Perry County, Alabama
Perry County Soil and Water Conservation District
Charles Holmes, a sixth generation farmer on his family’s homestead in Perry County, Alabama – established in 1819 – manages 2,000 acres of grazing land, where he raises purebred horned Hereford and Brahman cross cows and calves, and 4,000 acres of forest. Charles is not only a farmer, but also a spokesperson for agriculture. He is chairman of the Perry County Soil and Water Conservation District and serves on NACD’s board of directors.
Holmes’ cattle forage on some of the richest soil in the Black Belt because he intensively manages his pastures to build healthy grasses, improve water quality, and reduce soil erosion. Holmes tests the soil in his pastures at least every three years (including for sugars) and applies the recommended amounts of fertilizers and other nutrients. He has applied chicken litter on some pastures that were recently converted from cropland, trying to build the overall fertility and soil quality.
He uses other conservation practices, too, like prescribed or rotational grazing, fencing, and cross fencing. Holmes has used NRCS financial and technical assistance to plant grass on 515 acres, install 87,268 feet of fencing, and 20,926 feet of water line on a total of 1,090 acres. “Following a prescribed grazing management system is just good business,” Holmes said. “It helps protect the pastures from erosion, keeps the soil healthy, allows for nutrient distribution, and saves time. It also produces more forage and allows more beef production. It just makes sense economically.”
Holmes considers several factors before alternating between resting and grazing his paddocks, including the rate of plant growth, level of vegetative cover, needs of the grazing animal, health of plants and resulting root growth, improved soil organic matter, rain infiltration, and reduced surface water runoff. Currently, his pastures are divided into 8 20-acre paddocks that can be easily subdivided further by moving or adding more fencing. He grazes a paddock for about 14 consecutive days and rotates the cattle based on the forage heights. The pastures are then allowed to rest about five weeks. This method of prescribed grazing, he said, promotes uniform animal waste distribution and helps him manage weeds.
Holmes has also strategically placed watering troughs through his paddocks to minimize soil erosion, promote nutrient distribution and uniform grazing, and limit livestock’s access to sensitive areas. He uses a series of forages, including Bermuda grass, eastern gamagrass, switchgrass, Dallisgrass, and fescue; and native grasses and forbs – like eastern gamagrass, switchgrass, little and big bluestem, and partridge peas – typically come up voluntarily after prescribed burnings. These drought-tolerant native grasses have deep root systems that prevent soil erosion, require minimal amounts of nutrients, are disease resistant, and provide food and cover for native wildlife like bobwhite quails, grassland songbirds, and cottontail rabbits.