It was with the idea of bumping up forage productivity on their Ozark, AL, commercial cattle operation that had Chris and Monica Carroll first start kicking around the idea of a controlled grazing system. It did that, and more.

With help from USDA, specifically the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Administration (FSA), the Carrolls, including Chris's father and partner, Heyward, embarked on a production and conservation makeover for 4C Land & Cattle Co. They shaved weeks off their winter hay feeding, cleaned up the creek running through the farm and provided a wildlife haven for deer, turkeys and quail.

A trip to the fall '98 grazing school at the University of Missouri's Forage Systems Research Center at Linneus set the events in motion. Monica, then an NRCS employee, wanted to become more proficient at developing grazing plans for the producers in her county. Husband Chris, interested in the idea of a management-intensive grazing system on their ranch, joined her.

“We had a very mild, back and forth rotation,” says Chris. “When we went up there, we saw the benefits of a more intensive system and worked it out so we could move them in a circle.”

Actually, it turned into two separate rotation areas for the 300-cow herd. One pasture is divided into six paddocks of approximately 45 acres each, while the other pasture is made up of four paddocks. The perimeter is made of five-strand barbed wire and the dividing fences are one strand, all electric.

The forages are nothing exotic. Separate pastures of Pensacola and Tifton 9 Bahia grass, both commonly grown, warm-season perennials, are the mainstays.

“Pensacola and Tifton 9 really work well together,” says Chris. “Tifton 9 helps extend the grazing season.”

Auburn Extension agronomist Don Ball agrees. “Tifton 9 does seem to provide additional days of grazing in the early spring, but especially in the late fall and early winter, at least before the really cold weather hits.”

Stretching The Season

The Carrolls stretch their grazing season even more by stockpiling the Bahia grass.

“We try to stockpile another 30 days worth,” says Chris. “We let it grow from mid August until mid September. With a real mild fall, we won't have to supplement.”

Their winter forages are ryegrass and clover. The Carrolls let the cows graze the Bahia down short, then broadcast the ryegrass and clover seed.

“We try to plant it by the end of September and let the cows walk it in when it is wet,” says Chris. After the cows tramp it in, he takes them off until the forage is 6-8 in. tall.

“It's pretty expensive to plant the ryegrass and clover,” Chris comments. “But it has helped us tremendously extend our grazing season — especially in the late winter and early spring. That's when we need it.”

The Carrolls let the forages dictate when to move cows to the next paddock. They try not to let the Bahia grass get below 2-3 in. high and leave at least that or another inch or two for the ryegrass.

“The more foliage you leave, the more photosynthesis and quick re-growth you'll get,” says Chris.

Ball comments, “Grazing height is not nearly as critical with Bahia as it is with other species. It has a lot of leaves down near the soil and stores a lot of food in the rhizomes.”

When it comes to the ryegrass and clover, University of Missouri forage specialist Jim Gerrish says the Carrolls are on the right track, especially on the upper end of their minimum height.

“Particularly that far south, even in January, you'll have days when it does re-grow. Ryegrass has to rely on the residual leaf area for photosynthesis — it doesn't store much energy,” Gerrish says.

Gerrish, who runs the grazing school the Carrolls attended, says work in Missouri shows a big difference between ryegrass grazed to 1 in. compared to 3 in. When the livestock are moved off the ryegrass when it is still 3 in. in height, it starts growing faster in the spring and produces more forage.

Saved 60 Days Of Hay

The Carrolls have already seen the benefits of their carefully managed rotational grazing system.

“I figure we cut 60 days off our hay feeding,” says Heyward. “We feed an average of five or six rolls a day for 60 days. That is 300 to 360 rolls at $25 a roll — $7,500 to $9,000.”

“If we see we're getting into a situation in the fall where the grass quality is going down, we'll supplement them,” adds Chris. “The longer we can keep them on grass, though, the lower our input costs are going to be. It gets the mixer wagon off the road.

“Since we started rotational grazing, our forage has definitely improved,” he comments. “It evenly distributes the grazing and gives the land some rest. I think we produce more forage per acre.”

