Farmer Changing his Farm by Grazing Management on the Cumberland River

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Andrzej Kasilaowski works for NRCS in Jackson and Clay Counties as a Soil Conservation Technician. He also farms in Clay County in the Moss community. He is our 39th Profiles of Soil Health Heroes. Andrzej is a second-generation farmer. His family bought the original 50 acres of his current farm in 1983. In 1989, they purchased 120 additional acres. Recently, IMG 3216newhe inherited 240 more acres which he began managing in April of 2017. I had the privilege to visit the farm with Andrzej and Jeff Young, NRCS District Conservationist, Jackson and IMG 3217newClay Counties on November 2, 2017.

Andrzej shared with me that the 120 acres had been cropped for about 40 years prior to them buying the farms. About 66 acres out of the 120 acres were enrolled in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in year three of the contract when purchased. he described the farm as degraded when they began to manage it. He went on to explain the management during the CRP contract, which consisted of one bush hogging annually. Besides the previously discussed management that they inherited, Andrzej said working for the District and NRCS for 10 years and observing stream bank erosion on his farm due to cattle grazing, motivated him to change to his current management to one of increasing production by improving soil health.

 Andrzej said the dominant species in CRP were Broomsedge and Serecia Lezpedeza. As a teenager, he would bush hog the fields, and the broomsedge, sericea, and ragweeds were higher than his head in height. Andrzej said the fields were limed in 1996 and then again in 2011. They began feeding hay in these fields to introduce other species to the fields. Andrzej began soil testing in 2011. As I said earlier, they limed in 2011 according to soil test analysis.

IMG 3230newThe cattle operation consists of 120 mother cows, 100 calves, and 6 bulls + 3-4 yearlings. The farm is near Turkey Creek, traditionally named by Daniel Boone. There are limestone bluffs on the Cumberland river across from the farm called Seven Sisters, also named by Daniel Boone. Some of the fields are bottom land and border the Cumberland River.

Approximately ten years ago, due to river and stream bank erosion caused by continuous cattle access, Andrzej was motivated to change his continuous IMG 3255newgrazing to prescribed grazing rotating when heights reach about 10 inches and graze down to approximately 4 inches. He understands the key to keeping leaf area tall enough to be efficient in photosynthesis to make carbon. About 30% carbon produced in the plants are leaked from roots to the soil biology which in turn aggregates soil and cycles nutrients. Carbon production by efficiently grown pastures without over grazing builds soil carbon which is the key for functioning soil. The keys of soil health that Andrzej are following are (1) keep the soil covered making sure 4" of top growth are left after rotating; (2) Reduce disturbances which in grazing means do not over graze; (3) Keep a live plant and root growing 24/7 if possible. Again, make sure forages recover after grazing. Restrict minimum height to approximately 4 inches; and (5) Diversify forages to increase soil biology and increase quality of soil biology. To summarize, Andrzej is converting sunlight to plant carbon then soil biology is converting plant carbon to soil carbon. Carbon is the limiting element to improve soil health.

IMG 3218newStarting with 7 permanent paddocks in 2007 and going to 16 permanent paddocks. Most paddocks are 5-10 acres in size with some larger that are subdivided with polywire. Normally, he rotates herds every 4-5 days. His standard to improve his pastures is first feed hay in rings to smother broomsedge, secondly, plant sorghum-sudangrass to provide summer forage and break compaction with at least one 60-90 day rest period, then seeds 15 lbs. fescue, 5 lbs. orchard grass, and seeds 4 lbs. red clover perIMG 3220new acre to provide permanent perennial forages which will not be grazed until the following April. He has not seeded too much white clover. Generally, he lightly disks to smooth feeding areas and plants sorghum-sudangrass. Around middle of September, cool season grasses are no-tilled into the sorghum-sudangrass. Andrzej understands constant plant growth and diversity will not only feed his soils but are good for cattle production.

Andrzej said about 20% of the farm is improved annually with sorghum-sudan grass or summer annual soil health mixtures then seeded into permanent mixes of predominantly fescue and orchard grass. Others will be seeded to cool season annual mixtures for winter grazing and high quality weaning pastures. Andrzej likes to experiment, so there are a great variety to his seeding and reestablishment of species. He also uses Johnsongrass for one cutting of hay followed by multi species such as millet, forage turnips, sunn hemp, and then fescue comes on. Many fields are stock piled for winter grazing while sorghum-sudan and multi species are grazed in the summer.

We visited the "Front Field" which it is composed primarily of common Bermudagrass and was designated as hay field when Andrzej was a teenager. The field was last fertilized using commercial fertilizer in 2012.It was last hayed in 2013 and since then the only nutrients are from feeding hay and manure distribution from prescribed grazing. Hay was last fed across the field in 2015. Since 2011 Andrzej added 50 lbs. cereal rye and 10 lbs. ryegrass plus legumes into the Bermudagrass for winter grazing. Due to increased rest periods for the cool season annuals, fescue in the field has increased dramatically. Future plans for the field are grazing only with 30-45 day rest periods and discontinue the rye and ryegrass mixture and broadcast hairy vetch in the fall.  Note, the excellent soil structure; this is a result of the principles of soil health that Andrzej follows.

