Final Report for FNC95-115
The farm consists of approximately 550 owned acres, including about 60 acres of timber with the remainder in pasture and hay. Pastures contain a mixed stand of cool-season grasses and legumes. About 165 acres have usually been cut for hay, and these areas contain a fair component of native warm-season grasses, mostly Indian grass, big bluestem, in addition to cool-season grasses and legumes. Another 300 acres is rented, including 50 acres of hay land. Approximately half to two-thirds of the remainder of the rented land is fairly open pasture with the balance in timber or dense brush. Most of the land is quite hilly, with some slopes greater than thirty percent. None of the land has been cropped for over forty years, but prior to that, much of it was tilled at one time or another and the effects are still visible in many places. Gully and creek bank erosion is a continuing problem.
My dad, who is now eighty-three years old, has operated the farm as a commercial cow/calf enterprise for most of the last fifty-six years. In recent years he had cut back the size of his cow herd to about 65 head. In July, 1994 I moved my family back to the area with the goal of making a livelihood from the farm within five years. Implementing a management intensive rotational grazing system is an important part of the plan to reach this goal.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESUTLS
- Develop a consistent set of data on soil fertility, forage yield and quality, stocking rate, animal performance and financial results over the period of transition for a conventional continuous grazing system to a management intensive rotational grazing system.
- Use the data to measure the rate at which the benefits of the change accrue, and the develop insights regarding the allocation of scare capital and labor among the various components and systems required to implement the change.
Project Planning and Implementation
The research proposal called for three two person teams of volunteers to collect two sets of soil samples and six sets of forage samples over an eighteen month period. The samples were to be taken from three topographic zones (ridge, slope, bottom) within each of nine designated fields that comprise the entire area under grazing management. The organizational and logistical challenges of actually doing so turned out to be formidable. In particular, the three month sampling interval was unworkable, and probably unnecessary. In the end, we managed to collect two complete sets of soil samples and three partial sets of hay and forage samples. Data on stocking rates and estimates of total forage harvested were recorded. Daily temperature and precipitation data were also collected.
Other producers who are members of the Green Hills Farm Project helped with sample collection. They were Chad and Vicki Vadnais, and Jerry Parks, who also helped with the field day. Jim Gerrish, researcher at the MU Forage Systems Research Center, provided training, helped collect samples and do qualitative forage assessments, as well as helping with the field. Fred Martz, director of FSRC advised on several aspects of the project and helped with the field day. Professors Bill Heffernan and Don Osburn of the MU Rural Sociology and Ag Economics Departments respectively invited me to speak to their sustainable agriculture class.
The attachment titled “Turner Farm Facts” summarizes the quantitative results of the project. Probably the most striking finding is the significant difference in soil fertility measures for the three topographic zones. As expected, side slopes are much less fertile than ridge tops or bottoms. Although there are fertility differences between fields, the zonal differences were generally larger. Although the measured variation in forage quality is not as great as the fertility differences, forage yields do reflect the significantly lower fertility on slopes. Since side slopes make up about half the land area, improving the productivity of slopes can have a significant impact on overall farm production.
Another important result is the financial impact of moving to a system that varies the stocking rate over the course of the year to more closely match forage growth. The primary vehicle for this change is the addition of a stocker enterprise and a reduction in the size of the cow herd. These changes affect profitability in three ways. First, they make it possible to harvest a much larger share of total forage production by direct grazing during the growing season when forage quality is highest. This increases summer revenues and avoids the costs associated with hay harvest. Second, total winter feed requirements are reduced by carrying fewer cows through the winter. Third, by reducing the stocking rate in midsummer, late summer and fall forage growth can be stockpiled for winter use. This means that winter feed costs per cow are reduced substantially compared to depending primarily on hay.
