Ryan Metcalf and Winslow Goins got some funny looks from neighbors when they started converting Cool Spring Plantation from cotton to forages.

“Our operation is unique for this area of the state,” says Metcalf, the plantation's general manager. “This is peanut and cotton country.”

Metcalf and Goins, who has a long-term lease on the Halifax, NC plantation, made the conversion for several reasons.

“This was a good cotton farm — not a great one,” Goins says. “But sometimes, average land can make very good grassland.”

Cotton prices are in a slump, too, he says.

“Cotton is a highly subsidized crop right now. and it's hard to predict if the U.S. government will continue to do that,” he says.

Raising forages is also a good way to supply high-quality feed for Goins' new herd of purebred Black Angus.

“By making the conversions all at once, we've been able to systematically design where to put water lines and shade shelters to best utilize rotational grazing,” he says.

More than half the farm's 1,400 acres are now seeded to grasses. About 50% of the new pastures are stands of Max Q tall fescue, some interseeded with clover, and others are Coastal bermudagrass interseeded with winter rye.

“The conversion was relatively easy to plan and accomplish,” Goins says.

After retiring from the food-processing and distribution business, Goins started assembling his premier herd of Black Angus a few years ago. He traveled to farms and sales across the country to buy females with strong pedigrees and exceptional type.

“It's not unusual to spend $20,000 or more for a good female,” he says.

He flushes the best donor cows for multiple embryos and implants them in recipient cows. The current herd includes 350 cows, 120 heifers and 300 calves.

Last May, their first production sale was held at the plantation, with plans for the second this year.

“Our goal is to assemble a premier herd of cattle. We'll market the females to other Angus breeders and the males to commercial producers,” Goins says. He already has one bull listed with a Wisconsin AI company, he notes.

It starts with soil testing

The first step in the cotton-to-forages conversion was soil testing and fertilizer application.

“The soils in this area are sandy, so it's difficult to hold nutrients in place for an extended period of time,” Goins says. “We've learned that applying smaller amounts of fertilizer at more frequent intervals is what works best.”

His bermudagrass requires a lot of nitrogen — up to 300 lbs./acre in four or five applications.

During summer, cattle rotationally graze the bermudagrass. It's stocked at a rate of two cow-calf pairs/acre. The fescue is rotationally grazed in spring and fall with a stocking rate of more than one cow-calf pair/acre. Average daily gains for youngstock are more than 2 lbs.

“Our goal is to graze 10 months/year and allow 1.5 acres of pasture/mature animal,” he says. “This is a challenging target, and we'll move herds as often as weekly to accomplish our objectives.”

To extend the fall grazing period, good-quality hay is fed free-choice.

“As the fall grass nears depletion, we add free-choice corn silage mixed with lower-quality hay,” Goins says. “The cows consume more than 30 lbs. of corn silage/head/day.”

Any grass left after the grazing period is cut and put up in round bales. Other stands are used strictly for baling, with the fescue harvested twice and the bermudagrass up to five times. About 90 acres are under center-pivot irrigation.

Ann Behling is a Northfield, MN freelance writer specializing in forages.