Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Beginning Farmer

Torray Wilson, Paullina, NW Iowa

There aren't many young farmers (or beginning farmers as they call them in the US) in this part of Iowa, Torray Wilson tells me. Most of the guys around him are in their late 50's and most of them follow a corn/ soybean rotation. Which works for them says Torray, but its a very expensive, borrowing-heavy method of farming to get into. Besides which, he had always had an interest in grazing and looking at the bigger picture.

Torray and family farm about 640 acres organically, he graduated from college in 2005 and has since been introducing new grazing ideas to his farming, luckily he is supported by his open minded family.

He grows organic corn (maize), soybeans and oats and these are sold off the farm for cash. He also has a burgeoning sheep, cattle and pig enterprise. He generally runs his sheep and cattle all together as a mob. He has plans to cull 1/3 of his 300 sheep flock though because he wants to improve the breeding. He has a cross of wool and hair sheep for his flock - he finds the hair sheep don't put on the meat (n.b.hair sheep have a parasite which shed the wool in the spring)

Previously he was doing New Zealand style MiG with cool season grasses, keeping it short. He has since started to let the grass grow longer almost to seed and he feels he has seen the benefits. He says his animals seem more contented with a varied diet. Previously he may have rotated every 30 days or so, now he grazes no more than three or four times a year on a paddock. He doesn't really like the term mob grazing - "the key thing is putting down the litter not the mob and so I prefer to call it planned grazing" he tells me.

"There's a fine line between being out of grass and having too much, too rich grass" says Torray of MIG. He still says he's learning his art but it looks to me that he's well on the way. When I visited he was holding the equivalent of 90 cattle on a 1/4 paddock for the day. What was more he had a lot of stockpiled pasture and then maize stalks in which to keep them for the winter. He has made no hay this year in attempt to push his system - his pasture monitoring tells him he won't need any. When I was there he was deliberately rationing the animals to get them through the winter but in the growing season when he wants to maximise trampling and compensatory growth he has had 180 animal units on 1.2 acres a day.

On the left you can see what a days work with cattle is for Torray. Lift the one strand electric fence and let them through. The area on the left is yesterdays feed. All the trampled down stuff will become soil food for next year. He expects to be back next spring in this field.

Torray likes to keep his mob as one. He notices each species has a different benefit - for example that sheep trample more because there are more hooves per lb. That said sheep predation is a lot less with cattle as they gang up against the coyotes. In the winter Torray will go back to continous grazing for the sheep or give them a bigger area and move them once a week. You cannot overgraze grass in the dormant season so he has more leeway. The cattle will still be moved daily.

The Wilsons can get up to 40" rain a year and so its getting to be the equivalent of some areas of the UK. "If your not careful you can soon turn to mud" Torray told me "so daily moves are important, as is the rest and trampling which continually build your roots and infiltration." When he short MIG pastures they turned to mud a lot quicker.

Torray emphasised to me that if you graze too early in this system you can really reduce your tonnage of grass. So for example if you turn your animals in at boot stage not at maturity recovery is a lot longer. He aims to have a 5-6ft high pasture for them in the height of summer - though this would be helped by the warm season grasses.

For calving in May and June Torray will give the cows a bigger paddock as he thinks the stocking density could be a bit stressful. So for example then they will get two acres a day and then he will increase moves to twice a day in summer on smaller areas.

Photo left: The little blob at the end of the finger is a worm cast. Excretia that is actually new soil. No onther creature can do this and the worm cannot do this or allow soil to become carbon sinks and increase organic matter levels unless theyt get some surface trampling.

At the moment Torray rotates 4 years of pasture with three years of corn, soybeans and oats which are undersown with grass. I was pretty impressed with it all, Torray had only been farming since 2005! The land could clearly handle more cattle and they were planning to scale up in time and buy into the herd that was being grazed (they were custom grazed).

He reckoned that his weakest link was marketing and he wanted to try and get further up the food chain. One thing I have noticed with a lot of these holistic management guys is that they are keen to be price makers, and its not because they can't make the system pay because its efficent, its more to do with having got the management side of things good enough to allow time to focus on developing other things.

He recent ly had an open day on farm and 60 people turned up - more than he expected. He said there was a lot of interest but one of the biggest problems and the age old one I have found in talking to people is that you need to take a paradigm shift ie you need to look at your farming in a different way. And this is one of the reasons that universities and others have found it difficult to put it in their cirriculums. Oh and the fact that you can farm more for a lot less than before which means there's no money to promote it!!

More on Torray here:


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