate the ragweed competition. Much of the competition would have been reduced or eliminated by the use of earlier fall planted cover crops with a higher percentage of annual rye grass or a late winter planting of pure red clover followed by a fall planting of permanent forage grasses.

Along with the tilled areas for market-garden crops a 6-acre paddock was tilled in the fall of 2003, once to kill the sod and a second time to seed winter annuals of wheat, oats, turnips, and annual rye grass in preparation of an early spring planting of Red River crabgrass. The selected paddock consists of thin soil and has known compaction problems in high livestock traffic areas. There was a need for additional warm season forage production to supplement the 12 acres of native warm season grasses as well as to provide additional forage in the early spring. The chemical free renovation was a great success and the crabgrass performed better than expected for a first year planting. In the fall of 2004, annual rye grass was interseeded using hoof traffic from the cattle and the sheep and will be utilized for early spring grazing in 2005 when anticipating spring green-up of the perennial cool season pastures.

Summer cover crops were employed in the permanent strip tilled areas as it was found in the MDA Sustainable Demonstration Award project that midsummer produce crops will not perform without irrigation. Facilities for irrigating areas that are used for both crop production and livestock become extremely labor intensive if temporary systems are utilized, and permanent systems require water systems that are less common on small livestock farms. The summer cover corps consisted of buckwheat and white pearl millet. Buckwheat provides a good canopy and offers adequate weed suppression, but was not favored by the livestock.

The white pearl millet, which is sold as a bird feed instead of a seed, offers excellent summer cover, high forage production, and is a natural for incorporating residue into the soil before fall planting. One concern of the white pearl millet is the high levels of nitrates under stressed conditions. We found that rotationally grazing the millet reduces this condition, but it was also discovered at the University of Arkansas that mature white pearl millet can produce as much as 90 pounds of nitrogen per acre when incorporated into the soil after suffering drought stress. The white pearl millet seems to be a benefit to the soil whether it is grazed or tilled in as green manure.

Both the sheep and the cattle are utilized to graze crop residue and cover crops. A surprising benefit is the cattle do not eat most plants down past the growing point if flash grazing techniques are used. In the case of several of the spring planted crops such as Swiss chard, spinach, turnips, and mustard greens the first planting produced subsequent growth adequate for a second harvest after grazing. Another bonus came from the fall planted turnips. No turnips were planted intentionally for the sale at farmer’s market, but volunteer turnips provided additional income in the early spring through early summer.

The Greater Springfield Farmer’s Market [http://www.springfieldfarmersmarket.com/] operates from mid-April thought October. Produce was harvested three times a week when available. The harvesting occurred on the evening before sale days and was fresh for the following day’s market. Most produce was harvested, cleaned, and packaged in a conventional manner with the exception of the green beans. A terminal harvest method is used for the green beans that consists of selecting plants that appear to be in maximum production with mature beans. These plants are harvested in blocks by pulling up the entire plant and placing theses root down in large tubs of water. The beans are not picked until they are at the farmer’s market yielding the crisp freshness customers desire. The bean plants are returned to the farm and placed back in the pastures where the sheep and hens enjoy cleaning up the residue.

Permanent pastures contain enormous seed banks of diverse plants. Disturbed areas of soil in permanent pastures usually result in prolific weeds. It was expected that weed pressure would be a challenge in pasture raised crops. The method found to best eliminate weed competition is subsequent shallow mechanical tilling, although continued experimentation with companion crops will be investigated. The Howard Rotavator is versatile in the ability to selectively till. Segments of tines can be removed and row spacing can be designed so that young plants can be side cultivated without loss to the desired crops.

A fundamental philosophy used in this project is that seed is relatively inexpensive compared to chemicals and labor and in a pasture environment, real estate is not of great concern when the ultimate goal is pasture renovation. Subsequent years will employ the aforementioned technique to reduce weed competition in the later planted crops such as pumpkins, melons, okra, cucumbers, and late fall crops such as Brussel sprouts. This was found to require the least labor and offered the best growing conditions for the summer growing plants.

The attached Relative Value of Success for Each Type of Crop contains observations and indicates the relative success of the selected crops planted in this project. Economic data for these items is included in the Produce Sales Report. [Editors Note: For copies of the analysis reports mentioned here, please contact NCR-SARE at: [email protected] or 612-626-3132.]

The timing of tilling and planting can be critical to the success of the crops. Although exact measures have not been identified as to how soil temperature, rainfall, and depth of till affects weed development and plant health, measurements were taken and attempts have been made to correlate these relationships. Soil temperature seems to be one of the best parameters to anticipate tilling and planting times. Most of the crop seeds, with the exception of the melons, seemed to be able to handle cooler soil temperatures allowing these plants to become better established before the weeds had opportunity to overtake them. Also the density of planting helps to better control weed pressure especially with the vine type plants such as pumpkins and winter squash. Denser planting, such as six inch spacing on the pumpkin seeds, yielded better results.

