Lowndes County Soil and Water Conservation District
Bill Eastman, his wife Sandra, daughter Shannon, and son Gordon run Magowah Ranch on the western edge of Lowndes County, Mississippi. The family operation is located in the southern portion of the Black Prairie Belt – a 30-mile wide, 300-mile long “L” shaped-ecosystem of prairie soils that starts at the Tennessee-Mississippi border and runs south into central Mississippi and turns east into central Alabama.
The Eastmans took over the ranch in 2012 when it consisted of 650 acres of abandoned pasture, 500 acres of winter wheat and soybeans, and another 640 acres stocked with mixed pine and hardwoods of various ages. They quickly went to work enclosing 1,715 acres with 9-foot high tensile net wire fence for grass finishing cattle, Axis deer, goats, sheep, hogs, and chickens.
Now the ranch is subdivided into pastures with over 15 miles of 4-strand, high tensile permanent electric cross fencing and polywire, and tread-in posts for temporary fencing. Bill doesn’t till the land or use herbicides, insecticides, anthelmintics, or commercial synthetic fertilizers. He feeds hay in round bales unrolled on good and poor soils to help build organic matter content.
To protect water quality and promote water-use efficiency, the Eastmans installed over 45,000 linear feet of 3-inch HDPE underground water line and a 900-foot well to service 23 water stations constructed from grain bin rings. “Each water trough is 15 feet in diameter and 30 inches deep with a 120-foot wide concrete apron to eliminate mud problems,” Bill told NACD.
Each trough is covered by a sunscreen that keeps the water about 12 degrees cooler in the summer. “Water of this quality encourages livestock to drink more, which leads to increased forage intake and proper fermentation and digestion,” he said. Bill also fenced off riparian buffers to protect the stream bank and promote proper drainage.
The 500 acres that just a few years ago were planted in wheat and soybeans are now planted with annual cocktail mixes to provide the right nutritional requirements for grass finishing livestock and boosting soil health.
“We sod-seed the annuals with no-till Aithison GrassFarmer and Tarver Plant-O-Vator drills and spray GroPal Balance, which provides nutrients and trace minerals while infusing bacteria, fungi, and other microbes in the soil,” Bill said. “We are excited about our results with the cocktail mixes and the initial response to the GroPal Balance. As always, the animal impact gained by Adaptive High Density Grazing is greatly beneficial to soil life and overall soil health.”
“Our abundant rainfall is both good and bad,” he explained. “If we get it spread out through the year, we can grow an abundance of forage. However August, September, and October are our driest months and also when we need moisture for germination and growth of our winter annuals. We hope to address this problem by installing center pivots over the next two years in our annual fields to fill in gaps in our moisture needs.”
The Eastmans also struggle with poor soil drainage in their silt-clay soils during wet winter months. “As we all know, mud adversely affects both animal health and animal performance. To mitigate the mud problem, we’ve moved livestock accordingly on a daily basis, adjusting our long-range grazing plan as needed. We are also gradually establishing warm weather sod (Pensacola Bahiagrass) to hold the livestock up as they graze the winter annuals we sod-seeded. Of course our long-range efforts to reduce the mud problem are directed at building soil organic matter to increase water infiltration.”
“Another challenge we face is summer heat stress,” Bill said. In a cow-calf operation where animals are on the same ranch from birth to finish, genetic selection can minimize the problem; but the Eastmans finish cows from different locales. “We try to obtain animals that were raised south of us or no more than 100 miles north of us. We are also using practices to reduce the percentage of Kentucky-31 fescue in our pastures to minimize the endophyte toxicosis heat stress exacerbates.”