Moving Livestock Daily, Key to Improving Soil Health
This is the fifth in the series of "Profiles of Soil Health Heroes." This profile is on Mike and Susan Clark, Mascot, Tennessee. The farm is located near the Holston River off of Mascot Road, East of Knoxville, Tennessee. The farm is named “Green Acres” for obvious reasons; the grass is so green and managed so well to produce forages for over 70,000 plus pounds of beef at a given time. The farm has approximately 210 acres, and approximately 90 acres are in pastures.
The family farm has a long history; Mike and Susan proudly shared with me that Susan’s ancestors owned the farm since 1803. Up to the 1930s, the farm was a cattle farm. It was transitioned to a dairy farm in the 1930s through 1960s. In 1972, the farm transitioned to beef production with cattle having free access to pastures continuously due to lack of fences. Mike and Susan began as operators in 2006.
The soils are generally Dewey and Dunmore silt loams. The slopes vary from gently rolling to slightly sloping up to 8-12%. Mike said that he recalls some soil tests prior to 2006 being at 1.6% soil organic matter, which is typical for these soil types that are in tall fescue for this area.
The day that I visited the farm, March 31, 2015, the numbers of cattle were: 39 bred cows, 17 yearlings, 14 fall 2014 calves, 20 spring 2015 calves. This is very close to 70,000 pounds of grazing stock. They have and 15 more calves expected in the fall of 2015. The farm produces forages for the herd throughout the year.
Like most East Tennessee pastures, the Clarks began with a Kentucky 31 tall fescue based pasture without many cross fences. Prior to 2006, they grazed the cattle continuously and watered from the pond on the east side of the farm.
In 2006, they worked diligently with the Knox County Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Knox County Soil Conservation District to design an alternative watering system and permanent cross fencing. They improved their well, pumped to a storage tank that gravity feeds four strategically located watering tanks. They established 9 permanent paddocks of approximately 10 acres each.
From 2006 – 2012, they followed a basic rotational grazing system with the 9 paddocks. Rotations varied from one to two weeks. Mike described this system as a train wreck; they had nearly zero grass for the summer.
After attending grazing seminars in June of 2013, the Clarks started practicing strip grazing by limiting the herd to only a portion of the permanent paddock each day. Starting at the water point and extending across the fields, 80 plus temporary paddocks were created using poly-wire and step-in posts. This ensures 80 + days of forage in the bank for the herd even if it doesn't rain. With normal rain the interval (or rest period) is shorter and some acreage is left for stockpile, but drought insurance is accomplished and nothing is spent or wasted.
With this management, they have fed as little as a 1/3 the hay of previous years and are not spending any time cutting hay. Time spent moving the herd is comparable to daily checking of the herd, Mike says “They are waiting for us at the gate and walk right by us into the next paddock.”
Portable poly wire fence separates a recently grazed paddock to one that is about to be grazed. The Clarks rotate on a daily basis between 83 + or – paddocks utilizing portable electric poly wire and step in posts.
Since 2013, they have renovated by seeding a diverse mixture of orchard grass, brome grass, fescue, hairy vetch, Will Ladino White Clover, and Cinnamon Red Clover when they have bare areas from feeding hay or areas needing more forage cover and diversity. The renovations provide more balanced forages with diverse plants that provide more diversity to soil life.
I want to share a quote from Mike Clark that describes their typical management. “We stopped in a patch of 6-8 inch hairy vetch and buttercups, and wished we had stopped there yesterday with you. I propose that the lack of tall buttercups in the field with the cows indicate that the cows are eating the buttercups just like everything else. In 2014, this field, after resting since October 27, 2013, was strip grazed for 11 days, from February 27 through March 10, then rested 80+ days, and was cut for hay twice (with 60 5x5 bales taken), on June 2 & July 31. At that time, the summer grasses exploded with 6 weeks rest and the field with 4-6 feet Johnson grass and 2-3 feet dallis grass, crabgrass, and bermuda grasses with red clover were strip grazed intensely for 15 days from September 17 through October 2 to remove the summer grasses and provide the fescue sunlight, then grazed to three inches. Finishing gains were achieved on 1,000 pound steers. After almost 3 months rest again, the winter growth fescue was flash grazed for a couple of days in late January and a thick sward will be strip grazed again in early April with 10 inches plus of mixed forages; fescue, orchard grass, brome grass, vetch, clover, buttercups and other forbs.”
The high density grazing over short duration is changing the weed pressures. Mike and Susan are taking advantage of summer perennials that naturally appear in our cool season grasses and turning their growth through high density grazing and proper rest into valuable summer forage. Using these summer perennials provide for good gains in the summer and lessens the needs for hay. Also high density grazing.
As I noted earlier, organic matter was approximately 1.6% prior to 2006. The table below shows soil test results in 2010 and 2014 showing the changes in organic matter, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), and nutrients from strip grazing and applying bio solids from City of Knoxville. The Clarks follow a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) and closely monitors soil changes from the bio solids. They apply bio solids by soil test but average approximately 2 tons per acre annually. Mike has not used commercial nitrogen fertilizer in over five years.
