Union County Soil Conservation District
Bobby Ellison and his father purchased his farm in 1980 from his grandfather. Bobby runs this 800-acre operation with 150 cows, approximately 138 calves and a few bulls. Ellison is also a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservation Technician assigned to the Union County Soil Conservation District office and the NRCS field office in Tazewell, Tenn.
About 15 years ago, Ellison made the decision to improve his soil health and productivity. He saw improving his soil health as a way to achieve better grazing in the summer, stock-pile cool season grasses, prevent overgrazing, and feed 75 percent less feed to his cattle.
Ellison no-tills sorghum-sudangrass on 30 percent of his acreage. It costs him five times more to feed his cattle hay than letting them harvest forage, so he has cut feed costs by reducing the amount of time he feeds them hay from four months to about 30 days.
He experimented with other additions to his sorghum-sudangrass system and has now established a great annual grazing system. He 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 Marshall rye grass fields through end of December and January. He normally feeds hay in February, while cool season grasses of rye grass and fescue fill out late winter/early spring grazing.
Ellison also rotates his five herds in different paddocks, ranging from 18 to 20 acres. He turns the cattle in when the grasses are about 10 inches in height and lets them graze it to about four inches.
The new grazing system has provided many benefits. His profits have increased, as he no longer needs to buy feed. His calves gain weight by mother’s milk and grazing alone. Soil structure has greatly improved, and carbon is continuously added to the system with continued root growth and the urine, slobber and manure from his rotating herds.
Through these methods, Ellison has changed his soils and his bottom line in less than 10 years. So far, eight other farms in his area are mimicking his system, and more are sure to follow.
Updated August 2019.