Proper Stocking and Pasture Recovery are the Keys to Improve Health on a Grazing Farm
Our 32nd Profiles of Soil Health Heroes are Charles and Lyn Blankenship. Charles and Lynn farm and live in Altamont, Tennessee. They produced Polled Herefords from the 1970s and 1980s and retired in 2013. They lived in McEwein, Tennessee. The Blankenships moved to Altamont approximately four years ago and purchased this farm. The farm size is approximately 230 acres, and 100 acres in pasture. Charles stated that the property's abundant caves and streams gave the property a feel of a natural park. It is great for hiking and just getting out and enjoying the beauty of the landscape. The soils are from sandstone, and are shallow to sandstone. The slopes range from 4-15%. Charles said their most limiting factor was adequate rainfall.
I asked Charles what made him interested in grazing ecology or the management that he now practices. He said that he is an avid reader. He reads "Stockman Grass Farmer" and other books on intensive grazing. He studied several statistics on intensive grazing versus continuous grazing. The reading encouraged him begin intensive grazing. He contacted Dewitt Simerly, NRCS District Conservationist for Grundy County. He also received guidance from Gregg Brann, NRCS State Grazing Specialist, and Soil Health Specialist for Tennessee. Charles also mentioned seeing a demonstration of a rainfall simulator. The results of seeing good infiltration on well managed intensive grazing with proper rest compared to more run-off from over grazed continuously grazed pasture opened his eyes. They began comparing notes with another Profiles of Soil Health Hero, Jim Malooley. See Soil Health Hero number 14. Off he began on high stocking in small paddocks over short duration.
Charles and Lynn Blankenship produce Red Angus and Sim Angus (Simmental cross with angus). Charles said farmers should focus on what a farmer grows and not what they need to get rid of in a pasture. He is referring to weeds. He goes on to say that weeds are opportunities for grazing. Instead of weeds, let's consider them as forbs. The Blankenships rotate the herd in different paddocks every day during the grazing season. He keeps them on sacrificed pastures during winter time. Normally, they graze some in the winter. The drought of 2016 caused them to have to quit grazing in the winter due to the shortage of forage. Hay feeding and additional seedings repair the sacrificed areas during the grazing season.
Normally or during average rainfall, they attempt to move the herd through all pastures in thirty days in early season when grass is growing rapidly. After that, they graze in paddocks and rest paddocks up to 50-60 days. The Blankenships manage a cow/calf/finish operation. They currently have 20 cows with plans to cull to 17. They have a calf crop of 22 with some twins. They also have 17 yearlings. They have accomplished 100% conception rates the last few years. Charles credits animal health, his grazing system, good minerals, and good quality hay as reasons for 100% conception rates.
In addition to their beef herd, they graze a few sheep, three hogs, and range chickens for eggs. Their pastures are irregular in shape due to the hilliness of the topography. Charles has 14 permanent pastures. They subdivide them into 1-acre paddocks. They may differ in size with changing moisture and time of the year. Generally, the paddocks are smaller during heavy growing times and increased in size as moisture decreases and temperature increases. Their finish stage consists of mostly grazing and some soybean hulls for energy. The ration meets the criteria for "grass fed."
Charles and Lynn buy all of their hay. All grass on the farm is utilized by grazing. They soil tested the farm in 2016 and found average soil organic matter (SOM) is 4%. Most native forest areas are around 3%. Other farms in the area are around 1.5% SOM. Charles credits the farm laying idle in grass and weeds many years prior to them buying the farm. Their management of intensive grazing with good periods of recovery also has contributed to the good SOM levels. Management that promotes green plants with good leaf area captures energy flow from the sun. The plants use photosynthesis to produce carbon (sugars) that eventually cycles into soil carbon or SOM. Farms that over graze through continuous grazing lose the opportunity to increase soil carbon or SOM. Forages that are 6" and higher have roots that are deeper. Good growth on shoots (top growth) equal good growth to roots. Roots will slough off annually. Also leaving residue when leaving paddocks will provide food to soil organisms to decompose carbon thus cycling nutrients and improving soil properties. Most notably soil property that is improved is soil structure. Good soil structure has aggregates that are somewhat rounded shaped like granular shapes or sub-angular shapes. Soil biology aggregates the soil and makes it much more stable, resistant to rainfall effects through biological glues, roots, and fungal hyphae. The soil infiltrates much more water and the continuous good cover with some substantial residue protects it from high temperatures and erosion and run-off. Pastures that are over grazed will have higher temperatures in summer leading to higher evapotranspiration and have less cover making it more susceptible to erosion and run-off. We see this time after time with rainfall simulator demonstrations.
