Brown cows graze in a freshly opened pasture that looks healthy with its tall grass.

Adaptive high stock-density grazing. Photo: Pasture Project

By Lee Rinehart, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, NCAT Northeast

Back in the late 1990s, I was a new county Extension agent in Texas. I met a Brangus rancher who became a friend and demonstration cooperator, and I pitched him a topic that he became immediately interested in. We laid out 11 paddocks and began grazing 24 heifers in a daily rotational system. The lightbulb went on in my head when I looked about the paddock to assess how much they had grazed, and I noticed that all of the curly dock had been stripped bare. What I had observed was a change in grazing behavior, caused by a controlled grazing system that decreased the heifers’ grazing selectivity.

Fast forward to 2020, and the landscape of managed grazing has changed. We understand that we are dealing with a biological system driven by diversity. The powerful principles we learned from management intensive grazing have been refined into an adaptive system of livestock production that can actually regenerate the soil, the water cycle, and the land.

Adaptive grazing improves forage availability and ecosystem functioning, and strengthens grazing landscapes with diversity and resilience. ATTRA has brought together a suite of resources for farmers and ranchers, of all scales and for all species of grazing animals, who are interested in transitioning to an adaptive grazing system.

Consulting the Expert

Black cows move from the right of the photo, which is trampled and grazed pasture, to the left, which is lush and tall grass.

Cows moving to fresh pasture, Sieben Live Stock Company, Montana. Photo: Cooper Hibbard

Dr. Allen Williams, a leading expert in regenerative, adaptive grazing, recommends providing extended periods of rest between short, high stock-density grazing periods on diverse pastures.

This allows for optimum recovery of forages and increases overall forage dry matter production. It also contributes significantly to soil health through the addition of organic matter.

Williams (2019) speaks of three principles that characterize this system:

  1. The Principle of Compounding – our actions result in a series of compounding and cascading events that are either positive or negative.
  2. The Principle of Diversity – highly diverse and complex pastures create positive compounding effects.
  3. The Principle of Disruption – planned, purposeful disruptions build resilient systems with more vigor and diversity and create positive compounding effects.

As such, adaptive grazing is goal-oriented, focuses on stock density and not stocking rate, and is necessarily flexible.

A line of sheep move along a fence through tall, brown grass in front of a mountain backdrop.

Ewes making their way from night camp to the day’s grazing in a dryland meadow. Photo: Dave Scott, Montana Highland Lamb

Rotations, grazing-residue heights, rest periods, and grazing seasonality are never the same throughout the year. This grazing system uses frequent movement and adequate pasture rest for plant root-system recovery, and is highly reliant on temporary fencing (Williams, 2016).

ATTRA Can Help You With Your Grazing System

ATTRA offers detailed guidance on developing your grazing system through instructional videos, podcasts, and in-depth publications.

Videos

Video Series: Adaptive Grazing with Allen Williams

Recorded in November 2019 at the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, Allen Williams leads participants on a pasture walk and discusses the various elements good grazing and pastured livestock production with his engaging style.

  1. Soil evaluation, aggregation, and biology

    Grazing sheep disappear into the tall grass of a Montana flatland with a farmhouse and mountains in the background.

    Stockpiling grass for grazing in southwest Montana.
    Photo: Dave Scott, Montana Highland Lamb

  2. Mycorrhizal fungi
  3. Forage density, paddock size, and animal movement
  4. Forbs and medicinal compounds
  5. Animal density, nutrition, and parasite management
  6. Setting up an adaptive grazing system

Spring Pasture Management series with Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director, Prairie Grove, Arkansas.

  1. Winter Paddock Recovery
    Margo Hale provides a short tour of one of her pastures as spring approaches, and discusses how she manages winter paddock recovery after feeding round bales.
  2. Forage Diversity in Pastures
    Hale discusses the importance of forage diversity in pastures to provide high quality forage and to build pasture soil health.

Regenerative Grazing from the Ground Up highlights Greg and Forrest Stricker’s dairy herd grazing and their use of warm season annuals to supplement their herd with high quality forage while building soil health. Filmed at a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Field Day at Spring Creek Farms in Wernersville, PA, September 19, 2019.

Podcasts

Allen Williams and Adaptive Stewardship Management Grazing
https://attra.ncat.org/allen-williams-and-adaptive-stewardship-management-grazing-podcast/

This podcast, recorded in November 2019, provides a “big picture” view of pastured livestock production and offers insight on the development of Allen’s techniques.

Regenerative Grazing: Outcomes and Obstacles
https://attra.ncat.org/regenerative-grazing-outcomes-and-obstacles/

In this episode, Dave Scott and Lee Rinehart, both specialists with NCAT’s ATTRA – the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service – have a conversation about regenerative grazing.

Publication

Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing (IP306D)
https://attra.ncat.org/product/pasture-rangeland-and-grazing-management/

This publication, published in 2020, contains an explanation of the principles and practices, and further resources, for the kind of grazing Allen advocates in the videos. It’s a good supplement to the videos for digging deeper into the intricacies of grazing and pasture management.

