Number 51, from Near Zero Resources to Soil Health Hero
Mike Hubbs, TACD Soil Health Specialist
On July 1, 2014, I was hired by Tennessee Association of Conservation Districts to disseminate and train farmers and conservation partners on the subject of soil health. My second objective was to identify and publicize the accomplishments of Tennessee farmers who are improving soil health. I was not sure where this endeavor would take me, and had no particular number in mind when I began. I did know that I wanted to identify farmers through relationships with Conservation Districts and NRCS field staff. I knew that I wanted to interview them, record and share what they have accomplished, and work with them while in the field to hopefully help them to expand their knowledge and their practices that are truly changing the Tennessee landscapes. In addition, I wanted glean from them and their experiences while sharing my experiences in soil health.
This is article 51 of this series. That is much more than just numbers. The articles cover 51 people who are sharing what they are doing to improve soil health and function. The 51st Profiles of Soil Health Hero is Robert Craighead of Clay County. Robert began our meeting by sharing with me that over the years, he has changed his management strategies due to the influence of Jeff Young, NRCS District Conservationist for Jackson and Clay Counties, and Andrzej Kaslikowski, NRCS Conservation Technician for Jackson and Clay Counties. Andrzej has also been recognized as a Profile of Soil Health Hero number 36. Not only does he practice soil health on his farm, he teaches it as well. Another influence to Robert is the Clay County Soil Conservation District's Technician, with whom he happens to share the same last name as Robert, Robert's son, Matthew Craighead. Matthew has been very instrumental on the farm influencing Robert.
Robert shared with how he happened to become a farmer and how he has progressed to where he is today. His ancestors began farming this farm in 1813. With the exception of a few years in the 1950s, it has remained in the family. Robert and Matthew shared with me that the farm was cropped from the 1920s through 1955. The farm was very eroded and then seeded down to grass and stayed in pasture all but one year until the 1970s. After being seeded down again, the farm has stayed in grass to present day. The farm was overgrazed and neglected to the point of very low fertility due to hay feeding being the only source of nutrients over the past several decades.
Even though Robert, who was raised on a farm and farmed this farm with his grandfather as a child, he did not farm himself until 2007 when he decided to get into the cattle industry. He began with literally no grazing experiences. Furthermore, there were some obstacles; he shared with me that he began farming 55 mother cows on 100 acres of his family farm that had little grass, no cross fences, soil test results that were very low on all nutrients, one pond, a stream, and the Obey River for water sources. With the steep learning curve ahead of him and many limitations, he turned to the Clay County Soil Conservation District and NRCS for technical conservation assistance as well as financial assistance.
Over a ten-year period, Robert installed multiple sections of cross fence. In addition, he excluded cattle from sensitive areas such as the pond, the stream, and the Obey River and installed 9-ball water tanks over heavy use areas to prevent mud around tanks. He now has 14 paddocks that are permanently cross-fenced. He methodically limed and fertilized his worn-out soils according to soil test results. Some fields he re-established in fescue/orchard grass and clover, and some are in bermuda grass and crab grass. Others are rotated in both winter and summer annuals. Besides his pastures and fences and water tanks, Robert received assistance from Tennessee Agriculture Enhancement Program to construct a livestock handling facility as well as a dry hay storage area.
Many livestock farms have made similar investments in water and fencing and re-vegetation. However, it takes more than infrastructure to improve soil health, It takes management such as closing gates and the farmer deciding when and where livestock grazes not vice versa. Too many livestock operations, plan, and install cross fences and water tanks, only to leave gates open and literally let the livestock to freely graze. This leads to continuous grazing or at least over grazed pastures due to selective grazing by livestock.
Soil health is about soil function. See the "Soil Health is About Function in Concepts to On-Farm Prescription" at News Room, tnacd.org. Carbon is the key to improving soil health. Regardless of land use, increasing carbon will improve soil function. In a grazing operation, it is about maximizing leaf-area and recovery. In order to increase carbon, farmers need a solar panel to capture the flow of energy in the form of sunlight. It hits to ground and reflects off the earth unless intercepted by green plants. Green plants then convert sunlight energy into sugars (carbon) through the process of photosynthesis. Sugars move from leaves to stem then from stem to roots. The roots will then naturally leak exudates of sugar. These exudates feed the soil biology which and in turn affects 90% of soil functions. Through a consistent supply of active carbon from photosynthesis, soil biology will prosper and provide numerous benefits to the soil. Soil aggregation happens by fungal glues and exudates binding individual soil particles together forming soil structure that is crumbly and full of soil voids allowing for air and water movement, as well as good root growth. Soils that are over grazed or lacking vegetation will experience platy structure or no structure at all. Basically, all soils need green plants present and growing in order to improve soil health. Soils lacking plants and growing roots are degrading.