Ball isn't surprised. “You can get better utilization of forages with better grazing management,” he notes. “It's the same concept as feeding hay. If a producer puts up 60 rolls of hay, he shouldn't give his cattle all 60 rolls at once. They'll lie on it, trample it, deposit urine and manure on it and otherwise waste it. It's basically the same concept with the pasture if you give the cows access to all of it at once.”

The Carrolls have discovered better utilization isn't the only benefit. “It has made the handling of our cattle much easier,” says Monica.

Heyward agrees, “They are used to you moving them. You better not go over there and blow your horn.”

Improved water quality, at least in their case, is another big bonus. At the same time that Chris was designing the paddock layout, Monica eyed the creek running through the system.

“There was a lot of erosion,” she reports. “The cows were making a big mess along the creek banks, especially in the summer heat when they stood in the creek.”

Auburn agronomist Mary Miller-Goodman agrees with Monica's observation.

“Cattle can have a negative impact on water quality if they have uncontrolled access to a stream,” she reports. “This comes mainly from increased sediment caused by damage to the banks, which causes an overall decrease in water quality. If animals linger in streams, bacteria levels can increase as well.”

Water Quality Help

Fortunately, Monica thought of a solution. “When I was working for the NRCS, I learned about the continuous CRP (Conservation Reserve Program). I thought, ‘what better way to improve the water quality and tie it all together.’”

A version of the tried and true Conservation Reserve Program, the continuous CRP program is in place specifically to improve water quality.

“Several practices are eligible,” says Craig Peters, NRCS district conservationist for Dale County, AL. “Those include practices that get livestock out of streams, improve the habitat around streams for wildlife and establish grass or filter strips in farm land.”

NRCS provides the technical assistance, while FSA supplies the money. The Carrolls used the cost share and water quality incentive funds (90% of the project's estimated cost) to dig a deep well. They connected it to a system of 2-in. PVC pipes leading to a trough in the center of each paddock.

The troughs are discarded industrial tires, acquired for the cost of hauling ($15 to $20 each). The Carrolls packed a dirt pad with their bulldozer, ran the plumbing through the middle of the pad, set down filter cloth, then set the tire down on the filter cloth after trimming the top sidewall to the tread. They filled the bottoms of the tire with sacked concrete mix and put rock and crusher run around the outside. The result is fresh, clean water in a cow-proof package.

“They'll walk through the creek to get to a trough, then drink it down in a heart beat,” says Heyward. He adds, “It's a maintenance-free trough and it virtually eliminates a freezing problem.

“We like the watering system so well we're going to put troughs like it in our preconditioning lots,” he adds. His only complaint is it is hard to find the tires.

Since they were able to provide fresh water for their cattle, they could fence them out of the creeks and plant buffer strips for erosion control and wildlife habitat on the creek banks.

In January, a visitor spotted a wild turkey gobbler making his way through one of the buffer strips. Whitetail deer and coveys of quail are also a normal sight.

In addition, the Carrolls installed two creek crossings. In one, they built a dam and installed a culvert. In the other, they put in a hardened creek crossing for both cattle and farm vehicles. They scraped the dirt down 6 in., put filter cloth on the sides of the creek and geo-web in the creek bottom and then filled it with #4 stone. Next, they covered the whole crossing with crusher run.

“We drive a ton truck and a hay wagon across it, and it doesn't give a bit,” says Chris.

Miller-Goodman says this is another effective water-quality booster. “Controlled stream access can greatly reduce potential impacts on water quality by protecting the stream banks and reducing the amount of time cattle spend in the stream,” she says.

Peters comments, “The Carrolls have taken the initiative to improve their farm and sought all avenues available to improve the quality of their cattle.”

Then there is the ever-important bottom line. “It is cost effective,” says Heyward. “The savings in hay will pay for our part of the fence and watering system.”

Becky Mills is a rancher and freelance writer based in Cuthbert, GA.

For More Information

Interested in finding out whether your operation is eligible for continuous Conservation Reserve Program participation? Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office. Program eligibility and benefits vary by area and are subject to change due to the farm bill currently in progress. As for now, however, producers can apply until Sept. 30. You can also look at the NRCS Web site at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

For more information on the Linneus grazing schools, contact Jim Gerrish, Forage Systems Research Center, 21262 Genoa Road, Linneus, MO 64653; call 660/895-5121, fax 660/895-5122 or e-mail gerrishj@missouri.edu.