Nutrient Cycling in Pastures (IP136D)
https://attra.ncat.org/product/nutrient-cycling-in-pastures/

This publication looks at the pathways and drivers that move nutrients into, out of, and within pasture systems. It attempts to provide a clear, holistic understanding of how nutrients cycle through pastures and what the producer can do to enhance the processes to create productive, regenerative, and resilient farm and ranch systems. Effective management of nutrient cycling in pastures is simply understanding how nature cycles nutrients in natural grasslands and then mimicking those processes.

Building Healthy Pasture Soils (IP546P)
https://attra.ncat.org/product/building-healthy-pasture-soils/

This publication is a supplement to ATTRA’s Managed Grazing Tutorial session on Pasture Fertility, and introduces properties of soil, discusses evaluation and monitoring of soil quality, and introduces grazing management principles and techniques that promote healthy soil.

Tutorial

Managed Grazing
https://attra.ncat.org/tutorials/

Have you heard that changing the way you manage your grazing animals can change the condition of your land and finances for the better? Interested in finding out more about how managing your livestock can improve your soil health, your pasture condition and your bottom line? This tutorial features sessions taught by National Center for Appropriate Technology specialists who are also livestock producers. They share years of experience managing their own pastures to inspire you to start wherever you are and build or refine your own managed grazing systems. Detailed presentations and real-world examples will get you on the road to managed grazing.

References

Brown cows grazing a pasture, but their heads cannot be seen the grass is so high. Also visible in the fields is a diversity of plant species.

High stock density removes grazing selectivity thereby utilizing forages more efficiently, and returns large amounts of carbon back to the soil through trampling of uneaten forage. Photo: Understanding Ag, LLC

Williams, Allen. 2016. Adaptive Grazing and Relationship to Soil Health (presentation). www.sfa-mn.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Allen.2017.DirtRich-1.pdf.

Williams, Allen. 2019. Personal Communication.

Adaptive grazing is a regenerative livestock production system that uses multiple paddocks, frequent moving of livestock with short grazing intervals, and long rest periods to provide full pasture plant recovery. It is a proven method of increasing the resiliency of pastures by building soil organic matter, increasing soil water infiltration, promoting water conservation, adding diversity, and decreasing surface runoff.

Dr. Allen Williams travels all over the world to teach about adaptive grazing. A former professor at Mississippi State University, he came to the realization that conventional methods of production were not working for many of the farmers he was trying to help. Farmers were having to use more and more inputs to get the same productivity and were having a difficult time staying profitable. This caused him to rethink his approach. He transformed his own ranch in Starkville, Mississippi, using adaptive grazing and, ultimately, he decided to leave academia to become a full-time rancher and consultant. He has been teaching other producers how to implement adaptive grazing on their land ever since.

In this video series, filmed at an in-person workshop at The Piney Woods School, Dr. Williams discusses and demonstrates the principles and benefits of adaptive grazing.

This video series was produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This video series also was supported a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as part of The Piney Woods School Sustainable Farming Outreach Project. The workshop was hosted in partnership with the Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Mississippi. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

Fremontodendron; a species that explodes with beautiful yellow flowers in the Spring.

NCAT’s Western office has completed the first year of its hedgerow planting project. NCAT secured funding to provide hedgerow plants and technical assistance to farmers across California, taking us from as far south as San Diego to Crescent City in the north. All told, we delivered to 80 farmers who ran the gamut of what California offers in terms of farming systems, scale, and crops grown.

As a resilient bunch of plants, these native species have been planted in the deserts east of Los Angeles, the fog draped regions of the redwood forests, and everywhere in between.

The goal of the project was to provide habitat to native species with a mix of 18 different hedgerow plants. A special addition of Narrow Leaf Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) was added to the mix in an effort to grow back a tiny portion of the Monarch butterfly habitat that has been removed in the name of development over recent decades.

Hedgerows can serve many functions. Historically, hedgerows were commonplace in several European countries. They were managed to mark property boundaries and provide a dense

Revegetating a burn scar caused by last year’s fires.

barrier to reduce unwanted traffic from predators and pen-in livestock. Some turned the practice of managing hedges into a specialized skill, even an artform. Many miles of these hedges were eventually replaced due to increasing labor costs and the popularity of labor-saving tools like wire fencing. Like many innovations, the replacement of hedgerows by a more “efficient” technology came with its costs. Erosion, wind, dust, and pest pressure increased, while biodiversity decreased greatly.

Of course, every farmer has their own reason for wanting to plant a hedgerow. As we came to learn, these reasons included privacy, protection against wind, noise reduction, habitat for animals and beneficial insects, soil stabilization, supplemental food production, and beauty.

All told, if we had been able to plant in a single row, this hedgerow project would span 26 miles. And we hope to make it longer. If you are a farmer and are interested in planting a hedgerow, please contact NCAT’s Western office at 530-792-7338. We are planning to secure funding for another project like this one and hope you might be a part of it.

This blog post is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This blog post was also made possible in-part by funding from ATTRA, CDFA Specialty Crop Block Grant (Conservation stewardship training and demonstration for specialty crop growers; investing in your farm #18-0001-034-sc), Regenerative Ag. Foundation, and Environmental Defense Fund.  