Table 1. 2010 soil test results. The pHs are not shown but are managed to 6.2 -6.5.
|Fields||Organic matter (%)||Estimated Nitrogen Released (lbs/acre)||CEC (MEQ)||P2O5||K2O|
Table 2. 2014 soil test results.
|Fields||Organic matter (%)||Estimated Nitrogen Released (lbs/acre)||CEC (MEQ/100)||P2O5||K2O|
Summary of results show a substantial increase in soil organic matter. The Clark’s have noticed much more water holding capacity, about 27,000 gallons per acre increase for every 1% of organic matter. Nitrogen is readily more available from the higher amounts of soil organic matter. Mixtures with legumes, Bio solids, and nitrogen from organic matter reduces any additional commercial fertilizers. Generally, CEC is showing slight increases. The Clarks’ notice more soil life shown by manure piles decomposing fairly quickly. There are evidences of earthworms and arthropods’ activities resulting in thatch decomposition.
The high density grazing over short durations allow the plants to maximize photosynthesis and move sugars from leaf to root to eventually the soil, thus increasing soil carbon. With more soil carbon, soil life thrives to aggregate soils and cycle nutrients.
The high density grazing management with short durations result in crumbly, granular soil structure with healthy soil life such as earth worms and earth worm casts as seen above. The Clarks rarely see runoff. The soil can infiltrate most rainfall events. The Clarks’ management follows the four steps to building soil health:
- Reduce disturbances (do not overgraze).
- Leave the soil covered (rest pastures and allow residue to be recycled by soil life).
- Resting forages promote root growth most of the year. Using annuals also promote root growth during seasons of need.
- Promote diversity. The Clarks’ seed different species and promote diversity with high intensity grazing on a daily duration rotation.
Another major change to the enterprise in 2013, besides the high density, short duration strip-grazing, is a switch to finishing beef on pasture. The Clarks’ have found a local niche to market their cattle as grass-fed beef. Their beef herd consists of crosses with Piedmontese, Hereford, Black Angus, South-Poll, and Red Angus.
In addition to meeting the cattle daily nutrition with daily rotated diverse forages, the Clarks’ offer Free Choice “Cafeteria style” assortment of 16 minerals. As pastures change throughout the seasons, so does the preference of the cattle for certain minerals. Many problems and diseases such as grass tetany and digestion problems are avoided or reduced significantly.
Other significant changes are the use of annuals. Currently one field is in cereal rye with clover and will be sown to Sorghum-Sudan later this spring. Currently rye is providing early spring forage.
By using annuals, the Clark’s can increase forage production while the perennials are recovering. This is especially true when cool season grasses slow in growth during July/August. With their high intensity, short duration rotations, they have reduced the demand for hay. They utilize one field for hay then stock pile the grass for winter grazing. They feed hay in September focusing on stock piling cool season grasses for fall and winter grazing. Mike Clark says that feeding hay is easier in September than January-February.
Mike feeds 40% hay that a typical beef operation uses. That is savings to his profit margin by letting the cattle harvest the grass through grazing and cycle the nutrients. Whereas, hay removes valuable nutrients for every bale of hay. It also removes biomass that could recycle back as organic matter. Jim Gerrish’s figures, estimate $60.00 of nutrients removed when baling a 1,000 pound bale of hay.
The Clarks’ were motivated to make better profit and to utilize their farm’s natural resources to embark on this high density, short duration of daily rotation. I asked them why farmers are hesitant to do this type of management. They offered the following responses:
- “Different from the norm.” Mike and Susan had to change the way they managed the farm.
- “From an outsider’s perspective, it is too much work.” Mike and Susan usually take one evening a week and set up the whole week’s paddocks. The Clarks are not spending all the time others are on spraying, fertilizing, cutting, tedding, raking, baling, and moving hay. If you are cutting hay you must focus on hay and it is hard to focus on grazing. Grazing is half the cost of feeding hay so every day that hay is not fed money is saved. Proper grazing management improves soil fertility, weed control, forage production and animal production per acre. Many times they treat it as time together walking the pastures and enjoying seeing their cattle on a daily basis. Their cattle are always willing and ready to move to the next fresh paddock of high quality forage. Plus the daily interaction with the herd creates calmness and docility.
- “Cost of installing infrastructure such as water and fencing.” The Clarks worked with Knox NRCS and SCD to create a conservation plan and applied for cost share assistance to help implement the conservation practices that have assisted in their management goals.
- “Lack of knowledge on high density grazing.” They received technical assistance from NRCS on prescribed grazing rotations. They have also attended several conferences both locally and throughout the state where they have learned the latest techniques on year around grazing, temporary electric fencing, etc.
In 2013 when they switched to high density short duration mob grazing style management, Mike and Susan have been able to increase their stocking rate because of the increase in grass quantity and quality. This management has also allowed a decrease in hay feeding by as much as 60%. They were able to stockpile half the farm in fall and winter pasture in 2014 and plan to stockpile the whole farm in 2015. The Clarks’ change has been so successful their stocking rate is down around 1.28 acres per animal unit. That’s 70,000+- pounds of grazing stock on 90 acres! With the soil health changing so dramatically, they are planning to increase stocking density to 100,000 pounds. They do not buy commercial fertilizer. They enjoy providing the cattle fresh forage daily. Hay is provided free choice for fiber and to help them keep warm in the winter, but the cattle prefer grazing over the hay. They noted that they would not go back to continuous grazing and traditional winter-feeding. They are feeding the soil; thus the soil is feeding the plants, and the plants are feeding and enhancing the cattle and wildlife. Their management is increasing production, increasing soil health, better profits, and a more sustainable operation due to their change in mindset and embarking on high density grazing.