Walk the Walk, and Talk the Talk
This is the second in a series of “Profiles of Soil Health Heroes.” This profile is on Greg Brann, Tennessee NRCS State Grazing Lands Soil Health Specialist (SCS-NRCS). Greg is owner and operator of Big Spring Farm. Greg has worked 36 years with the Soil Conservation Service-Natural Resources Conservation Service, approximately 20 years as State Grazing Lands Specialist. All of Greg’s previous ancestors farmed, so it is natural occupation that he followed. Greg has literally been farming all of his life, and has that special quality of professionally promoting pasture soil health and practicing it on the farm at a very high level for many years. Since 2010, Greg has held his now annual “Pasture Walk.”
Recent Pasture Walk in October, 2014. Many livestock farmers attend annually to learn Greg's management techniques.
Greg farms 220 acres of pasturelands in Allen County, Kentucky, and approximately 108 acres of rented pasturelands in Trousdale County, Tennessee. Greg is both a second generation farmer on this farm and employee of SCS-NRCS. His soils are predominantly residual dolomitic limestone-cherty soils which are ideal for pastures.
Greg practices diversity in his pastures as well as with his livestock. Greg rotationally grazes cattle, sheep, and goats in one large herd. He emphasizes high intensity grazing over short durations. The pastures that Greg originally had on his pastures are predominantly Kentucky 31 Fescue. Over time, a variety of cool and warm season species have been strategically seeded for grazing and land management.
The farm consists of 100 percent harvesting by grazing. Mowing is used strategically in spring to control cool season species in vegetate state, hence providing better forage quality.
Recently rotated pastures in December of 2014, left of the fence, note the residue remaining. The right-side of the fence, pasture has been rested approximately 45 days, and will be grazed next in the rotation.
In recently grazed pasture, Greg promotes cover and sees his remaining residual grass as a soil builder. He says many farmers make the mistake of grazing all top growth leaving no residual cover for the soil.
Greg conservatively observes that if he leaves a relative amount of grass to recycle instead of grazing, he receives that much plus 25 percent or more in production. Greg will rest his paddocks for minimum of 30 days and up to 45 days.
All hay is purchased off site which brings the accompanied nutrients to the farm instead of losing them by harvesting hay. Greg uses Jim Gerrish’s figures that estimate $60.00 of nutrients removed when baling a 1,000 pound bale of hay. Greg has baled some hay a couple of years ago; he estimates losing five years of production from that one hay harvest if the nutrients removed are not replaced with fertilizer.
Fertility is maintained at medium to high levels on all fields. Greg recently added new fields either by purchase or by renting. One particular field that he has taken over in the last two years had a history hay. Greg has worked it into his grazing rotations the last two years. Even though, observations of the soil and roots show good indication of aggregates and increasing organic matter, the limiting factors are fertility and pH.
In time, by intensely grazing over short durations, the field will increase in fertility. Greg plans to lime this field sometime this year. He maintains a pH of 6.2 across the entire farm. Due to the increased organic matter in the soils resulting in higher buffering capacity of the soil, Greg only limes approximately every five years as called for by soil tests.
The livestock consists of sheep, 400 ewes, Katahdin Breed, goats, 30 does, Kiko Cross, and cattle, 60 cows, cross bred with several breeds. Stocking rates are dynamic just like in nature when food is plentiful stocking rates go up and vice versa. In a stocker operation this is accomplished by seasonally stocking. Best example stocking light weight cattle in late fall and selling them before fall growth of stockpiled grass. In a cow-calf operation such as Greg’s, the best way to manipulate stocking rate is have fewer cows and keep the calves longer. This allows a relief valve when need to adjust stocking rate. The ratio of different species also needs to be adjusted as vegetation changes due to grazing pressure and recovery times.
Greg sees the goats as advantageous to clean up shrubs and briars that grow on edges of fence rows. He said that sheep will select from forbs and weeds, such as butter cups, where cattle prefer grass and clover. The diverse livestock better utilizes the vegetation on the farm.