Column by Steve Thompson, NCAT Executive Director

The soil that covers 93 million acres of sprawling Texas rangeland holds a remarkable story. It’s a tale of opportunity and ruin. At its best, the soil beneath our feet is the source of life, food, and economic security. At its worst, that same soil can crumble ranchers’ livelihoods and put at risk our local food systems and entire communities.

Much of the western United States is in the throes of a megadrought. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that nearly 60 million people now live in parts of the West plagued by drought. Farmers and ranchers are making hard choices about which herds to cull or land to leave fallow. But in the midst of this megadrought, an expanding network of farmers and ranchers is quietly taking steps to catch and keep more water in the soil that nourishes our food.

First-generation farmers Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank manage 2,000 acres in Texas Hill Country. They’re raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks on rugged land between San Antonio and Austin. It’s beautiful, tough land that Maggie Eubank says has been beat up on for a century. They’re working to change that. They’re using above-ground livestock to take care of the microscopic livestock living underground, which grows more grass and keeps more water in the soil. The Eubanks are turning overworked dirt into healthy soil.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Soil for Water Project is connecting the Eubanks with monitoring tools and a network of other ranchers who are doing what they can to use animals to keep more water in the ground. The USDA estimates that each 1 percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre – or more than an average swimming pool. When livestock are appropriately managed, those animals help build heathy soil that holds more water.

Regenerating farm and ranchland across the United States will have significant and lasting economic, environmental, and social benefits: Allowing vast swaths of the country to withstand drought conditions and bounce back faster after natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and decades of dryness. We know that regenerative agriculture can increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it can improve soil health and biodiversity.

NCAT’s Soil for Water project is expanding beyond Texas this summer into Arkansas, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Mississippi, Montana and Virginia, supporting a nationwide movement of agricultural producers who are leaving the land better than they found it.

For the Eubanks in Texas, they got into ranching in-part because of its powerful mystique, an undeniable connection to the land they grew up on, and their desire to prove that large-scale regeneration can not only repair a century of misuse, but also provide for a profitable business.

Their grass-fed meat is sold at the local farmers market, and they’re selling subscription-style to consumers across Texas. At the same time, the ranch they manage is now sprouting native grasses and water seeps are opening in places that were once bone dry. It’s incremental progress that will take time to fully realize, but the Soil for Water project is ready to be a key player in regenerating and making more resilient farms and ranches across America.

Mark Stewart, a Navy veteran and 2019 Armed to Farm alum, launched a micro-farm business last year on Whidbey Island, Washington. Now, Stewart and his wife Melissa are featured in the Whidbey News-Times.

They saw a need for local chicken on Whidbey Island and opened One Willow Farm last year. Now the busy couple sells eggs, chicken and turkeys. They give their birds nutritious, non-GMO feed without soy or corn.

They have a heritage breed of turkey called Bourbon Red and fast-growing Jumbo Cornish Cross meat chicken. There are several breeds of egg-laying chickens on the small farm. Melissa Stewart also has a few different types of chickens that she keeps as pets that lay eggs in all types of colors – including light green. – Whidbey News-Times

The Stewarts grew up on farms, and tell the Whidbey News-Times the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s Armed to Farm program gave them the tools and guidance needed to be confident in launching their own business.

“We always knew we wanted to get back to farming,” Mark Stewart said.

The couple entered the “Armed to Farm” program operated by the National Center for Appropriate Technology in 2019. The program gives interested veterans an overview of how to get started in agriculture and takes them on site visits to veteran-owned farms.

Melissa Stewart described it as a “one-week crash course in all you need to know about farming.”

She said it is a great resource for any veterans interested in pursuing an agricultural career. – Whidbey News-Times

Armed to Farm is a sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans. The National Center for Appropriate Technology, a national nonprofit organization based in Butte, Montana, developed Armed to Farm through a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development.

Better Than I Feared but Worse Than It Looks

By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

Photo at right: Peach flowers from a previous spring, a sight we won’t be seeing much of this year because of the deep freeze.

A dipping polar vortex delivered a cruel and chilling Valentine’s gift to the Midwest and South on Valentine’s Week 2021. The damage in Texas may be among the worst. It certainly garnered the most headlines. An estimated $300 million winter citrus crop in the Rio Grande Valley is gone. Gone. Worse, it’s likely that the trees in the valley suffered damage, the full extent of which won’t be known for weeks and possibly months. To the non-fruit-growing observer, the trees might look fine but they’re not. It’s worse than it looks.

Near Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I live and grow fruit, we broke the all-time winter cold record at our local airport, Drake Field, when we hit -20 degrees F. (The all-time Fayetteville low is -24 set in 1899.)  At my own ridgetop farm, by virtue of elevation about 500′ higher than Drake Field, we escaped the worst, recording -12. Still, that was about 12 degrees colder than the zero that was predicted, and I feared the worst for my muscadines and my two 3,000-gallon cisterns, which I hadn’t drained. Frankly, I feared those cisterns would be ruptured and rendered worthless (they weren’t). And like the Texas citrus growers, I won’t know the full extent of the damage to my muscadines for some weeks to come. They look okay, but I know from experience that they’re not.

