Forages win out in this operation

A farm family who raises Angus seedstock and puts most of their farm acres into commercial hay production was named winner of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association’s Environmental Stewardship Award Program for 2012. Greg and Lola Wood and son Chris operate BitterSweet Acres, near Greenville in Clay County in northwest Iowa.

As the Iowa ESAP winner, 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 across the U.S. and a final national winner.

Key Points

Northwest Iowa family farm is named environmental stewardship winner by ICA.

Farm maintains forage production, resisting pressure to convert to row crops.

Hay marketing effort is providing better net return than corn-soybean rotation.


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, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A practice that makes BitterSweet Acres stand out in northwest Iowa is maintaining 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 shows 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 yearly.

Forages are a good fit

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

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

Hay is marketed to horse owners in small bales packaged in 21-bale bundles, 3-by-3 square bales and round bales. These options let the Wood family put up hay efficiently with two people. Their forage marketing has provided a better net return than a corn-soybean rotation.

The commercial hay operation has also improved the soil structure, which generally has poor drainage. Management of the alfalfa and grass hay has increased night crawler populations, which has mellowed the soil and increased its ability to absorb rainfall, rather than rainfall running off.

The Woods run about 75 female cattle that they calve out. Cattle are kept on five rotational pastures located on three farms within five miles of each other. Each pasture is approximately 25 to 30 acres in size.

Better grazing, better returns

“The environmental goal of our farm is to achieve more production from the grazing operation through better weed control and timely grazing,” says Greg. “This is done by finding a balance in all we do on the farm, such as our philosophy to graze 50% and leave 50%.” The goal is to move cattle into a pasture when the grass is about a foot tall; then move them off when it’s grazed down to about 6 inches. Rate of pasture regrowth depends 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,” he says.

The family first began rotational grazing with improved pasture in 1999. Through recordkeeping, they demonstrated calf weights can increase each year without using creep feed. In all, weaning weights have risen by 10% to 15% since 1999.

Weed control of musk thistle in pastures also improved. The Woods began using 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 hills add to organic matter and allow grasses to compete more vigorously with thistles and other weeds.

Increased carrying capacity

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 grass quality, improved condition scoring on cows, improved pregnancy rate and length of the grazing season.

To reduce their use and 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 groundwater. They installed a solar watering system with funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The solar-powered system runs every day, providing drinking water to the cattle with no freeze-over or loss of water availability. This has saved $1,500 per year in rural water costs, and allows the Woods to keep cattle away from creeks that run through pastures — so erosion can be controlled during the spring and other high-water events.

Grooms is communications director for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

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WINNERS: A northwest Iowa farming family is named 2012 environmental stewardship winner by the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. Greg Wood and son Chris have most of their Clay County farm’s acres in hay and forage.

This article published in the May, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.