Converting to Sustainable Agriculture

Final report for FNC92-005

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1992: $3,120.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Grant Recipient: Schafer Edinburg Farms, Inc.
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
David Schafer
Schafer Edinburg Farms Inc
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Project Information


As we have shifted from crop to livestock production and a more natural treatment of the land on our farm, we have come to realize that a barrier to applying a sustainable model of livestock management is the unnatural condition of the soil. Low fertility and organic matter, poor structure and water holding capacity (results of crop farming and poor livestock management) make replicating nature's sustainable system very difficult. Clearly, a replenishment and rejuvenation of the soil to a state closer to its pre-settlement condition would enhance the prospects of success of a low input, sustainable system.

The agricultural operations will be the manufacturing and spreading of composted materials on pasture lands to improve soil characteristics. Fertility and water retention will be enhanced through the addition of organic matter in the form of chipped brush and trees which have been composted. Organic products such as entrails and other traditional "waste" items will be added to the wood chips to enrich the compost. 

The Missouri University Research Stations will test the use of wood chips for erosion control in ditches. They will also experiment with Osage Orange tree chips as "pavement" for cattle lanes and high traffic areas. 

Project Objectives:
  1. To improve the fertility, water retention and structure of our soil by spreading compost
  2. To promote urban and rural awareness of sustainable practices.

Our farm, like many of the farms of northern Missouri, is best suited for livestock production because of the highly erodible nature of our soils. Schafer Edinburg farms has concentrated its efforts on intensive grazing management which endeavors to provide the livestock with high quality feed on a daily basis during a prolonged growing season. To achieve this, we attempt to maintain forages in a leaf production phase (as opposed to seed production). Plant digestibility and nutritional quality decrease and new leaf production slows at the onset of seed production. We have observed that plants under stress tend to enter a reproductive phase earlier than those with plenty of soil moisture and fertility. Not only do optimal soil conditions produce more vegetation, but equally important to proper forage management, they provide the conditions for a longer period of growth before plants enter the reproductive phase.

The barrier of poor soil fertility may best be overcome through utilizing on-farm resources to improve soil characteristics. Woodlots, fence rows and brush areas, all improved functionally and aesthetically through thinning and pruning, will be turned into valuable compost after being chipped. Other sources of nutrients currently being wasted will be added to this compost. Entrails and waste products from local butchers will be returned to the land as they were in pre-settlement days. The resultant compost will be spread over pastures with a manure spreader to build the organic matter, water retaining capacity and fertility of our soils.

Purchased fertilizers, aside from being unstainable, fall short of filling the needs of the soil, and can be damaging to soil structure and biological activity. The addition of composted, natural materials provides a means of building natural fertility to a sustainable condition in which only sunlight, rain water and grazing animals are added.

Wood chips will be also used in a yearling bull pen to stabilize the manure and urine produced, retaining the fertility of the wastes and rendering them less offensive. This wood chip/manure mixture will also be composted and applied over fields rather than allowed to accumulate in one small lot.

City yard wastes from nearby Trenton, which represent lost energy when burned or buried, will be brought to the farm and mixed into our compost piles. This adds a valuable education and promotion link with the town folk and other farmers.


Materials and methods:

The agricultural operations will be the manufacturing and spreading of composted materials on pasture lands to improve soil characteristics. Fertility and water retention will be enhanced through the addition of organic matter in the form of chipped brush and trees which have been composted. Organic products such as entrails and other traditional "waste" items will be added to the wood chips to enrich the compost. 

Our farm is presently divided into 64 paddocks averaging 2.5 acres each. We will apply the compost over half of approximately 60 acres, or about 24 paddocks. Since each half of a paddock is treated equally (other than compost addition) the difference can be accurately evaluated. Soil tests will be taken before and after compost application on each half paddock (four tests on each of 5 paddocks). These will determine changes in soil fertility and organic matter. Visual changes will be documented with photographs. Measurable parameters include total forage growth, stage of plant maturity (expected to be younger on more fertile soils), moisture in soil, insect activity. 

Research results and discussion:

In November 1992, David Schafer requested a change to the project objectives. They planned to haul in sawdust rather than purchasing a wood chipper. They became aware of a source of sawdust 10 miles from the farm. The cost of obtaining the sawdust would be transportation and time only.

David noted that the sawdust is superior to woodchips as a compost amendment for the following reasons:

  1. Because of smaller particle size, sawdust degrades faster than woodchips. This will yield earlier results for the project.
  2. A large amount of sawdust is currently available. The time spent hauling sawdust would yield far more compost amendment than the same time spent chipping, again speeding up results.
  3. Energy would be added to our farm instead of recycled.
  4. Sawdust has superior odor absorption, a factor since we plan to use slaughterhouse wastes.

In anticipation of acceptance of this modificaiton to the grant, we borrowed a dump truck, drove our tractor with loader the ten miles to the sawdust pile mentioned and "practiced" hauling a load. It was much more time consuming than anticipated due mostly to the mud surrounding the pile. The sawdust was wet and also difficult to unload, requiring quite a bit of manual labor.

Our conclusion, that the whole process would work much better in dry weather, was confirmed by an acquaintance who averred he was doing the same thing (with dry sawdust in New Mexico) and getting along fine. However, we need the sawdust now while we are butchering and usually have more spare time.

[Editor's note: The project was ended at this point due to new business opportunities that didn't allow time to continue.]

We still have great belief in composting with sawdust.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We will measure the success of our promotion and education of town folk by the turn-out and feedback at an autumn "Leaf Day" where people are invited to bring their yard wastes in exchange for a cup of cider and a farm tour.


Schafer Edinburg Farms has hosted eight grazing schools and 380 participants since 1990. Because of our speaking and writing (the New Farm, May/June 1992 cover article, various Stockman/Grass Farmer articles) we receive visits from people from all over the country who are interested in our farm. Local college classes visit regularly; classes from California are expected in 1993. The Missouri Sustainable Ag Society plans to use our farm as a demonstration farm. Just this past month, August 1992, High School Vo-Ag teachers, Department of Conservation personnel, Kansas Rural Center members, a grazing school class of 60 producers, and separate farm familes have visited out farm. We encourage visitors and receive many. We have a deep commitment to sustainable agriculture and sharing ideas about sustainble practices. Our outreach will be far ranging.


Also David's writings in agricultural periodicals will discuss our findings. A final paper and slide presentation will be prepared and presented to the Green Hills Farm Project, a grassroots group of producers interested in building healthy communities through sustainable livestock production, as well as other groups. A "Leaf Day," mentioned above will reach town folk. Outreach will continue beyond the term of the grant through writings, farm tours, grazing schools and other visitors.

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.