Apple blossom
Luckily, the author’s apples are blooming this spring despite February’s freeze.

Climate change is laden with paradoxes. Overall, it’s clear that the planet is warming. To the Valley citrus grower seeing his oranges frozen and on the ground, it’s hard to believe that the polar vortex is a product of climate change, but it is. Climatologists can explain it in detail, but I hope it will suffice to say here that the added warmth to our planetary system leads to more extreme events: more severe storms, more severe droughts, more extreme heat events and even some extreme cold events. These extremes and the uncertainty surrounding them are worrisome for all farmers, but for the growers of perennial fruits the worry runs even deeper.

An apple grower can’t replant every time a late frost ruins one year’s crop. An apple tree takes years to produce its first crop, and it must produce several crops before it pays back the years of investment. By contrast, a soybean or corn grower might have a couple opportunities to replant in any given year if an untimely freeze wastes his first young seedlings. I’m not saying this is pleasant or comes without expense to the soybean or corn grower, but all is not lost!

But Valentine’s Week 2021 was not just a late frost. This was potentially a tree, bush, and vine killer. Apples, pears, peaches, blueberries, grapes, and all other deciduous perennial fruits have evolved physiological mechanisms to escape death from winter’s cold. Together these mechanisms are known as dormancy. The tree, vine or bush puts itself into a sort of deep sleep that keep it safe until better, warmer conditions return. These perennial plants, depending on the climate where they evolved, will have longer or shorter dormancy periods which can vary among plants. A species, or even a variety within a species, will have a “chilling requirement,” which means that that species or variety must have a certain amount of cold before it can come out of dormancy.

The trunk of a pawpaw tree, split in two places due to freeze damage.
Splits in a pawpaw’s trunk from a previous year’s damage. We won’t see this yet from this year’s cold snap—right now the trunks look fine. This type of damage may not become visible for weeks or months.

This is a safety mechanism keeping the plant from waking up too early when temperatures might still be fatally cold. This all works very smoothly in a more-or-less stable climate. But in an unstable climate characterized by too-warm winters, late spring freezes, and sudden and severe cold snaps, the plant can become confused and come out of dormancy partially or completely and get damaged or killed.

The increasing frequency of such freeze damage events in fruit crops is well-documented and presented in ATTRA’s Climate Change and Perennial Fruit and Nut Production: Investing in Reslience in Uncertain Times. The most common form of this damage is frost killing the flowers, and thus the crop, of fruit plants. This is because the warmer winters are inducing earlier bloomtimes for these crops while the dates of the last killing frost remain roughly the same. For instance, apples might bloom in March now in NW Arkansas—a month earlier than 50 years ago—only to have the flowers or young fruitlets killed by a frost on April 10. This very thing has happened to me with varying degrees of crop loss the last three seasons!

But a more serious form of damage is the potential loss of whole plants when warm winter temperatures render the plants’ tissues tender…and then a cold snap roars in like this one on Valentine’s Week 2021.

It turns out that, for me, this extreme event was not as bad as I had feared.  The pears, apples, bunch grapes and blackberries all look okay, though damage could still manifest later.  Looks like I’m going to have some trunk cracking on a few pawpaw trees. Blackberry and blueberry plants probably lost some fruit buds, but it looks like the plants were spared. The peaches suffered worse, with 99% of the flowers lost in the bud (before they could even open), but the trees seem largely undamaged. And this is exactly how nature planned it. Most of these cold hardy species came through just fine. Even if the crop is lost or partially lost, the plant will live to try again next year.

A muscadine trunk killed by the cold in a previous year is surrounded by new growth sent up from the roots.
The main trunk of this muscadine was killed by the cold in a previous year, but the roots sent up new growth.

I can’t tell quite yet how bad the damage is to the muscadines, but I expect that I probably lost some whole vines, at least to the ground. Resprouts from the roots can replace these but I will still have lost a couple years of cropping before the new vines will begin fruiting. Looking at the southern extent of the freezing temperatures, this will probably be true for muscadines all over Arkansas and probably throughout the South.

In the parts of the South where sub-tropical plants like figs, Asian persimmons, pomegranates, black mulberries, loquats, and similar plants can grow, these will probably be devastated. Some of these, like the figs, can come back from the roots. Luckily, the snow that accompanied the cold provided some insulation keeping soil temperatures considerably higher than the air temperatures. But there will be heart-breaking losses to many homeowners and some commercial growers. I’m thinking sadly of some of the huge dooryard fig trees in East Texas where I grew up that are most likely doomed.

Truthfully, I feel lucky. It’s not as bad as I had feared.  Probably most of the fruit growers farther north from me will only suffer minor damage.  It’s the folks who grow perennial fruits farther south that are and will be experiencing the worst losses. If you’re not a fruit grower you probably won’t be able to tell but it’s almost certainly worse than it looks.

 All photos by Guy K. Ames.