Although the results of the project were generally as expected, there were some surprises. For one thing, I expected ridge tops to be somewhat less fertile than bottoms, but they are generally more fertile. I attribute this to two factors. First, except in very cold windy weather, cattle tend to lounge on ridge tops. This results in more manure deposition and a transfer of nutrients from other parts of the field to ridges. Also, expect when the ground is dry or solidly frozen, winter feeding on side slopes or bottom areas in often impractical. Over time this results in more nutrient deposition on ridge tops than elsewhere.
The barriers to obtaining the information identified in the proposal were the labor of collecting soil and forage samples, the expense of laboratory analysis of the samples, and the time and effort to analyze the data. Although the grant did overcome the cost barrier, it was only partially successful in overcoming the labor barrier, which turned out to be by far the most significant. This is because it is harder to schedule and carry out a coordinated activity by several busy people than by one or two busy people. Nevertheless, without the imperative imposed by the project schedule I probably would not have carried out the work at anywhere near the level of detail that we did finally accomplish.
Probably the most valuable information gained from the project was that the degree of fertility variation between topographic zones is relatively large compared to differences between fields. The substantially lower fertility of side slopes presents the greatest opportunity for productivity improvements. One of the well documented benefits of management intensive grazing systems is better manure distribution and the resulting savings in purchased fertility inputs. Although these benefits will likely occur here eventually, the process is slow at best, and the steep topography will slow the process even further. Also, while it can affect the distribution of existing fertility, grazing management alone cannot increase the total amount of plant nutrients available. Therefore, the use of purchased inputs (lime, fertilizer and seed) to increase productivity on side slopes is probably cost-effective.
Another objective of the project was to evaluate the sequence of investments in the components and systems necessary to make the transition from a continuous grazing system to a management intensive grazing system. While the research proposal did not include a quantitative analysis of this question, I will offer some qualitative and subjective observations that may be helpful to others who wish to make the transition form continuous to management intensive grazing. This change requires additional investment in four different classes of assets: fencing, water, fertility, and livestock. In order to make the transition with limited capital and labor, it is important to make these investments in a sequence that allows some of the benefits to be realized in time to help pay for the rest of the transition. The sequence that I have followed so far has been fencing first, then livestock, then water, and finally fertilizer and seed. I believe now that a better sequence would be: fertilizer and seed first, then water, then fencing, and finally, livestock.
My rationale for the order I followed was that there was no advantage to growing more forage if I didn’t have enough cattle, fencing and water systems to harvest it efficiently. There are three problems with this rationale. First, it takes at least two years to see significant production benefits from fertilizer application, especially lime and phosphorous which are the inputs most deficient on this farm. Second, it is relatively easy to obtain stocker cattle to graze on a contract basis without having to own them, so scare capital need not be tied up in owned livestock during the transition. Finally, the most significant benefits of management intensive grazing are the long term effects on soil structure, forage species diversity, and grazed forage quality. A major short term increase in carrying capacity is not likely, expect perhaps in a situation where soil fertility is not a limiting factor.
Thus, some of the cash flow needed to fund fencing and water development could be generated by first increasing forage yield through fertility improvements, and using contract cattle to increase the stocking rate as needed to harvest the added production. Also, water development should probably take precedence over fencing if a tradeoff is necessary. This is because when fencing is put in place before enough watering sites are developed; much of the effort must go to providing lanes and other means of access to water. If additional water development takes place later, some of the original fencing will become obsolete and have to be remodeled. Furthermore, multiple water sites will improve grazing efficiency even at lower stock densities in larger pastures.
The primary outreach activity was a far field day on October 20, 1996 which was attended by about forty people. A copy of the flyer used to advertise the field day is attached. It was sent to over 400 names on the Green Hills Farm Project mailing list, in addition to being hand delivered to about 25 households in our immediate neighborhood and being posted in several locations.
Also, on October 9, 1996, I gave a presentation to the Sustainable Agriculture class at MU taught by Dr.’s Heffernan and Osburn. The class had an enrollment of about thirty students.
I will provide a copy of this final report to the MU Forage Systems Research Center for distribution. Also I will give a presentation at a regular meeting of the Green Hills Farm Project and make copies of the report available to members.