Pest pressure was a parameter constantly observed in this project. Other than sweet corn and late 2004 pressure from Japanese beetles, pest pressure was nil or nonexistent. The damage from corn ear worms was expected and no measures were taken to mitigate the damage. There was some hope that including free range hens might offset some of the damage, but there was no apparent benefit from them in that regard. Japanese beetles encroached our area in 2004. These devastated the latest spring planted crops, but the arrival of the beetles also coincided with extremely low rainfall resulting in drought stressed plants. In general, healthy plants saw little or no pest pressure and the argument for the use of pesticides to reduce losses could be countered by the fact that seed is cheap and hedging required production levels by planting more seeds could achieve the desired results in a more sustainable manner.

Observations were also made in some of the permanent strip tilled areas where day range broilers were raised. The higher concentrations of poultry manure and spilled feed had counter productive results in the short term. However, winter annual cover crops of annual rye grass in these areas shows marked increases in production of almost double the forage production when compared to areas where the day range houses did not cover. Areas where the chicks spent approximately three weeks on bedding of sphagnum peat moss in the early summer of 2004 had soil with better visible properties as well as increased winter annual forage production.

The use of legumes as cover and companion crops yielded mixed results. Ladino clover was used in some areas to provide a low growing companion crop. The Ladino showed to be of little value in this system. The Kenstar red clover, a forage variety, worked well as a late winter plant cover, but provided little benefit as a companion crop. It was observed that the Kenstar was favored by the poultry and was readily consumed by the day range broilers substantially reducing the amount of feed required. The only concern for the red clover is that it is not easily eliminated by tilling. It is not known whether this was due to ungerminated seeds or plants that survived the mechanical disturbance of tilling.

People: A thanks must go to those assisting me in this project. Ms. Anastasia Becker who was employed by the University of Missouri Community Foods and Sustainable Agriculture Program at Southwest Center in Mt. Vernon, Missouri. Anastasia assisted in observing pest and weed pressure as well as offering advice as to the logic employed in some of the methods. Anastasia also partnered with the outreach portion of this project for a presentation to the Missouri Forage and Grassland Annual Conference in November 2003.

Mr. Tom Hansen, University of Missouri Extension, who has always been and continues to be a great resource for fertility and soil questions, provided consultation on weed properties, planting dates, and fertility queries. Tom responded quickly to questions with accurate answers or by supplying relevant Extension publications.

The project demonstrates the potential for increased net farm income on small livestock operations, especially for those who direct market farm raised meat products. Direct sales of farm raised beef in particular offers many marketing challenges. Beef requires much more of the farmer than selling fresh produce that exhibits a fresher appearance, is more colorful, and is field ripened. The advantage of having a diverse product line that includes fresh vegetables increases the customer traffic and potential beef customers.

The 2004 produce sales (see attached sales report) were lower than originally anticipated. Numerous complications inhibited maximum utilization of the planted crops and weather conditions all but eliminated the melon planting. The complications were personal in nature and restricted the time input at critical points in the project that prevented proper weed control and reduced harvesting ability.

In comparing pasture raised produce to a conventional system of permanent tilled plots or raised beds, the pasture raised produce system is less labor intensive and inputs are reduced to the use of cover crops because of the livestock component. Using the livestock to quickly convert crop residue to animal manure prior to tilling reduces the time lag in beneficial returns. The cover crops and crop residue also offset the temporary loss of permanent pasture as the short term yields for annuals are greater than for perennial grasses.

The economic returns for the labor in this system resulted in almost $15.00 per hour in 2003, but just under $7.00 per hour in 2004. A considerable quantity of green beans and cucumbers were not harvested due to the operator requiring surgery in July. Also fall weather patterns indicated less than ideal growing conditions for fall planted crops, so these were omitted. The decision to forego the fall planting was the correct decision for this season. The returns in 2004 were the greatest for the pie pumpkins sold mostly as cooked-in-the-pumpkin soup, green beans using the terminal harvest method explained earlier, and fresh spinach. The addition of fresh produce to a farmer’s market stand selling grass-fed beef was observed to increase the stand traffic and opportunities for new customers. Grass-fed beef sales doubled in 2003 and again in 2004 due in part to increased demand, but also due to the addition of fresh vegetables and free range eggs.