By Guy K. Ames, NCAT Horticulture Specialist

I can hardly think of a perennial fruit easier to grow than elderberries. And I can hardly think of a food item with a stronger claim to health benefits. Coupling the ease of growing with this fruit’s new popularity as an effective medicine, this could be an opportune time for growers to consider establishing an elderberry planting for their family, or perhaps, more ambitiously, a commercial venture.

Elderberry is native from Texas to Maine—an indirect indicator of its ease of culture. It seems to thrive in a wide variety of soils and tolerates both summer’s heat and sub-zero winters. I grow elderberries for their fruit and as a nursery plant to sell. I stick unrooted hardwood cuttings into the soil in late February or March. Many of these sticks will grow into branched plants with fruit in one growing season! I can think of no other perennial fruit that can do that.

As witnessed by surging sales of elderberry products, the general public seems to have absorbed this relatively new medical information. Although perhaps they were predisposed to believe this given the elderberry’s long-standing reputation as an herbal medicine. The most recent scientific research published in March 2019 reveals some of the specific ways that elderberries fight against the influenza virus, a type of corona virus. There is absolutely no direct evidence of elderberry’s possible efficacy specifically against the Covid-19 virus. However, one could guess that the world’s current anxiety over Covid-19 will stimulate sales even further.

Choosing Elderberry Cultivars

As I said at the outset, I can think of few fruits easier to grow than the elderberry. In fact, you might be able to harvest what you want from a wild patch and not have to bother growing them at all! They often pop up at the edges of fields and disturbed sites. One Arkansas wine company, I’ve heard, collects the necessary volume of berries for their elderberry wine from flood plains along the Arkansas River. This makes sense because the periodic disturbance of floods would open up stretches of the bank to sun. Elderberries are opportunistic and will take advantage of a sudden change in its environment.

But if you’re going to grow your own and not forage for them, you might as well start with an improved cultivar with some evidence of high yields and high quality. Up until about 20 years ago, the only available cultivars were from the Northeast and Canada; e.g., Adams, Kent, Johns, Nova, and Scotia. More recently Patrick Byers of the University of Missouri—with encouragement from long-time elderberry grower and advocate Terry Durham—collected, tested, and released two cultivars: ‘Bob Gordon’ and ‘Wyldewood.’ ‘Bob Gordon’ was found wild in Missouri and named after the collector. ‘Wyldewood’ was found by Jack Millican in Oklahoma. In the Midwest climate, ‘Wyldewood’ and ‘Bob Gordon’ outperformed the older elderberry cultivars in trials at different research sites in Missouri. So, depending on where you’re growing, you might want to choose different cultivars.

Elderberry Pests

Elderberries do have a few pests. Powdery mildew can compromise photosynthesis. Eriophyid mites can distort and crinkle the foliage. And I learned by experience that the elderberry sawfly larvae can defoliate a patch in a very short time. Birds, of course, can also be problematic by feeding on the berries. But like most crops, especially perennial crops that stay in the same place for years, weeds are probably the biggest threat to yields. Still, there are solutions to all these problems and they are discussed in an excellent, comprehensive University of Missouri bulletin, Growing and Marketing Elderberries in Missouri.

Since this publication is available in its entirety online at the link provided, and I doubt that I can improve on this information, I see little benefit to you or me in belaboring this topic. I will, however, share this short personal postscript: the fragrant aroma of a hedge of blooming elderberries is one of my favorite scents in the whole world. It never fails to remind me of my dear, sweet, perfumed and powdered grandmother Esther King.

Questions About Elderberries?

Contact Guy with your questions about elderberries or other tree fruit! Call 1-800-346-9140 or email askanag@ncat.org.

By Jeff Schahczenski, NCAT Agricultural and Natural Resource Economist

If you had to allocate $3.3 billion of taxpayer dollars to farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to change how they farm and ranch so as to “deliver conservation solutions” to protect natural resources and feed a growing world, how would you do it?

This year, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will allocate this sum to applicants of two working-lands conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) largely by the means of a new tool called the Conservation Assessment Ranking Tool (CART). On September 17 and 24, and October 8, NRCS and NCAT will present a webinar series that will help farmers and ranchers more fully understand how the CART will assess and rank their applications to these programs.

In the past, farmers and ranchers have accessed these programs to achieve significant improvements in the protection of natural resources and the environment. For example, Montana organic grain farmers Doug and Anna Jones-Crabtree, who began farming 11 years ago, have for 10 years fully utilized CSP and EQIP to great advantage. This year, they have again applied for the CSP and are anxious to hear this fall how they will be ranked by CART. As Anna relates, “through the CSP, we undertook practices such as improved nutrient management, pest management, flex-cropping, cover crop, field borders, and seeding pollinator species.”

But despite the efforts of farmers like Doug and Anna, there are many questions and inherent complications as to how one could and should compare the relative conservation efforts of farmers and ranchers nationwide. Some broad but important questions that need answering, and which will be explored in this webinar series, include the following:

  • Who decides what conservation efforts are of a higher priority than others?

