On Judy Farms we have changed our way of thinking on harvesting solar energy. We are now focused on “The Whole”. To further explain we now have our sights on promoting as much diversity as possible on every inch of our farms. Nature is our best role model that we have available to us. We must look at what happens in nature without forcing our will on her. In the end nature always wins and we want to manage our farms to win right along with her.
There is a quote on a major university agriculture building that reads. “Nothing In Nature Is Given, It Must Be Won”. Can you imagine such a quote being taught to our college kid’s. Basically what I interrupt the quote as saying is that you have to battle nature at every step of the way or you lose! Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to go over some of our management practices that focus on working with nature.
Nature is all about diversity. The more species of plants and animals that you have on your farm, the stronger your farm is. There is nothing sustainable about a monoculture. I cringe when I see one species of anything growing by itself. It is a wreck waiting to happen. If one particular field of a single species plant is growing by itself, there will be problems. Nature does not work well with monocultures. There are a host of bugs that will attack fields that have one single species of plants. The same goes for animals, together they are a symbiotic relationship, they support each other.
Diversity of wild animal species on your farm should be a major consideration. The more species of animals that you can attract to your farm, the stronger it is. Each additional species supports other species that come onto the farm. I don’t care what they are: ants, centipedes, bugs, squirrels, bobcats, deer, turkey, groundhogs, hawks, moles, etc. I guess if I lived in Texas, I could do without the fire ants! All of these animals perform a role and form “The Whole”. Without diversity, your farm can never attain it’s true potential.
Let’s look at domestic animals and how they sustain each other. With cattle and sheep being grazed together or even in a leader follower rotation, neat things start to happen. Our sheep eat a lot of the plants that cattle don’t really like. Forbs make up a large portion of their diet. Most weeds are fair game to a sheep, along with multi-flora rose bushes. This weakens the brush and weedy type plants and the grasses can take advantage of their weakened state of the brush.
I have changed my mind since we started multi-species grazing. I do not want to kill our brush or weeds anymore. If we kill these plants, our sheep and goats will run out of a preferred food source. I can control the spread of these plants by how much pressure we put on them with grazing. The cattle go after the grasses and legumes along with certain forbs. You can put 50 head of sheep in with 100 cattle and never miss the forage that the sheep eat. The best payoff is that your pastures get better, you have two different animals that have different grazing habits.
When we look at the parasite cycle it gets even better. The sheep parasites are ingested by the cattle which act as a dead end host for the sheep parasites. The sheep do the same with the cattle parasites. The two species are helping each other fend off parasites. The same thing happens in nature. The more we concentrate on managing in sync with nature, the better we get along on our farms.
By grazing cattle, goats and sheep, you now have three different markets to sell into as well. We have all heard the phrase, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. I have heard many folks speak of the horrible experiences that they have had grazing sheep. Most sheep folks that live in humid wet areas work constantly trying to keep their sheep alive. They drench them every month to rid them of parasites. Do you know how fast a month comes around? Much faster as I get older. I have much better things to do than worm sheep. There is an old quote that every morning a sheep wakes up, it says to itself, “Today is a good day to die”. Well this may be the truth if you don’t get the right kind of sheep. Our sheep flock is the lowest cost, lowest labor requirement, highest profit margin animal that we have on our ranch.
We have developed a parasite resistant flock of St. Croix hair sheep. They are the most easy keeping sheep that we have ever owned. They require nothing but grass, salt and a guard animal. We have never wormed an animal. After they got done dying, we were in the sheep business. We were left with a hardy parasite resistant sheep flock. There is no weaning, no docking, no shearing, no hoof problems, no shots of any kind. They winter on stockpiled pasture without any hay or grain. They actually winter easier than cattle. They dig through ice and snow for their food. Their thick hair coat keeps them extremely comfortable even on the coldest days.
Their average lambing rate is 1.8 lambs/ewe. They lamb on pasture unassisted in May. The lambing period is two weeks. It still amazes me how quickly they are done lambing. Non-pampered sheep are the perfect companion for a herd of cattle. Our ewes average around 120 lbs at maturity. Takes seven St. Croix ewes to equal what one 1000 pound cow will eat. Do the math on that one and see what your return on sheep is versus a cow unit!
