Mike and Susan Clark
Green Acres Farm
Knox County Soil Conservation District
Mike and Susan Clark own and operate Green Acres Farm near the Holston River, east of Knoxville. The farm has approximately 210 acres, of which 90 acres are in pastures, that produce forages for over 70,000 plus pounds of beef at a given time. Susan’s family has owned the land and raised cattle on it since 1803. In the 1930s it was transitioned to a dairy farm, and in 1972, the farm transitioned back to beef production – this time free-range beef. Mike and Susan took over in 2006.
Together the Clarks manage 39 bred cows, 17 yearlings, around 35 calves – most of which are crosses between Piedmontese, Hereford, Black Angus, South-Poll, and Red Angus. The farm produces forages – primarily Kentucky 31 tall fescue – for the herd throughout the year. In 2006, they worked with NRCS and the Knox County Soil Conservation District to design an alternative watering system and permanent cross fencing. They improved their well by pumping water to a storage tank that gravity feeds four strategically located watering tanks. They also established nine 10-acre permanent paddocks and began following a basic rotational grazing system (on a one- to two-week time frame). Mike described the original grazing system as a train wreck; they had nearly zero grass for the summer.
After attending grazing seminars in June of 2013, the Clarks started practicing strip grazing (for finishing beef on pasture) by limiting the herd to only a portion of the permanent paddock each day. Starting at the water point and extending across the fields, 80 plus temporary paddocks were created using poly-wire and step-in posts, ensuring 80 plus days of forage if it didn’t rain. With normal rain, the interval (or rest period) is shorter and some acreage is left for stockpile, but drought insurance is accomplished and nothing is spent or wasted.
With the new system, they have fed as little as one third the hay of previous years and are not spending any time cutting hay. Since 2013, they have renovated by seeding a diverse mixture of orchard grass, brome grass, fescue, hairy vetch, Will Ladino White Clover, and Cinnamon Red Clover; changes that have provided more balanced, high-density forages and more diverse soil life.
High density grazing over short durations has reduced weed pressure, and organic matter content in the soil has increased from 2.4 to 4.5% in 2006, to 6.1 to 7.4 percent in 2014. Mike hasn’t used commercial nitrogen fertilizer in over five years and is in awe of his soils’ high water holding capacity. The soils are crumbly and granular, and full of earthworms and earthworm casts.
In addition to meeting the cattle daily nutrition with daily rotated diverse forages, the Clarks offer a “cafeteria style” assortment of 16 minerals. As pastures change throughout the seasons, so does the preference of the cattle for certain minerals. Many problems and diseases such as grass tetany and digestion problems are avoided or reduced significantly.
By using cereal rye and clover annuals, the Clarks can increase forage production while the perennials are recovering, while they reduce demand for hay. They utilize one field for hay then stockpile the grass for winter grazing. They feed hay in September focusing on stock piling cool season grasses for fall and winter grazing. Mike Clark says that feeding hay is easier in September than January and February.
For many farmers, the Clarks say there are some barriers to using conservation practices. They include:
- An aversion to change. Mike and Susan had to change the way they managed their farm to a system that was “different from the norm.” Some farmers and ranchers don’t want to make those changes.
- “From an outsider’s perspective, it is too much work.” Mike and Susan usually take one evening a week and set up the whole week’s paddocks. The Clarks are not spending all the time others are on spraying, fertilizing, cutting, baling, and moving hay. Plus, grazing is half the cost of feeding hay. Proper grazing management improves soil fertility, weed control, forage production, and animal production per acre. Many times they treat it as time together walking the pastures and enjoying seeing their cattle on a daily basis. Their cattle are always willing and ready to move to the next fresh paddock of high quality forage. Plus the daily interaction with the herd creates calmness and docility.
- “Cost of installing infrastructure such as water and fencing.” The Clarks worked with Knox NRCS and SCD to create a conservation plan and applied for cost-share assistance to implement conservation practices.
- “Lack of knowledge on high density grazing.” They received technical assistance from NRCS on prescribed grazing rotations. They have also attended several conferences both locally and throughout the state where they have learned the latest techniques on year around grazing and temporary electric fencing.