GREENVILLE - High commodity prices continue to make producers rethink what they can do get the most return from their farm land. A Greenville-area farm family has figured out their own way to do that, while making natural resources protection their No. 1 priority.
Greg and Lola Wood and their son, Chris, operate Bittersweet Acres, an Angus seedstock operation that puts most of its acres into commercial hay production rather than row crops.
The family received an award called the Environmental Stewardship Award Program from the Iowa Cattlemen's Association in December. The family has been nominated for recognition at the regional level, which includes four other states.
-Messenger photo by Karen Schwaller
Chris Wood moves a few cow/calf pairs out of the barn to get some fresh air. They had just begun calving two days before this photo was taken. Their rotational grazing program has lent itself to an increase in calf weights without the use of creep feed. Weaning weights have increased by 10 to 15 percent.
"One practice that makes Bittersweet Acres stand out is that they have maintained forage production on more than 400 acres in the face of increasing pressure to convert to row crops," said Dal Grooms, communications director for the Iowa Cattlemen's Association. "U.S. Census of Agriculture data for Clay County show that there has been a 60 percent drop in pasture acres between 1997 and 2007. It's likely the 2012 Census will show a continued precipitous drop."
She said the 60 percent drop is equal to 54,383 acres.
Pasture and forage production, she said, are crucial to cow-calf production in Iowa, and that it's the start of the balanced beef production for which Iowa is known.
Dean Gronemeyer, NRCS district conservationist for Clay and Palo Alto counties, said that land is under more pressure today to produce food and fiber, and he feels that it comes at the expense of the soil and water resources.
"Farmers like the Greg Wood family have shown that farming can be done in a manner that protects the soil, water and plant resources. As pastures are converted to cropland, fertilizer rates increase and buffers along the streams diminish," Gronemeyer said.
The forage operation on the Wood farm is a mix of alfalfa and orchard grass. They rotate 35 to 40 acres into corn each year (using minimum tillage), which provides stalk bales for bedding and acres for spreading manure when necessary.
Their hay is marketed primarily to horse owners, and family members agreed that their marketing efforts of the forage has provided a better net return than a corn/soybean rotation.
"We like raising hay, and we had to put up enough for all of our cows anyway," said Greg Wood. "Most of our hay goes to Oklahoma and Texas, and some goes to New York and Florida, Kentucky and Alabama. We just picked up on a niche market."
The Woods bale all those acres of hay themselves with no outside help, using a large round 4-by-5 baler, a big square 3-by-3 baler and small square baler. They use a Bale Bandit to bundle small square bales into 21-bale units for shipping. The units are then moved with their own tractors and equipment. All 400 acres of hay, once baled, can be stored inside on their Clay County farm.
Grooms said the soil structure of the farm land has changed because of the commercial hay operation. It typically had poor drainage, but that the alfalfa/grass hay mix has increased the night crawler populations, which has mellowed the soil and increased its ability to absorb rainfall, rather than have it turn into runoff.
The Woods also have 75 cows that calve each year. They rotate among five pastures within five miles of each other. Each pasture measures 25 to 30 acres.
"The environmental goal of our farm is to achieve more production from the grazing operation through better weed control and timely grazing," Greg Wood said. The Woods graze 50 percent of their pasture at a time, and leave 50 percent.
Gronemeyer said rotation is the best approach to sustainable pasture management.
"There is no cookie-cutter or 'one-size-fits-all' approach," he said. "The key to most grazing systems is to rotate and give some of the grass a rest. The ideal way would be to have enough cows to leave a little bit of stubble without going down to the ground, then letting it rest for 14 to 21 days, (depending on weather and heat conditions)."
Gronemeyer said even with the weather variables, the rotation gives pastures a chance to recuperate and maintains ground cover for both wildlife and soil production.
"Greg has effectively implemented a rotational grazing system that provides an optimal balance of grass condition and carrying capacity while meeting the herd's nutritional requirements," he said. "He realizes the value of the grass and is careful not to overgraze, or allow the cattle out too early in the spring when conditions are not optimal."
Gronemeyer said that Wood taught him about the value of proper fertilization rates and timing, and that pulling a harrow across the pasture to disperse the cow pies has a positive impact on cow grazing habits.
He added that Wood has gone the extra mile to provide water for the cattle and ease their own need for rural water by installing a solar-powered pump and a fountain. It was purchased with Environmental Quality Incentives Program dollars. The system has cut the family's rural water bill in half and has saved costs associated with erosion.
"The water source allows him to fence off the stream that runs through the pasture, which prevents the stream bank from becoming eroded, and the cattle from urinating and defecating in the steam," Gronemeyer said. "He has also reshaped and reseeded two steep banks to become more stable. These eroded areas had no grass and contributed to sedimentation into the adjacent steam prior to Greg's efforts."
The Woods family first implemented rotational grazing with improved pasture at the farm in 1999. Their records have shown that calf weights can increase each year without using creep feed. In fact, weaning weights have increased 10 to 15 percent since 1999.
Musk thistle control in the pastures has improved, and they have implemented a two-time approach to chemical control and reducing the stocking rate to encourage a healthier stand of grass. A cool-season mix of grasses is used on the improved pasture because it is hardy and grows well at their location. Fertilizer and manure application on the hills add to the organic matter and allow the grasses to compete more vigorously with the thistles and other weeds.
"The biggest benefit has been the increased carrying capacity of the pastures," said Grooms. "The Woods can stock 25 percent more cattle on the same acres while showing improvement of the grass quality, improved condition scoring on the cows, improved pregnancy rate, and the length of the grazing season."
The Wood family makes their farm available for tours to non-farm interests who would like to learn about conservation, as well as to cattle producers who want to improve their conservation practices.
Gronemeyer supported the Wood family's nomination for the ESAP Award.
"There are many cattlemen that do an admirable job of producing high-quality beef. Greg Wood has shown to his peers - and several others - that it can be done in a manner that protects the soil, water and plant resources," he said.
As for the Wood family, they just do what they know how to do, award or not.
"We were really honored to receive it," said Greg Wood. "We're not here very long in the scope of the whole world, and we just want to make things here better than they were when we came, so we raise a little hay. We're starting to get into a little bit of cover crops now. We have to take care of the land."
Wood said more producers should check into expanded forage production and rotational grazing practices for the benefit of their cow herds.
ESAP was initiated by the National Cattleman's Beef Association, and each year recognizes seven regional winners and a final national winner. The ESAP award is supported by the National Cattlemen's Foundation, Dow AgroSciences, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.