Our goat flock is grazed on a large farm that has the mob of cattle rotated through it. The goats go after anything with a thorn on it. If you force goats to eat grass, they will get parasites eventually. We have never wormed our goat flock. I think our success for lack of parasites is that our goats never eat below their knees. They have tremendous selection and are stocked very lightly. The parasites are down in the lower volumes of forage, hidden from the sun.
The wildlife on our farms is now exploding with the Holistic Planned Grazing that we are using. Our soils are alive with life of all forms. You can dig your fingers down into our soft rich top soil and uncover worms, grubs, bugs, larvae, ladybugs and many other soil critters. There are over two billion microbes in a cup full of good managed soil. That gets me excited, knowing that all I have to do is to make a home for all these tiny forms of life and feed them. When you look at our forages, you can tell that our microbes are working overtime in our soils.
We just finished giving a farm tour and the folks asked why our pastures were so much greener than our neighbor’s fields. I replied that we are focused on working with nature with every motion we take on our farm. Some folks do not realize the importance of this crucial practice and the benefits attached with it. It is exciting to see our landowners come out and exclaim, “Wow what a beautiful pasture”. That charges my engine and I want to make it even better by focusing on what nature gives us for free.
Our farms are now magnets for wildlife because of our new grazing methods. With the increased animal impact, abundant ground litter, long recovery periods and increased brix readings, the wildlife are drawn to our farms like a siphon. We are able to harvest solar energy through the wildlife by selling hunting leases for deer and turkey. The last two years our hunters have harvested four bucks that just barely missed the Boone and Crocket record book. I love seeing big racked deer myself, never lucky enough to see them in hunting season though!
Two years ago during the fall deer firearms season one of our landlords harvested a huge buck. He was absolutely the happiest fellow you ever saw. One of my deer outfitter friends came by and told me that he had a hunter that would have paid us five thousand dollars to pull the trigger on this particular buck. I replied that we received more than that for the deer. We now have a happy landlord that never wants to terminate our grazing lease. His former bankrupted soil farm is now one of our best.
Ian Mitchell Innes and his wife Pam were staying with us during that particular deer season, preparing for our fall grazing school. Our excited landlord drug Ian out to his truck to show him his trophy buck. Our landlord exclaimed, “Man I have got good genetics on my farm”. Ian calmly replied, “ Sir you have always had the genetics, what you have now is Greg and Jan’s good forage.” The landlord grinned and agreed 100% with Ian. Folks you got to feel good when you make your landlords happy by working with nature in your grazing program.
This past spring turkey season, I was working on calling in a gobbler on one of our leased farms. The sun was just coming up and the gobbler was gobbling his head off just over the rise from me. All of a sudden I saw this creature sneaking down the ridge toward me. It was a monster bobcat stalking what he thought was a hen turkey. The bobcat got within 20 feet of me and locked up. He could sense something was not right. The bobcat and I faced each other for about 30 seconds and he bolted off.
I did not get the turkey, but calling in that bobcat made my whole morning hunt so memorable. Our sheep flock and guard dogs were right across the fence from me. I told this story to my neighbor that has livestock and he exclaimed, “Why didn’t you shoot the devil”. That bobcat living on our farm tells me that we are going the right direction by providing ample small mammals for him to prosper as well. Every species that you can draw onto your farm supports an additional 8 new species. We never lose any lambs or sheep to bobcats, they are just making our farms stronger.
Think of your farm as a spider web. If you throw a large rock through a spider web, what happens? It makes the spider web weaker, the same is true with your farm. Remove any species and now all of sudden you upset the balance of nature, your farm pays the ultimate price. Next thing you know you are spending money to try to fix the gaping hole in your farms web of life.
In wrapping up, you can harvest more solar energy on your farm by focusing on “The Whole” in nature. Our farms are much more sustainable because of our renewed focus on harvesting solar energy over the whole farm. Focus on the soil animals that you cannot see. Keep your soil surface covered with litter and they will come. The microbes are the life line to our forages roots and our grazing future. By focusing on working with nature and multi-species, there are tremendous opportunities waiting for you