The attached produce sales table indicates egg revenues to be proportionally higher than produce revenues, but the capital costs for free range hen facilities, feed, and labor are greater on a per unit of sales basis than for pasture raised produce. The addition of free range poultry has external benefits of improving the pastures that cannot be easily measured. The 1952 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture reports that 7 grasshoppers per square yard on ten acres (roughly 300,000 grasshoppers) will consume as much as a single cow. It has been reported that a chicken can eat more than 100 grasshoppers per day. The free range hens reduce the forage competition from grasshoppers and other insects. Free-range eggs are a logical addition to grass-fed meats and will also draw additional customers.

The benefits of adding diversity to a small livestock operation are many. This project has demonstrated how pasture raised vegetables can increase net farm income, increase existing sales of farm raised meat products, improve pastures, and reduce input costs.

Supplemental to this project were some small scale experiments with berries. The operator is also working with raspberries, asparagus, gooseberries, cranberries, and black currants. Perennial crops are limited in scale for this farm as all available land is devoted to pasture. Fresh berries offer low upkeep, high margins, and easily draw customers. More work will be done with these in future years utilizing soiled straw from four equines as mulch.

Small livestock operations often have limited involvement for children due to the dangers of handling and caring for livestock. Pasture raised vegetable offer opportunities to younger folks and provide economic incentives to become involved in the farm operation. Any additional farm profit generated through diversifying a livestock operation becomes further incentive for adding even more diversity.

This project has shown that sustainable methods of crop production can exist when a livestock component is included in the system. It is ironic that most nutrient cycles use a cow as a factor in the cycle, yet most organic farms do not have livestock. The use of crop rotations and ruminant animals for human food production is an established method of sustaining human existence. These methods have been utilized for centuries without the use of high fossil energy inputs and with little or no degradation to the environment.

The project operator had been involved in numerous farm and consumer-oriented organizations and has had many opportunities to relate the philosophies and methods utilized in this project. At the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference [http://www.smallfarmtoday.com/BackIssues.asp] in Columbia, Missouri in 2003 (conference attendance exceeded 3000 people), the operator presented a program on how pasture resources can be employed to increase farm diversity and net farm income without jeopardizing the livestock operation.

At the 2003 Missouri Forage and Grassland Annual Conference [http://agebb.missouri.edu/mfgc/index.htm] held in Lake Ozark, Missouri, the operator along with Ms. Anastasia Becker presented break-out sessions to more than 150 livestock operators, topics included marketing farm-raised meats which included the need to diversify the offerings with free-range eggs, berries, or fresh fruits and vegetables.

The operator accepted an invitation to speak at the St. Genevieve, Missouri County Soils and Crops conference hosted by University of Missouri Extension in February 2004. The topic was to cover marketing farm-raised products to a group of mostly livestock producers. The aspect of diversity was grasped by several families as was evident by the lengthy discussions following the formal presentations.

The Spring Forage Conference held in Springfield, Missouri [http://polkdallas.mo.nacdnet.org/files/2004forageconf.pdf] in February 2004 brought a great opportunity to address the largest gathering of livestock producers in SW Missouri. The operator acquired booth space and promoted sustainable livestock systems such as this one.

In May 2004, the operator hosted a field day for the Southwest Chapter of the Missouri Organic Association [http://www.missouriorganic.org/] . More than a dozen local growers, mostly horticulturists, attended a farm tour and a pot luck dinner. The group was astounded by the production levels of some of the early spring planted greens and many commented on how little insect pressure was apparent. One observation pointed out at this outing was the obvious effect of weak plants and how these plants succumb to natural causes of elimination through fungus, insects, or nematodes. These conditions were most obvious in the densely planted rows of leaf lettuce where many healthy plants could be seen in a row with a few obviously weakened or destroyed by various means. It would appear that a natural selection process was occurring.

Also in May 2004, a meeting was hosted by the operator for seven local beef producers who were interested in pursuing the grass-fed beef market. Although this was a small cross section of regional producers, one aspect of this project became apparent. Many livestock producers will not willingly accept a dual role as a cattleman and a farmer on a small scale operation. This type of project requires equal dedication and commitment to both the livestock and the vegetable production.

And the Greater Springfield Farmer’s Market [http://springfieldfamersmarket.com/] offers opportunities to discuss projects of this nature with more than 100 growers and livestock producers as well as thousands of consumers each week. The farmer’s market operates from mid-April through October, three days each week.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Producer Grant Program has offered this operator a unique opportunity to employ many years of careful study and some common sense strategies to increase on-farm income and to develop a greater understanding of the interdependence of livestock and crop production systems. The program is suitably tailored to single operators or groups of producers who wish to pursue novel production methods or to further research the application of existing sustainable agricultural practices.

The program could be further enhanced through an increased presence to consumers as well as producers. Consumer demand is the deciding element in the types of food production systems that will dominate the future. Awareness of sustainable methods of production aid consumers in making informed choices in their food products.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.