The NCAT Gulf States Office and Gaining Ground – Sustainability Institute of Mississippi (GGSIM) sponsored a farm field day to draw attention to a combined cattle/poultry/swine operation for its sustainable practices.
About 70 people attended — lots of them young moms and dads with small children who are interested in buying locally grown food. It was my honor to be asked to explain to them how and why sustainably grown food is as important as it being locally grown food – to the environment, to the consumer, to the farmer.
In this particular operation, the Clay County, Miss., farm of Johnny Wray, cattle, poultry and swine are used to improve the habitat and their own health by allowing each animal to do what it does best.
Patterned on the model made popular by Virginia farmer/author Joel Salatin, their hogs are cleaning out overgrown areas of the farm by rooting through underbrush and uprooting saplings. The chickens are housed in chicken tractors which are flat cages that allow the chickens to range through grass after the steers have moved through.
The cattle are “mob grazed” – kept in a bunch in approximately one acre paddocks, where they eat most of the grass offered. The chickens follow, eating the vegetation that the cattle don’t like and eating the bugs that are there, along with those drawn to the cow patties.
What results is a flat, extremely fertile field that appears mowed like a golf course.
From that, by naturally eradicating weeds, indigenous prairie grasses are exposed to sunlight and allowed to come forward in the pasture. So that, next time, after the field has been rested, the cows and chickens will have even denser forage that is even more nutritious. The farm has only recently added the pastured swine to the mix.
Instead of depleting natural resources, the rotational grazing of combined cattle and poultry improves the soil and forage as well as the health of the animals. That’s what is meant by a “sustainable” system.
As owner Wray notes, he no longer has to apply fertilizer to his fields or cut hay from them to artificially supplement his cattle. He grows them grassfed and finishes them himself without having to send them to a feeder lot. Though he keeps the cattle longer, they sell for much higher than otherwise. Plus, since they are grassfed and not fed corn or treated with chemicals, he fetches a higher price from consumers who are don’t trust chemically or artificially raised animals. He says he has more orders for his grassfed beef than he has cattle.
Wray is partnering in the cattle business with Elton Dean, a neighbor who is also a member of GGSIM’s Food Systems Committee. The operation is managed by Dustin Pinion and Ali Fratesi, who live in Starkville. The couple now has about 350 laying hens and 800 meat birds at Wray’s High Hope Farm, said Fratesi, who sells their eggs and pesticide-free produce on Saturdays at the High Street Farmers Market in Jackson, MS. They have more than 700 members in their buying club.
The couple has operated Beaverdam Farm in Indianola for about four years. Dustin apprenticed under Salatin in 2011 and is showcasing his talents in partnership with Wray and Dean.
The NCAT/ATTRA website has a number of articles on pastured beef, swine and poultry production, including rotational grazing, and other practices — and printed copies were handed out at the field day.