Archive for July, 2011

Mowing Sorghum Sudan & Cowpea Cover Crop – Wow That’s Alotta Mulch!

I’ve spent this whole weekend mowing our cover crop on our neighbor’s 25 acres, and I’m still not done!  Wow, the sorghum sudan got away from us big time!  The average height was around four feet, but in some areas, it was starting to form seed heads, and the tops reached up to 10 feet.  It was kinda terrifying mowing stuff this tall, especially on a slope, but fun at the same time.

When sorghum sudan gets this tall, its stems can get close to an inch in diameter.  This isn’t good for our plan to rotovate (shallow-till) all the plant matter into the soil so it can decompose and eventually transform into organic matter.  Stems this thick are very fibrous and will take a long time to break down, and we need good decomposition so rough plant matter won’t foul the planter when we plant our winter cover crop in late August. We’ll see what happens!

Thankfully, our bush hog is a good shredder.  Alfred at AgVerra advised us to bush hog the crop twice.  The first time we set the bush hog at the tallest setting, going very slowly in our tractor’s second-lowest gear.  The second time we drove faster with the bush hog at the lowest setting to get a good shred on the thick standing stems.  This worked really well.  It takes forever, of course, but the huge amount of plant matter will hopefully be worth it!

Going so slowly on the tractor gave me plenty of time to observe the crop.  The cowpeas looked really good in most places.  Even though they were getting shaded by the soghum sudan, the cowpeas were dark green, healthy, and just about to flower.  I’d definitely plant this combination again, using more cowpeas and not letting the sorghum sudan get so tall!

It’s nice to think about how much good this cover crop is doing for the soil!  The size of plants above ground are mirrored in the size of their roots below ground.  With a crop this tall and thick, that is A LOT of root mass below ground!  When the crop dies, the roots will decompose, transform into some organic matter, and create lots of channels in the soil.  These channels are nice airways, allowing for better water infiltration and making good tunnels for earthworms.  Also, since plants are photosynthesis factories, shredding all of this plant matter and giving it to the soil means we’re feeding the soil all the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen that the plant has assimilated from air and water, not to mention all the plant goodies – carbohydrates, vitamins, plant hormones, etc.  Since we’re not removing anything from the fields, the net benefit to the soil is huge!

We’ve heard that after a good cutting, sorghum sudan will send down even deeper roots and put on more leafy growth.  This will be great for rotovating some green matter into the soil to mix with all the brown mulch material.  We plan to rotovate in early August.  We’re working on making a front-mounted boom sprayer for our tractor.  We aim to spray the mulch with microbes, enzymes and sugars to speed the decomp process and to rotovate all in one trip across the field.  We’ll let you know what happens!

Raising Grass-fed Livestock – Should We Be Farmers or Ranchers?

Newbie farmers like us have a wild assortment of farming models and philosophies to investigate.  I’ll explain here why we like farming more than ranching for our future grass-fed meats business…

Within the wide assortment of grass-fed livestock farmers, you have on one side of the spectrum the Greg Judy “strict rancher” types that don’t even own a bush hog!  They keep all of their fields in permanent pasture and intensively manage their animals’ grazing.  They make a profit by keeping costs extremely low.  It’s a positive choice on their part to have their dollars in appreciating assets (animals), not depreciating ones like tractor implements.  On the other hand, you have the type that likes to farm more than ranch.  This type has farm machinery to grow annual crops on smaller plots so they’ll have green growing food for their animals to graze year-round.  In my estimation, this type likes to take a more direct, hands-in-the-dirt approach to improving soil and forage quality for their animals.  They probably like farming more too – planting and growing different crops, amending soil, etc.

We’ve decided to adopt more of the farming model.  We gradually came to this decision after about 2 ½ years of visiting different farms, reading, and studying our soil and climate.  Specifically, we’re getting into biological farming, made somewhat famous by dairy farmer Gary Zimmer.  It’s a method that involves amending soil with fertilizers that are friendly to soil life, incorporating cover crops to feed soil biology and to improve organic matter in the soil, spreading compost, etc, etc.  The focus is on the soil, the foundation of every farm.  This choice fits with our farm values, our concern for our sub-par soil, our region’s history, and our personal preferences.

Our farm values are taste and health, and our goal is to produce a very tasty 100% grass fed steak that came from a healthy, happy animal.  Producing gourmet steaks on grass alone is not an easy task whatsoever.  In order to accomplish this goal, we need to make sure the forage going into our animals is top quality, high energy feed.  Our soil has quite a long way to go before it’s able to grow forages like this.  That’s why all our current efforts are focused on improving the soil by carefully fertilizing, growing cover crops, etc.  We could, in addition to using some fertilizers, just use animals to improve the soil.  However, our soil needs so much improvement that I’m a fearful of expecting animals to thrive on our fields.  We’re not willing to deal with animal disease and mortality if we know better and can do something about it.  We’d rather spend money upfront on inputs like quality fertilizers and have fewer animal problems down the road. 

Another factor that went into our choice was our region’s farming history.  Southern Maryland is not known for grazing!  It’s been a farm crop region, primarily tobacco, for hundreds of years.  This should give us a clue.  With some skill and care for the soil, annual crops like corn do quite okay here.  We believe our soil is well-suited to growing annual forages like sorghum-sudan and winter wheat for grazing.  We want to do this any way to keep the highest quality forages possible in front of the animals all year long (e.g, for the winter, winter wheat plants are more energy dense than hay) to make those gourmet steaks.  This desire pretty much necessitates using a tractor and farm equipment – farming, not ranching. 

We really have no way of knowing if our sandy, worn out soil has the potential to help us meet our juicy steak vision, but this is the path that most excites us.  We have a keen desire to see our soil dramatically improve.  We believe that a farm’s true wealth is in its soil quality.  We’re intent on improving the soil as much as possible before we get animals so they can thrive right off the bat.  For our soil, this involves cover cropping, amending the soil, and in addition to having excellent pastures, growing high quality forages for our animals to graze all year.

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