Big Spring Farm
Trousdale County, Tennessee
Second generation farmer Greg Brann has worked as an NRCS state grazing lands soil health specialist for Tennessee for 20 years (and the agency at large for nearly double that). He also owns and operates Big Spring Farm comprised of 220 acres of pasturelands in Allen County, Kentucky, and approximately 108 acres of rented pasturelands in Trousdale County, Tennessee.
Since 2010, Greg has held his annual “Pasture Walk” (pictured at left) to showcase his method of rotational grazing (high intensity grazing for three days) for his cattle, sheep, and goats (all one herd). The pastures that Greg originally had were predominantly Kentucky 31 Fescue. Over time, a variety of cool and warm season species have been strategically seeded for grazing and land management. In recently grazed pasture, Greg promotes cover and sees his remaining residual grass as a soil builder. He says many farmers make the mistake of grazing all top growth, leaving no residual cover for the soil.
Greg says that if he leaves grass to recycle instead of grazing, he ends up with 125 percent of what he would have had. Greg rests his paddocks for minimum of 30 days and up to 45 days, and only feeds hay (produced off-site) sparingly. Greg baled some hay a couple of years ago, but stopped after he estimated that he had lost five years of production from that one hay harvest if the nutrients removed are not replaced with fertilizer.
Fertility is maintained at medium to high levels on all fields. Greg plans to lime this field sometime this year to maintain a pH of 6.2 across the entire farm. Due to the increased organic matter in the soils resulting in higher buffering capacity of the soil, Greg only limes approximately every five years, as called for by soil tests.
He raises sheep (about 400 ewes, Katahdin Breed), goats (about 30 does, Kiko Cross), and cattle (60 cows, cross bred with several breeds). Stocking rates are dynamic just like in nature when food is plentiful stocking rates go up and vice versa. In a cow-calf operation such as Greg’s, the best way to manipulate stocking rate is have fewer cows and keep the calves longer. This allows a relief valve when stocking rates need adjusting. The ratio of different species is also adjusted as vegetation changes due to grazing pressure and recovery times.
Greg manages 16 permanent pastures split into 45 paddocks with the use of temporary fence. Watering facilities are available in each paddock and are strategically moved to promote more intense grazing in areas of a paddock which are being underutilized. Greg has noticed higher fertility near water locations due to higher concentrations of manure and moves them periodically to adjust the fertility.
Greg calculates that 80 percent of the nutrients in the grasses grazed return to the soil through manure. Greg feeds hay and grazes only pastures only 20 percent time while stockpiling 80 percent in September. Feeding hay in September is much more pleasant than having to feed it in December-February. Greg sacrifices some areas for hay feeding, but says for every two acres sacrificed by feeding 100 rolls of hay, the livestock provide $3,000 worth of fertilizer and $100 worth of seed.
When Greg reseeds, he uses three pounds of rye grass, one pound of Ladino White Clover, two pounds Cinnamon Red Clover, three pounds of hairy vetch, and less than one pound of turnips. When grass is reduced he adds Select Tall fescue, Persist Orchard Grass, and 2 pounds of Prairie Brome Grass.
Greg utilizes all of his pastures and some wooded areas (but fences off significant forestlands). Greg has found that cattle will congregate at the beginning of natural draws due to cooler temperatures in summer. He has begun to fence off areas to deter cattle congregating in these areas to prevent gully erosion. Generally it takes two acres to pasture one animal unit (1,000 pounds). An acre of land costs approximately $3,200/acre in Greg’s community, so two acres per animal unit is worth $6,400. When degradation occurs by overgrazing, one is degrading the soil both above and below ground. When the vegetation is weakened or destroyed, reestablishment can cost up to $300 per two acres. It is unreasonable to sacrifice $6,700 for a $1,500 calf, Greg says, so he makes it a priority to protect the structure of his farm – the soil.
Soil organic matter continues to increase on Greg’s farm. Now it’s at 4 percent. Greg’s strategy is simple. He lessens disturbances, maintains continuous root growth, keeps the ground covered, and promotes vegetative diversity. Greg has found that more cover reduces evaporation and maintains more soil moisture. He hasn’t had to apply fertilizers for over eight years, and has found maintaining higher grazing heights reduces parasites.