A farm family that raises Angus seedstock and puts most of their farm acres into commercial hay production is the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association’s state winner of the Environmental Stewardship Award Program (ESAP). Greg and Lola Wood and their son Chris operate their farm operation, called BitterSweet Acres, near Greenville in Clay County.

As the Iowa ESAP winners, the Wood family has been nominated for recognition at the regional level, which includes four other states. ESAP was initiated by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and each year, recognizes seven regional winners and a final national winner. Since its inception in 1991, Iowa cattle producers have won 14 regional awards and three national ones. The award is also supported by the National Cattlemen’s Foundation, Dow AgroSciences, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

One practice that makes BitterSweet Acres stand out in northwest Iowa is that they have maintained forage production on more than 400 acres in the face of increasing pressure to convert to row crops. U.S. Census of Agriculture data for Clay County show that there has been a 60% drop in pasture acres between 1997 and 2007. (That 60% is equal to 54,383 acres.)  It’s likely the 2012 Census will show a continued precipitous drop. That’s why farmers who continue to put an emphasis on maintaining pasture and forage production, as BitterSweet Acres has done, increase their environmental value to the state’s natural resources every year.

Dean Gronemeyer, NRCS district conservationist for Clay and Palo Alto Counties, said “Land is under more pressure today to produce food and fiber, and I often see this trend is at the expense of the soil and water resources.” Gronemeyer noted that farmers like the Greg Wood family have shown that farming “can be done in a manner that protects the soil, water and plant resources.”

The forage operation on the farm is primarily a mix of alfalfa/orchard grass. About 35-40 acres are rotated into corn each year, using minimum tillage. The corn provides stalk bales for bedding, and acres for spreading manure when necessary.

The hay is marketed to horse owners in small bales that are packaged in 21-bale bundles, 3x3 square bales, as well as round bales. These options let the Wood family put up hay in a very efficient manner with just two people. Their marketing efforts of the forage has provided a better net return than a corn/soybean rotation.

The commercial hay operation has also changed the soil structure, which generally has poor drainage. The management of the alfalfa/grass hay has increased night crawler populations, which has mellowed the soil and increased its ability to absorb rainfall, rather than seeing the rainfall turn into runoff.

On the cattle side of the farm, the Woods run approximately 75 females that they calve out. The cattle are kept on five rotational pastures located on three farms located within five miles of each other. Each pasture is approximately 25-30 acres in size.

“The environmental goal of our farm is to achieve more production from the grazing operation through better weed control and timely grazing,” Greg said. “This is done by finding a balance in all that we do on the farm operation, such as our philosophy to graze 50% and leave 50%.” Wood said the goal is to move cattle into a pasture when the grass is about a foot tall, and then move them off when it is grazed down to about six inches..

The rate of pasture re-growth is dependent on weather and moisture, so that goal doesn’t always work perfectly. However, “the rest period between grazings does give the pasture a chance to recuperate and maintains ground cover for both wildlife and soil protection,” Greg said.

The family first implemented rotational grazing with improved pasture at the farm in 1999. Through recordkeeping, they demonstrated that calf weights can increase each year without using creep feed. In all, weaning weights have increased by 10-15% since 1999.

Weed control of musk thistle in the pastures also improved. The Woods implemented a two-time approach of chemical control as well as reducing the stocking rate to encourage a healthier stand of grass. A cool season mix of grasses is used on the improved pasture because it is hardy and grows well at the latitude of the farm operation. Fertilizer and manure application on the hills add to the organic matter and allow the grasses to compete more vigorously with the thistles and other weeds.

The biggest benefit has been the increased carrying capacity of the pastures. The Woods can stock 25% more cattle on the same acres while showing improvement of the grass quality, improved condition scoring on the cows, improved pregnancy rate, and the length of the grazing season.

In order to reduce their use/cost of the rural water system for the cattle, the Woods put in a continual flow pump at their home location that makes use of ground water. They installed a solar watering system with EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) dollars. The solar powered system has run every day, providing water to the cattle with no freeze-over or loss of water availability. This has saved $1500/year in rural water costs, and it allows them to keep cattle away from the creeks that run through the pastures so erosion can be controlled during the spring and other high water events.