Whole Farm Planning Supports “Natural, Sustainable System”
In the fall of 2019, the Kansas Rural Center will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Over those four decades, we have sponsored a number of programs and projects all geared toward building a sustainable agriculture and food system to benefit our common rural/urban future. As time passed and funding sources changed, projects have disappeared, been absorbed elsewhere, or morphed into new efforts under other organizations or institutions. This year, Rural Papers will feature a few stories of these projects and profiles of some of the participants to mark progress over the long haul and add clarity to ongoing issues and challenges.
Below is a story from KRC’s Clean Water Farms Project, which ran from 1995 through 2013, and one of the rancher participants. In the next 2 or 3 issues, we will cover KRC’s Community Wind and Wind for Schools efforts (2007-2009), the first statewide Kansas Food Policy Council, (2005), and the 1980’s Farm Crisis Farmer Advocate Network.
When Barry Barber of Cowley County was getting started back in the mid-1990’s, he was excited about what he terms “a natural, sustainable system.” When KRC spoke with him in late 2018, he still had that excitement, and is looking to pass the operation and enterprise on to the next generation.
The operation has changed over the years. “We no longer raise cow-calf, but only finish calves on grass for our grass-fed beef direct-marketing business,” Barber says. “Our multispecies perennial polyculture especially lends itself to finishing gourmet-quality grass-fed beef under a management-intensive grazing system. We run approximately 50 beeves through this program each year.” Barber was one of the initial Clean Water Farm Project farmers to use cost-share to set up his management intensive grazing system. The below description of his enterprise is excerpted from his 2001 profile and updated in 2018.
As a new tenant in 1996, Barber began the conversion of cropland and cattle feeding lots to a grazing system. Barber recognized the potential for contamination of both groundwater and surface water in Timber Creek and a farm pond. The open feedlots and the intensive tillage of the cropland increased the chances of soil loss. Heavy deposits of manure in the lot as well as high fertilizer and pesticide use for corn production increased the potential to wash nutrients, bacteria and chemicals into local streams along with the soil.
Barber’s objective was to develop a model for other small family farms and ranches. Specifically, he wanted to create a profitable and environmentally-friendly operation using management-intensive grazing and value-added marketing. The grazing system he started with consisted of planted
forages on 34 acres in addition to 90 acres of existing native pasture. An additional 80 acres of native grass was cooperatively grazed with a neighbor’s herd during the 45-day breeding season.
Barber began by planting a mix of Eastern gamagrass, clover and lespedeza on 34 acres of cropland in May 1996. The planting date was late because of drought. The stand was thin at first with heavy weed pressure. Mowing in July and September at a height of 8 inches kept the pigweed down and allowed the grass to grow and thicken during establishment.
High-tensile fencing was installed to create paddock divisions in both the native pasture and the gamagrass. The fencing also limits access to Timber Creek. Watering points were created in each gamagrass paddock with a pressurized water line and pop-up risers.
In June 1997, Barber hayed the gamagrass, which yielded 1.5 tons per acre. He then grazed it with 18 cow-calf pairs for 30 days from mid-August. In April 1998, the gamagrass residue was burned, then hayed in July. Barber grazed cattle on the native grasses early in the season and moved to the gamagrass in mid-summer. Because he had planted the gamagrass, which is similar to corn, into continuous corn ground, he had a strong infestation of Johnson grass. By using management-intensive grazing techniques, he found the cattle ate the Johnson grass first, the legumes second, and then the gamagrass. In each paddock, he moved the cattle when they started eating the gamagrass. He nearly eradicated the Johnson grass by the summer of 1999 using this technique.
In the spring of 1999, he overseeded birdsfoot trefoil into the gamagrass. That summer it yielded 4 tons of hay per acre and supported 11 cow-calf pairs and eight yearlings from August 20 to the end of the season.
Barber typically hayed the gamagrass in mid-June, leaving it at a height of 8 inches. Once the grass came back on, he began paddock grazing. Because they preferred the legumes, the cattle got primarily legumes with some gamagrass. He felt this was an especially useful system for finishing calves that he marketed in late October. The gamagrass hay was stored for winter feeding.
Barber has continued to make improvements for the watershed as well. In 1999, he planted a riparian forest buffer along Timber Creek with assistance from Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). Eleven acres were planted to 2,400 hardwood trees and native grasses. In 2017, he completed a timber-stand improvement project on this CCRP acreage with assistance from the Kansas Forest Service. “We have also planted several pollinator areas and have experimented with additional native forb and cover-crop plantings,” Barber says.
In getting to this level of healthy land management, Barber today gives credit to the Kansas Rural Center. “The KRC River Friendly Farm Project, funding and technical assistance, was instrumental in forming the backbone components needed to carry out all aspects of our grass-finishing operation in a holistic manner,” Barber says
As Barber looks to the future, he recognizes that he and his wife, Nadine, are reaching retirement and are hoping to transition the farm to the next generation. Their children and some young farmers and ranchers in the area are interested in continuing the farm with a strong land-management ethic and grass-fed beef business.
For farmers who are looking to create a clean-water farm, Barber suggests starting with the following four steps:
1.Provide alternate water for livestock away from streams and rivers.
2.Put up strategic fencing to limit livestock access to surface water.
3.Develop alternative wintering areas for cattle away from streams and rivers.
4.Plant a riparian area along a stream or river.
Barber says, from a grazing standpoint, to “keep things simple and especially flexible by minimizing the use of permanent fencing and relying on temporary low-impedence electric fencing, polywire and tread-in posts. Utilize multiple species to ‘create a grazing buffet’ and reduce monoculture planting, plus incorporate cover crops for grazing.”
This article and the CWFP Overview include content from KRC’s Clean Water Farms Project and was adapted and updated in 2018 by Jennifer Kongs & Mary Fund as part of the KRC’s 40th Anniversary reflections.