IMG 3229newOur second field we visited was the "John Field"." This is a newly acquired field (part of the recent 240 acres) that has not been under Andrzej's management. The field had been continuously grazed until April of 2017. We noticed the soil was much harder and had less soil structure. Many farms in Tennessee look like this due to over grazing. Fields like this will erode due to runoff and have little nutrient cycling. Andrzej seeded 30 lbs. per acre with sorghum-sudan grass in June. None of the newly acquired fields (240 acres) have been soil tested. Andrzej plans to work them into his soil testing and nutrient application rotation.

Another example of Andrzej management is the "experiment field." The field has a high percentage of nimblewill. He recently planted two Maples with the Seven IMG 3234newSisters in the background, see picture. He cut hay around September 15 to release fescue. He seeded rye grass, turnips, radishes, and berseem clover. This field had a history of tillage. You can see the field is much lower than the field above it at the fence line. The field has recovered from the days of abuse and erosion. 

IMG 3271newTo show the steady progress of introducing plants to his pastures, four examples of recent seedings in fields, Field 1: 50 lbs. rye, 10 lbs. rye grass, 1 lb. radish, 5 lbs. hairy vetch, 2 lbs. balansa clover, 1 lb. turnip, 1 lb. turnip, 1 lb. rape, 2 lbs. arrowleaf clover, and 2 lbs. berseem clover per acre. Field 2: 15 lbs. fescue, 4 lbs. red clover, 1 lb. radish, 1 lb. rape, 1 lb. turnip, and 12 lbs. winter peas. Field 3: 20 lbs. hairy vetch, balansa clover 2lbs., 2 lbs. arrowleaf clover, 20 lbs. spring peas, 5 lbs. berseem clover, 1 lb. radishes, and 5 lbs. rye grass. Andrzej recently reported the winter peas were really growing and nodulating which means they are producing nitrogen which the accompanying grass will utilize and grow. 

Andrzej has installed ten 4-hole Ritchie Water tanks. He has developed a spring and installed 10,000 feet of 2" pipeline. He generally has protected his stream banks from grazing except with some strategic prescribed grazing. I asked Andrzej how production has changed and the need for hay since he changed his management. Soil organic matter has gone up approximately 0.25% per year. Production of forage has doubled since 2009. He has doubled the herd since 2009, but hay production is the same as 2009. So, if he had maintained his old management, he would be using twice as much hay. 

Andrzej said no fields are dedicated to hay, but some are cut once and then pastured with 30-45+ day rest periods. Any field cut for hay is fertilized with commercial fertilizer at recommended rates or chicken litter applied at two tons per acre with an average analysis of 45-45-45. 

IMG 3244newAnother field that we visited was "Gamagrass field". This field has 1.5 acres. He has over seeded legumes between clumps of Eastern Gammagrass. The field IMG 3246newexemplifies prescribed grazing. The soil was very healthy looking, see picture taken from the middle of the clump. 

We also visited a bottomland field. This field had previously been intensely hayed for 20 years. Andrzej now cuts hay late then feeds hay to introduce more grass and nutrients by feeding hay. He grazes on a good rotation for the last three years. Currently, he is leaving three bulls to graze the large field.

The last field that we visited is called "Big Sandy Field" and it has been newly seeded in September. He seeded fescue, orchard grass and Daikon radishes. He plans to cross fence with hot wire and establish smaller paddocks to intensify grazing. He also mentioned that many fields also are seeded to sweet clover. Note the amount and size of Daikon radishes. They were planted 3/4 lb. per acre.

Soil organic matter levels from several fields ranged from 1.5 to 2.1 % in 2011 and now in 2017 are testing 2.9 - 4.1% SOM. Many fields are in the 3.4% SOM range. Again, most fields are fertilized by rotating hay feeding, rotating cattle for good manure and urine distribution. Fields IMG 3251newrange from low to high in phosphorus and potassium on 14 fields. Most fields are at 6.0 to 6.5 in pH where three fields are 5.8 to 5.9. Andrzej is changing the soils' productivity by rotation, feeding hay, and seeding diverse species.

To summarize, many fields are annually seeded in different species, but in general broomsedge or sage grass is managed by cutting hay and then feeding hay, plant to sorghum-sudan grass, followed by multi species, and followed by perennials. There are many other species in his pastures such as johnsongrass, crabgrass, bermuda, and dallis grass. Andrzej takes advantages of growth stages in different seasons to adjust his rotations and hay cutting to maximize his production while resting his forages and adding carbon to the soil. The results are better infiltration, nutrient cycling, and much higher production. Andrzej has changed his soils and his wallet too by improving his soil health.