Report for FS08-226
Hudson Farm's land has been used for agricultural purposes for more than 200 years, beginning with traditional cotton growing, then as a dairy, and now as a cattle ranch. Early on, a great majority of the land's native trees were cleared to make way for farming. Cotton production was done intensively, with little understanding of crop rotation and the need for soil recharge. We see the effects of this history every day. As in much of the southeast, historic agricultural practices have badly damaged the soil, so that now our land suffers from a severe lack of high quality topsoil, further exacerbated by erosion, soil impermeability, and low soil nutrient levels. Today, our ranch is characterized by extensive tracts of expansive, clay soils that yield lower levels of less productive grass species. We spend more and more on grass seed, pesticides, and labor costs due to the impermeability of the soil. Each year, we find ourselves using more of the land to feed fewer cattle. We are learning from outside research and experts at Auburn University (see below) that the shallow-root annual grasses we use as forage fails to hold the soil as well as native perennial grasses. The pesticides we use stunt root growth more. Without good root growth, storm events cause severe soil erosion, widening drainage channels and worsening the erosion problem. As a result, whatever nutrients we do build up through fertilizers get washed away, with additional negative effects on the regional watershed. We are ready for a new grazing strategy. To maintain a productive, healthy calf operation that we can pass along to our children's children, we must introduce more sustainable systems that support natural cycles of soil-building and native re-growth. We want to begin a more sustainable approach to cattle grazing that will repair the soil, reduce our negative impact on the regional watershed, and strengthen native ecosystems. Therefore, we propose a pilot program on our ranch to research, test-plant, and monitor appropriate native grasses and re-establish the prairie grass ecosystem. More specifically, we propose a two-part strategy. 1) Restore the top-soil base through organic soil amendments, soil aeration from a moveable chicken shed, alfalfa/native bunchgrass planting, and erosion control vegetative planting; and 2) Research, sample, and test-plant appropriate candidate species for re-establishing a perennial, deep-root native grass ecosystem; demonstrate that this ecosystem can be established and stabilized on the pilot program site within 16-22 months; plant using both disking and drill-seeded techniques to identify the best seeding strategy for the soil conditions on our land. This strategy will squarely address the inter-connected problems stated above. Native grasses will extend deeper roots into the soil, thereby reducing the effects of erosion, improving percolation, and helping to retain nutrients in the soil. This will also improve aeration and nutrient cycling, which will improve the health of our cattle and the quality of water draining into the watershed. Furthermore, because native perennials allow for a significant reduction in our use of pesticides, our supply and labor costs will go down even as we eliminate toxins from our cattle and the ranch ecosystem.