The multiple livestock species are stocked at an approximately rate of 70,000 pounds per acre. There are 16 permanent pastures on the property that are split into 45 paddocks with the use of temporary fence. Watering facilities are available in each paddock and are strategically moved to promote more intense grazing in areas of a paddock which are being underutilized. Greg has noticed higher fertility near water locations due to higher concentrations of manure and moves them periodically to adjust the fertility.
Normally, Greg will allow pastures to reach 9 inches before turning livestock into the paddock. He removes 1/3 of height to about 6 inches and removes the herd and allow the pastures to rest up to 30-45 days.
Greg calculates that 80 percent that enters the livestock will return to the soil in the form of nutrients in the manure. Greg feeds hay and grazes only about 20% pastures while stockpiling 80% in September to allow Fall-pastures to stock pile reducing feeding hay in winter by 75%. Feeding hay in September is much more pleasant than having to feed in December-February.
Greg will sacrifice some areas for hay feeding. He says that for every two acres sacrificed by feeding 100 rolls of hay provide $3,000 of fertilizer with approximately $100.00 of reseeding areas.
When Greg reseeds, he uses three pounds of rye grass, one pound of Ladino White Clover, two pounds Cinnamon Red Clover, three pounds of hairy vetch, and less than one pound of turnips. When grass is reduced he adds Select Tall fescue, Persist Orchard Grass and 2 pounds of Prairie Brome Grass.
Greg utilizes all of his pastures and some of the odd sized wooded areas while fencing off significant forestlands. Greg has found that cattle will congregate at the beginning of natural draws due to cooler temperatures in summer. He has begun to fence off areas to deter cattle congregating in these areas to prevent gully erosion.
Overstocking degrades the resource. It is the most common reason for pasture degradation. Generally it takes two acres to pasture one animal unit (1,000 pounds). An acre of land cost approximately $3,200/acre in Greg’s community. So two acres per animal unit are worth $6,400. When degradation occurs by overgrazing, one is degrading the soil both above and below ground. When the vegetation is weakened or destroyed, reestablishment can cost up to $300.00 per the two acres. It is unreasonable to sacrifice $6,700 for a $1,500 calf. Greg makes it a priority to protect the structure of his farm, the soil.
Soil organic matter continues to increase on Greg’s farm to about 4% in top 6 inches of soil. The high intensely grazing with adequate rest maximizes above ground growth to maximize photosynthesis, thus making sugars, that ultimately feed the roots, and increases organic matter as top growth and roots die off annually. This feeds an immense diversity of soil organisms that aggregates the soil and provides excellent porosity and soil structure.
Many farmers invest on fencing and water facilities, but fail to rotate by closing the gates or using cross fencing. The key ingredient to improving soil health on grazing lands is close the gates and move the livestock.
Greg’s strategy is simple. He lessens disturbances, maintain root growth as continuous as possible, keeps the ground covered, and promotes vegetative diversity. Greg has found that more cover reduces evaporation and maintains more soil moisture. Also maintaining higher grazing heights reduces parasites.
Greg promotes staying off the field with vehicles to prevent compaction. Use roads or trails near fence lines. Maintains some growth on grass after grazing to return cover to the soil. The additional cover will prevent excess compaction from livestock. He uses high intensity grazing over short durations of no more than 3 days grazing with 30-45 days’ rest or longer. The only time top growth is removed to about three inches is when grazing stock-piled pastures in winter. The heavy intense grazing deposits manure about every foot to three feet, providing nutrient cycling and ample amounts of organic matter added frequently to the soil, thus feeding soil microbes and macro life. Greg has not applied fertilizers on his pastures for over eight years. He grazes multiple species to balance forage and to remove weeds and shrubs. He mows only to keep grass in vegetative stages for highest quality of forage.
Greg’s high quality soils’ and productive livestock grazing farm have resulted in many farmers coming to his annual pasture walk to see and hear him walk the walk and talk the talk.