All of us probably have our own ideas about how best to conserve natural resources, limit negative environmental consequences of farming and ranching, and promote the important environmental services that agriculture provides. For example, improving soil health has been a topic of great interest nationwide. Can a tool like CART assure or improve soil health? The simple answer is yes, if embedded within the CART efforts to improve soil health are prioritized.

The more complex answer is that not all farmers and ranchers in every U.S. county view soil health as the primary objective for conservation at the moment. Indeed, the NRCS tries to allow for farmers and ranchers, at local and state levels, to have some input into what they view as most important. However, since we also live within a federal system of government, Congress and the President (through the USDA) have a say, as well. Thus, not surprisingly, a given farmer or rancher in a given state will not be ranked and assessed by exactly the same criteria, nor will their personal priority for conservation solutions assure them of support.

  • Can the best science direct the best conservation solutions?

To continue with our example of soil health, how do we know how best to improve soil health? Does the CART support the best science-based means to assess soil health? Again, the simple answer is that one hopes so, but what is known or not known about how to improve soil health is still very much an open question. In the last session of the CART webinar series, we will explore this very complex issue.

  • What are the best conservation solutions to best serve the public good?

There are some farmers, ranchers, and agricultural and conservation organizations who have had philosophical issues with the very intent of working-lands conservation programs. For example, the CSP concept of rewarding farmers and ranchers for their ongoing conservation efforts is fundamentally different from all other federal conservation programs. Some have argued that if farmers and ranchers are already providing these benefits without public support, then why use scarce public resources to continue these efforts? Others have argued that good stewardship by farmers and ranchers provides a public good or investment. It is argued that we all benefit from these stewardship efforts, and that public incentives are required for continued good stewardship of the land and—more importantly—to encourage those who do not provide these public benefits to consider them. These issues—like many others in our democratic system—strike at the broader issue of the proper role of government engagement in protecting both the environment and the future productive capacity of our natural resources.

By Rex Dufour, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

Photo: Cover crop mix on April 28, 2020. Red crimson clover, mixed with orange California poppy, blue California Phacelia, and pink Persian clover (lower left). These flowers support large populations of predators, parasites, and pollinators.

For the past growing season, my staff and I have been involved with designing and managing a cover crop mix in pecan orchards in Northern California to attract beneficials, which provide some control of two species of pecan aphids. This monitoring took me back to the days in the early 1980’s when I was working as a licensed pest control advisor in Corralitos, CA, monitoring mites, fruit tree leaf rollers, and codling moths in apple orchards in the area.  I enjoyed the work then, and I continue to enjoy observing the progression of a crops biology.  Controlling aphids in pecans with chemicals generally requires two or three spray applications over the season. By planting a cover crop, we believe the grower has saved one or two sprays, one of which would likely have been a neonicotinoid, a class of insecticides which have been banned from Europe due to impacts on non-target organisms.  We’ve also learned that alternate row mowing of the cover crop can extend the flowering and, therefore, the availability of nectar and pollen for supporting a wide variety of beneficial insects that suppress aphid populations. On a personal note, it was an absolute joy to walk around in a diverse cover crop mix, with the perfume of Persian clover all about, while listening to and seeing the incredible diversity of life these practices bring into an orchard, compared to a bare dirt orchard floor. It was a privilege to do this work.

With funding from California Wildlife Conservation Board, this project is a collaboration between the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) to work with two pecan orchards: one at PacGold in Colusa, owned by Ben King; and one at Bypass Farms, managed by Reyes, on the north side of the Sacramento River, just east of Route 5. The goal is to develop habitat in or adjacent to the orchard that can support beneficial insects, including monarch populations.

The major pests of pecans in California orchards are the yellow pecan aphid and the black margined pecan aphid. The yellow pecan aphid is the more benign pest of the two and generally appears first, in the late spring and early summer. Unless honeydew generated by the aphids becomes a problem, the economic threshold for the yellow pecan aphid is an average of 20 aphids per compound leaf during this time of year. It should be noted that these thresholds and dates (outlined below) were developed for conventionally managed pecan orchards without any cover crops.

  • Before June 1: Apply an insecticide for aphid control if honeydew is accumulating
  • June 1 to August 15: Apply an insecticide if the total number of aphids exceeds an average of 20 per compound leaf
  • August 15 to leaf fall: Apply an insecticide if the total number of aphids exceeds an average of 10 per compound leaf

To date, the cover crops have saved the grower of the larger orchard (Pacific Gold, 197 acres) at least one spray, perhaps two. (See Table 1 for cover crop species mix and comments.) Because of the low price of pecans, this grower made a commitment not to spray for the whole season. This is fortunate for us because we can observe the pest-predator evolution throughout the season. The NCAT team does three types of monitoring.  Every two weeks, we sweep at 10 locations in the larger orchard to better understand what beneficials are coming into the cover crop. We also place new sticky traps in the pecan canopy to better understand if the beneficials from the cover crop are moving into the canopy, as well as to determine which parasites and predators are in the canopy. We’ve found many green and brown lacewing adults, other predators, and many species of small, parasitic wasps.

