Union County, Tennessee
Bobby Ellison is a NRCS soil conservation technician assigned to the Union County Soil Conservation District office. Bobby also provides technical and financial assistance to farmers in Union and Claiborne Counties and works out of the NRCS Field Office in Tazewell, Tennessee. He began his career with NRCS in 1996, later becoming a county employee through a partnership with NRCS, and eventually a full-time NRCS employee in 2000. Bobby says his passion for farming has led him to a career in natural resource conservation, and that his life goal is “to make things better.”
Bobby, a forth-generation farmer, purchased his 800-acre farm with his dad in the 1980s from Bobby’s grandfather. Bobby also raises beef cows (about 150 cows, 138 calves, and a few bulls) and started using grazing best management practices about 10 years ago.
Like most cool season pasture farms, Bobby would run low on high-quality pastures during the warmer and dryer months of July through September and feed hay up to four months out of the year. Wanting to boost his profit margins, Bobby began improving the health and productivity of his hilly-cherty-limestone soils. With healthier soils, he’s been able to graze through the summer, stock-pile cool season grasses, prevent overgrazing, and feed 75% less feed.
Bobby no-tills on about 30 percent of his sorghum-sudangrass acreage and invests about $18 per acre by planting 25 pounds of seed with a no-till drill. It costs Bobby about five times more money to feed hay than to let the animals graze, so he decided to cut feed costs by reducing four months of feeding hay down to 30 days on average. He cuts hay on a few fields with cool season grasses. Once the hay is harvested, he typically no-till drills the sorghum in late May until mid-June, depending on weather conditions.
Bobby harvests the first cutting of sorghum-sudangrass in haylage (forage that is baled at a higher moisture content than dry hay and stored in a sealed plastic wrap) and wrapped in plastic bag. He says the first cutting of haylage produces 35% more than the first cutting of cool season grasses. He cuts haylage a second time, if needed, and wraps in a plastic bag. The second cutting typically produces 25% more than first cutting of cool season grasses. So typically, his winter feed consists of one hay harvest of cool season grasses followed by two cuttings of sorghum-sudangrass harvested as haylage.
Bobby is old-school and believes in filling his hay barn, then cutting haylage for higher protein feed without having to touch his traditional hay during the winter. Once the sorghum-sudangrass reaches approximately 10″ in regrowth, he quits grazing cool season grasses between the end of June and the first of July.
He typically rotates five herds in different paddocks ranging from 18 – 20 acres. The cattle are turned in at 10″ height and grazed to about 4″ in height. Each sorghum-sudangrass field has been grazed about twice by mid-October. The cool season grasses rest starting in July and are grazed as stock-piled pastures beginning after the first killing frost.
Bobby said prior to his sorghum-sudangrass system, he would buy feed and creep feed calves. They would gain about 3.5 pounds a day on mother’s milk and calf feed. With current prices for beef, Bobby is no longer feeding grain. The calves are gaining 2.5 pounds of beef per day per calf by 100% grazing and mother’s milk. The profit is much better.
In addition to planting a summer annual, if moisture conditions are present, he will plant Marshall rye grass in most of his summer annual fields in late October to early November. Keep in mind, all annual species are no-tilled in existing fescue, clover, and other grasses such as orchard grass. No termination is done to existing cool season grasses.
In summary: Bobby grazes cool season pastures from March to June, sorghum-sudangrass in June or July until October or November, followed by stock-piled cool-season grasses for November and December, and finally Marshall rye grass fields through end of December and January. Hay is fed normally in February, while cool season grasses of rye grass and fescue fill out late winter early spring grazing.
If rye grass is left until May and reseeds itself, Bobby saves on that expense, usually 25 pounds of rye grass per acre. If there is a drought, such as there was in 2016, then hay or haylege is fed in fall while the cool season grasses in stock-piled pastures are left to rest. He keeps one centralized area as a sacrifice area where the animals come to receive minerals.
The soil in Bobby’s fields have excellent soil structure that rarely sees overland runoff. Bobby soil tests every two years and his not fertilized since 2016. He has focused on keeping his pH managed by adding lime. Today, his fields are above 6.0, but were as high as 4.0 when he purchased the farm. He said Union County averages 5.2 to 5.4 in pH. Bobby plans to add nitrogen to all fields in 2018.
Bobby says the larger paddocks work for him instead of using electric fencing to subdivide into smaller paddocks. He has water in all fieldsfrom wells, and pipelines to frost-free tanks strategically placed where fields are adjacent to one another for centralized watering. Bobby says four farmers from Union County and four from Claiborne County are mimicking his rotational grazing system.