With the infrastructure of fences and water tanks in place, Robert followed a NRCS Prescribed Grazing Management Plan to begin adaptive grazing management. He plans to move cattle every 2-3 days in rotation throughout the 14-paddock system. This will vary depending on weather conditions. Each field is provided a minimum of 28 days rest and recovery during the growing season. Using a "take half leave half" management strategy, Robert is maintaining a 4" minimum grazing height. Farms that practice continuous grazing will experience over grazing. Once the leaf area is reduced due to over grazing and cool season species are 3" or less, photosynthesis is slowed down to a minimum. Farmers miss out on this energy flow. When plants are not producing carbon then the cycle slows and sugars are not readily leaked out the roots. When this happens, food sources become scarce and many soil microbes die. Again, Robert and others have found that when you maintain good leaf area, the carbon cycle is efficient and soil health improves.
With the fields newly re-vegetated, Robert follows a general rotation to keep his fields highly productive. He takes soil samples of his fields every other year. He applies lime and fertilizer on his fields as called for by soil test. Robert applies composted chicken liter as his main source of fertilizer. Besides primary nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, he is receiving micro nutrients, soil organic matter, soil biology and other soil health attributes. Robert begins his rotation of reseeding by taking two fields with weak grass stands and planting sorghum-sudangrass in the summer and annual rye grass in the winter. He will use these fields for creep grazing and haying. He will rotate summer and winter annuals through these fields for 3-4 years. With his management of these annuals by grazing, perennials will naturally move in and begin out competing the annuals. Robert will then move on to the next field needing renovation. He normally does not have to do any additional seeding.
Robert will also have his main feed area in a sacrifice lot around his feed barn. He will also use an additional field as a sacrifice area to feed hay, then repeat the above process with annuals and move on once perennials become established. Besides the annuals, hay is normally grown on one field, although this year he did not cut hay off of it. He makes sure he feeds hay and grazes also in his hay field to keep soil life in the field. He also cuts hay on two other fields on other farms. This brings more nutrients into his farm.
Using grazing management to keep good cover reduces major weed infestation. He does however have some weeds. He spots sprays for trouble weeds such as iron weeds. He plans to utilize some temporary cross fencing to put intense grazing pressure on weedy areas. This will force cattle to graze most species including weeds.
By selecting where he feeds hay, higher nutrients are brought into hay fields and sacrifice areas. He also uses dry hay storage and feeds in a covered facility which has reduced waste by over 30%. Manure is collected, composted then applied back to areas with nutrient deficiencies. In designated sacrifice areas, he allows forage mature out and reseed itself. This acts as bedding area when feeding in the winter which reduces mud.
Not only is Mr. Craighead promoting soil health practices on his farm, he has been a soil health ambassador in his community. He has hosted two conservation field days in conjunction with the Clay Soil Conservation District. He also has hosted several soil judging contests on his farm. Along with hosting these field days and soil judging, he is open for farmers and others to tour his farm. Other farmers are learning about soil health due to these visits.
I complete this article with some emotions. Not only is it an honor to promote what Robert Craighead is doing. This will conclude the series of Profiles of Soil Heath Heroes under my tutelage. I will be retiring from this position August 31, 2019. I have enjoyed working with TACD these five plus years. I want to leave this message to readers. "Soil health is about keeping green plants growing and increasing carbon. Regardless of land use, whether cropland or pasture land, manage your vegetation with minimal disturbances, keep the soil covered, keep roots growing, and maximize diversity. Soil health is a bout function. As farmers, like Robert Craighead, improve their soil health, Tennessee's water, air, as well as other natural resources will also improve. Not only does soil health improves the environment, it also improves the farmer's bottom line."