We perform weekly monitoring of aphids in the pecan canopy. This information provides the grower with some good data for making spray/no-spray decisions. We select three compound leaf samples from each of 20 trees located around the 200-acre orchard and count the aphids, as well as green lacewing eggs, and other predators, such as all life stages of ladybird beetle, assassin bugs, syrphid flies, and spiders. The aphid counts are listed in the graph below by date. As you can see, the aphid counts peaked in late August and then plummeted pretty dramatically as predator populations caught up with the aphids. The aphid populations slowly increased and exceeded the late-season threshold of 10 aphids/leaf, but aside from some honeydew and some sooty mold (which grows on the honeydew but doesn’t damage the leaves), I didn’t observe any damage from the late-season yellow pecan aphids. And the late-season counts never exceeded the early-season threshold of 20 aphids/compound leaf.

The aphid populations are being managed by the changing array of predators, including very tiny spiders that weave small webs on the leaves. These tiny spiders feed on the first and second instars of the aphids, just as newly hatched ladybird beetle larvae do. Small predators, small prey. But we also found that small predators, such as very small lacewing larvae and lad bird beetle larvae (second or third instars for you entomologist-types) will attack winged adult aphids (see photos).

In the sticky traps, we found many very small wasps that are either insect egg parasites or aphid parasites, but because of the heavy predation of the aphids, we found very few aphid mummies (aphids that have been parasitized). There was likely a high turnover of aphid populations due to predation, so the wasp parasites didn’t have enough time to mature before their host was eaten.  Having a diverse array of predators and parasites, with different prey and host preferences, provides dynamic and flexible aphid suppression. The photos show some of the predators and parasites we’ve found.

 

 

Photo (right): This second-instar green lacewing larva is taking on a larger, winged yellow pecan aphid. Green lacewing larva are voracious predators of aphid and other small, soft-bodied insects.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo (left): A mama spider and her egg mass. We found many spiders smaller than this preying on aphids.

 

 

 

 

Photo (right): Assassin bug nymphs and adults are later-season predators.  The smaller, newly hatched nymphs feed on yellow pecan aphids.

 

 

 

Table 1: Cover crop species, seeding rates, and some observations

CC Species Name Comments
Persian Clover Seed mix drilled @ 15 lbs/acre on 197 acres. Persian clover (an annual) dominated late spring, and came on after crimson clover.
Crimson Clover Seed mix drilled @ 15 lbs/acre on 197 acres.  Crimson clover (an annual) dominated early spring, and went to seed earlier that Persian clover.
Red Clover Seed mix drilled @ 15 lbs/acre on 197 acres. Red clover (a perennial clover) flowered after first mowing in early/mid June.
Cayuse Oats Seed mix drilled @ 15 lbs/acre on 197 acres.  Oats only appeared occasionally.
Narrow leaf milkweed Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12lbs/acre on 119 acres.  Neither milkweed species were observed at PacGold, but did grow at Bypass farms.
Showy milkweed Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres. Some did grow at Bypass farms.
Common yarrow Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres.  Yarrow was rarely observed.
Lacy phacelia Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres
California phacelia Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres.  California phacelia bloomed early spring in some patches but was not widespread.
California poppy Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres.  California poppy was seen at the edges of dense legume cover crop, and in some of the sparser cover crop mid-spring.
Creeping Wild Rye Part of seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres. Did not observe this growing at PacGold.
Sweet alyssum Seed mix broadcast @ 12 lbs/acre on 119 acres. Sweet alyssum was able to grow at the border of the alley and tree row, where herbicides controlled weeds.

 

 

Alleys in orchards are underutilized as habitat for beneficial insects. What we found was not surprising—planting cover crops in the alleys can provide nectar and pollen resources for a wide range of beneficials, some of which migrate into the pecan canopy in search of prey. It’s good to remember that cover crops, which require management inputs, are an investment in the biological system of checks and balances which supports populations of parasites and predators of aphids and other insects. Investments such as seed costs, planting costs, and other management considerations (e.g., seed drill or broadcast?), mowing costs, can have significant returns. There is, however, a learning curve related to how best to manage the cover crop. Knowledge about when to plant the cover, what species to include, and when to mow, will be guided by experience.

If you’re interested in planting cover crops, there are many resources, including NRCS, RCDs, NCAT, other nonprofits, and seed suppliers. For example, we found mowing alternate rows is less disruptive to beneficial insects. Cover crops are also an investment in the soil, supporting a healthier soil, which will store and cycle nutrients more efficiently, and absorb and store more water.

Due to their long growing season and late harvest, pecans are ideally suited to cover crops. They’re generally harvested in October, and if the trees are irrigated with microsprinklers, cover crops can be grown in the alley for several months to attract and maintain populations of beneficials. Alternate mowing of alleys, spaced about every two weeks, can allow cover crops to go to seed, and at the same time help extend the time flowers can provide nectar and pollen resources for the beneficials.

This blog has described just a few aspects of this project. If you are interested in learning more, contact me at rexd@ncat.org, or 530-792-7338. For information about a wide range of sustainable and organic practices, visit NCAT’s ATTRA website at www.attra.ncat.org.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Overview of Cover Crops and Green Manures

Cover Crop 340 for Organic Systems

Cover Crop Options for Hot and Humid Areas

A Pictorial Guide to Hedgerow Plants for Beneficial Insects

All photos by Rex Dufour, NCAT

 

By Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director, Armed to Farm Program Director, and Agriculture Specialist

Last week, I shared a few thoughts about getting started with livestock.

