“If I have improved my pasture so that the animals have to harvest it, rather than me, then I don’t have to take my mowing machine or my rake or my baler out to make feed.”
- Dan Grigson,
agriculture and natural resources agent
If the grass seems greener across the fence, you might be looking into Angie and Jeff McAlmond’s farm in eastern Bourbon County. In country where the hills begin their thrust toward Eastern Kentucky, the McAlmonds took scrubland covered with honey locust and sagegrass and turned it into a nutrient-dense smorgasbord for their cattle.
Above: Jeff and Angie McAlmond
The verdant hillsides on Roy Reichenbach’s Lincoln County farm are not a result of grass, but alfalfa that supports a thriving cash hay business and several hundred head of stocker cattle on the side.
The McAlmond and Reichenbach farms illustrate the shift in the state’s agriculture in the wake of the tobacco buyout—about eight million of the state’s 14 million agricultural acres are now devoted to forages.
They are examples of what good pasture management practices can produce on Kentucky’s slopes and shallow soils.
The McAlmonds took advantage of the naturally occurring tall fescue on their slopes and improved it with a mix of orchardgrass, timothy, and red and white clover. They divided the 300-acre property into fields varying in size from 10 to 50 acres, added some ponds, and followed the cattle from field to field with a mower to keep the weeds down. The two have turned low-output slopes into high-value pasture.
From left, Glenn Mackie, Gayle Martin, and the McAlmonds
According to Gayle Martin, Angie McAlmond’s father, and advisor and partner to the couple, the farm had its most successful year in 2007, despite extraordinary heat and drought, by using nitrogen-fixing clover, nutrient-dense forages, and as natural fertilizer, cattle waste products.
“You’re letting Mother Nature return what it needs. Last year we had the soil tested, and it needed nothing,” Jeff McAlmond said, noticeably proud of their accomplishment.
When money is spent on adding supplements to the soil, it reduces the profit from the cattle, he said.
“We’re really grass farmers, and cattle are just the by-product,” he said.
Their system works. During last summer’s drought, they took advantage of strong cattle prices and sold their stock two months earlier than usual but 40 pounds heavier per head.
Still, to go from scrubland to a self-sustaining system in less than four years might seem extraordinary. Ask Martin how his daughter and son-in-law managed such a feat, and he’s liable to jab his finger in Glenn Mackie’s direction and say, “Well, we got his advice.”
Mackie is the agriculture and natural resources agent in Bourbon County. He is there to help, with a soil test, the results of new research, or just insight from years of experience. In the McAlmonds’ case, he recommended building on what nature had already provided.
“This land is fescue pasture. That’s what it is, that’s what it’s going to be, that’s what it ought to be,” he said. “You’ve got to improve it, and clover’s the way to do it.”
“The nutrient level in the clover will be much higher than the grasses. And the nonfescue forage, be it clover or be it orchard or bluegrass, will dilute that fescue down. It will dilute that endophyte,” Mackie said, talking about an internal plant fungus that can be harmful to livestock when ingested in large doses.
Hand-in-Hand with Extension
Dan Grigson (left) and Roy Reichenbach
Roy Reichenbach has been a fixture in Cooperative Extension for decades, serving on Lincoln County’s extension council and agricultural advisory board and the extension district board.
Between hosting field days and offering his land for demonstration plots, he keeps abreast of the newest findings from UK’s forage research program and is instrumental in sharing the knowledge he gains. He did early demonstration seedings of no-till red clover and alfalfa. In addition, he participated in some of the first on-farm research done on grazing alfalfas. He was also one of the first people in the area to try plastic-wrapping high moisture hay, a practice that produces good silage.
“He’s one of those guys who is always receptive to new technology and any new ideas that come along,” said Dan Grigson, Lincoln County agriculture and natural resources agent.
As proof, Grigson pointed out that Reichenbach, despite his experience, enrolled in extension’s Master Grazing Education Program. “You can always learn something else,” said Reichenbach, disputing the notion that after 30 years he pretty much knows everything. “New things develop all the time, new ideas or new things that will work.”
On Reichenbach’s farm you’ll find cattle, corn, and tobacco, but forages are his number one focus, and alfalfa is his forage of choice.
Steep land that isn’t devoted to producing hay is given over to cattle. Reichenbach rotates about 450 head at a time through 75 acres of hilly pasture that is an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix.
“The big savings on improved pasture is the labor and equipment cost,” Grigson said. “If I have improved my pasture so that the animals have to harvest it, rather than me, then I don’t have to take my mowing machine or my rake or my baler out to make feed.”
The Equine Pasture
Horses, living on a diet of grass alone, are a different matter. Horse farm owners don’t necessarily want fescue pastures. Glenn Mackie is familiar with their needs because Bourbon County’s west side is home to numerous Thoroughbred farms.
“But they’re on the type of land where we don’t have to have the fescue,” he said, referring to the fact that horse farms are situated on flatter terrain with a richer Maury soil than is found on the McAlmonds’ property. “We can go in and totally reestablish that land in orchard, ryegrass, bluegrass mix and just have a straight grass pasture.”
Again, UK provides the research and advice to help landowners make the right management decisions for their horse pastures. Under the College‘s Equine Pasture Evaluation Program, the farm owner, for a fee, receives a pasture-by-pasture analysis of soil, plant composition, and recommendations based on the findings.
People Don’t Realize the Value
Rotating pastures can help increase a farm’s net profit by increasing the yield per acre, reducing equipment and fuel costs, feeding supplements, and capitalizing on animal waste as a natural fertilizer.
“People don’t realize the value of what they have,” said Ray Smith, University of Kentucky forage specialist, who works in collaboration with the USDA-ARS Forage-Animal Production Research Unit based in the College. Smith and other UK researchers provide the information to enlighten forage producers.
Forage and grazing research being conducted at UK’s Maine Chance and Spindletop farms is broad and varied. There are studies examining what grasses horses prefer, which ones hold up to their close grazing, and field tests of native warm season grasses and summer annuals. Grasses and legumes are tested for resilience under grazing. Varieties are tested under a range of circumstances so farmers like Reichenbach and the McAlmonds know what to plant and how to manage it.
Then, the answers pass from UK to farmers through agents, publications, and special extension programs such as the Master Grazing Education Program and the Master Cattleman Program.
The Simple Things First
With any livestock, a strong grazing program can make a noticeable difference in the animals’ health and the farm’s bottom line. To those considering improving their pastures, Ray Smith says, “manage what you’ve got better.”
“If you don’t do anything more than putting up some fence so that you’re controlling what the cattle graze, that’s an important step. If you can take your one pasture and make it two, then you’ve increased your options. Even better would be if you take that one pasture and divide it into four,” he said. The more pastures, the more options a farmer has to try new plant varieties and mixtures and to experiment with grazing duration.
Do the simple things first, said Smith, and then look toward UK and Cooperative Extension for the research that backs up future decisions.
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