They also grow an organic garden. Normally, they graze chickens in the fall after harvest. Weed control is done by using straw mulch or hay and black plastic. Soil test on the garden show no need for additional nutrients from fertilizer. They use the chicken manure with hay as a compost. The garden is approximately 0.11 acre. I discussed with them the use of cereal rye to give additional cover, increase SOM, along with legume to fix nitrogen, and a brassica to provide more diversity and provide a deep rooted tap-root. I also mentioned other species such as buckwheat and sunflower. Cereal rye will also reduce weed pressure due to choking out weeds and allelopathy.
Hay is fed to their livestock in September. They normally stockpile fescue pastures for winter grazing. Again, the drought of 2016 was an exception. They feed additional hay as needed in winter. Usually, hay is fed 2-3 months. Last year in the drought, hay was fed approximately 5 months. So, normal hay feeding months are September, January, and February, much less than farms not using intensive grazing over short duration. The Blankenships are evaluating the effects from the drought on their forage composition. They inherited Kentucky-31 fescue. They have improved many pastures with clover. They hope they still have clover but will know later in season. The day that I visited them with Dewitt Simerly, NRCS District conservationist, was March 14, 2017 and 23 degrees and windy. It had been forecast to be in the 40s. Needless to say, we spent most of our time inside and inside the truck driving around. The pastures had grown some from the drought, but was needing some warm temperatures to really kick in gear. As I am writing this article in April, I am sure the pastures are now really growing. Charles has seeded some orchard grass and timothy with fescue and clover in one field. This field will be used more for finishing.
After evaluating his pastures during the growing season, he plans for some more fields to be renovated with additional grass seed in the fall. He normally seeds 2 pounds of Ladino White Clover in February.
After buying the farm, fields near the house had rotations with chickens and had less grass and more clover. After intensive grazing for short durations and good recovery, grass is now prevalent in those fields near the house. Charles also said that some fields were intruded with many blackberries and fescue. Intensive grazing and good recovery times has transitioned the pastures to less brambles and more grass. They fed hay in areas of blackberries and did good rotations. The seed in the hay increased grass production and select grazing due to intensive grazing reduced the blackberries.
Their nutrient management is based on annual soil testing. Charles uses composite samples per 15 acres. They send samples to the University Soil Test Laboratory. They apply 60-0-60 pounds of fertilizer on pastures. Of course, nutrients are cycled by manure from cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens. Legumes fix nitrogen. The SOM at 4% will also provide amounts of nitrogen during the growing season. They maintain a pH range of 6.2 to 6.7. They have not limed since buying the farm in 2013. The Blankenships goal is to reach a point that they will not need to fertilize their pastures, see Greg Brann, Soil Health Hero number 2.
Charles has also out competed broom sedge by managing pH, applying nutrients, and intensive grazing and recovery time for desired forages. The intensive grazing will cause desired species such as fescue and orchard grass to out compete the broom sedge. Applying nutrients and adjusting pH will not cause broom sedge to disappear. Intensive management and prescribed grazing will.
When Charles and Lynn began their current management, their goals included increasing available water holding capacity and increasing water infiltration because of shallow soils. The increased SOM and better soil structure will achieve those goals. They also wanted to improve water quality by livestock exclusion from streams, ponds, and other fragile landscapes. They hauled water for a while, 1,000 gallons per day to 300 gallon tanks. They are about to install permanent Ritchie Water tanks with float valves. They are using lake water as source to tanks. They have one area that is fast rushing stream that they plan to put in heavy use area and protect rest of stream.
The Blankenships turn livestock into new paddock once grass reaches approximately 12 inches in height. They graze and remove about half of forage to about 6 inches in height. The forage is left to recover up to 50-60 days. When possible, they turn livestock into pastures prior to grass setting seed head. They keep Turkish/Alpine dogs to guard livestock. One is especially dedicated to sheep.
Charles was very enthusiastic about his current management. He saw the advantages of building soil health, increasing infiltration of water, and making his pastures more productive. I asked him why others do not rotate. Charles said that they rotated on a daily basis during growing season. He said that people perceive that daily movement as time consuming. He said that it takes < one hour to rotate livestock. He said that it does require management. Charles added that their standard was an afternoon rotation. The calves also would creep graze, go under lower wire to feed ahead of herd. Charles indicated he would not go back to continuous grazing.
Charles and Lynn changed their perspective and began daily rotation of herd in approximately 1-acre paddocks on a daily basis. They have grazed their pastures to reduce blackberries and broom sedge. The soil is kept productive by annual application of nutrients by soil test results. Soil SOM are fairly high at 4%. The 100 acres produce plenty of forage to sustain total of 59 head (20 cows, 17 yearlings, and 22 calves). Pastures are normally rested 50-60 days. Soil health and productivity have increased due to intensive grazing over short duration with good recovery.