In the Getting Started with Livestock Podcast, NCAT Livestock Specialist Linda Coffey and I discussed our farm goals, how our livestock enterprises help us meet those goals, and how the goals influence our livestock management. On my family’s farm, we want our livestock to make money, so we are always looking for cost-saving ideas. We also want our livestock enterprises to be easily managed without too much labor. We are a busy family and have focused on time- and money-saving systems.

I want to share with you a few pieces of infrastructure and equipment we have on our farm, why they work for us, and ways they don’t work. I always find it helpful to see how other farmers feed and water their animals. Maybe you will get ideas that you can implement on your farm—or you can send me ideas for improvement.

Watering Systems

As Linda and I discussed in the podcast, providing water is one of the first things you must figure out. On our farm we have a pond, a well, and county water. We also collect rainwater from our barn and sheds. We use all these resources to water our animals on different parts of our farm, depending on how we have our pastures divided and animals separated.

We try to find cost-effective ways to do most everything on our farm, so we like to use recycled materials and captured rainwater as much as possible. In one of our pastures, we have gutters on part of a shed and small shelter that empty into a tub. One of our friends had new gutters installed on her house and gave us the old gutters to use around the farm.

Barn with gutter attached

 

White water tubs for livestock

We did have a regular stock tank here, but it was too tall for our young goats to reach. We had an old IBC tote that we weren’t using, so we cut it in half to use as a waterer. This works great for the goats, but when cows are in this pasture, they tend to stand in these low totes, dirtying the water. It doesn’t take much rainfall to fill this water tub. We do have a water hydrant nearby that we can use to fill the tubs if there hasn’t been enough rainfall.

Metal barn with barrel for water catchment and gravity-fed bowl waterer.

We have a small pasture next to our barn that we use when we have pigs and when our goats are kidding. Our free-range laying hens like to hang out in the barn, so they use this waterer, too. There is a 55-gallon barrel that captures rainwater and fills the bowl waterer, pictured above. The gravity-fed bowl is mounted over a small concrete pad, so the animals (pigs especially) don’t make a muddy mess around the waterer. We don’t often graze our cows in this small pasture, but when we do, this waterer doesn’t work too well. Several cows can empty that 55-gallon barrel quickly!

 

We use a similar set-up at our chicken coop (pictured above right). We have a coop with nest boxes and an enclosed run built on the back side of our shop. The hens have free range of our pastures, but we shut them in the coop at night. Once again, we use gutters on their coop roof, draining in to an elevated 55-gallon barrel. There is a hose from the barrel to a water bowl with a float. Our winters are fairly mild so we can use this system year-round. On occasion, the bowl and hose freeze and we have to carry water to the chickens. We have used this for our flock of about 20 chickens for about seven years, and I’ve only had to put water in the barrel a couple of times.

Hay-feeding Systems

We are in hay-feeding season on our farm, so I will share with you the equipment we use to feed hay.

A metal hay feeding ring with goats standing on the hay inside.

We use a hay ring (above) to feed our cows, but this is problematic if you have goats or sheep. We have a few young goats with our cows right now to keep them away from our billy. They prefer to eat standing on top of the hay, soiling the hay and causing a lot of waste.

Elevated round bale feeder with goats eating hay.

We have an elevated, round bale feeder that we use for our goats. This keeps the hay off of the ground and the goats cannot get on top of it. The cows are able to easily eat out of it, too. This reduces the amount of hay they waste.

Elevated square bale feeder with goats eating hay.

We also have an elevated square bale feeder. We don’t feed many square bales (remember we want low labor), but do use them when we have goats in a small pasture right after they have kidded or are just feeding a few goats. Once again, keeping the hay off of the ground reduces waste.

We move the hay feeders to a different spot each time we feed a bale, typically feeding on an area that needs some extra fertility. There are many different ways to feed hay, but this is what works for us on our farm. Unrolling round bales is a great practice, but we don’t have enough animals for that to be efficient. They would waste too much before eating the majority of the bale. We have rolled out smaller portions of a round bale, but that was time-consuming.

Learning More

There is always trial and error before you figure out what systems work on your farm. I hope this virtual tour of our farm’s watering and hay-feeding systems will help you find what will fit your situation.

The ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture publications linked below have information about infrastructure and equipment for different livestock enterprises. As always, our NCAT Livestock Specialists are available to answer your questions and provide you with additional resources. Please email or call us at askanag@ncat.org or 800-346-9140.

ATTRA Resources

Small-Scale Livestock Production

Sheep and Goats: Frequently Asked Questions

An Illustrated Guide to Sheep and Goat Production

Hogs: Pastured and Forested Production

Hooped Shelters for Hogs

Poultry: Equipment for Alternative Production

Intensive Grazing: One Farms Setup (video series: Nine Chapters)

Managed Grazing Tutorial

Photos by Margo Hale