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CASE STUDY A Diversified Crop and Livestock Farm in Virginia: The Sabot Hill Farm SABOT HILL FARM is located a few miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia, in Goochiand County. Run by Sandy and Rossie Fisher, the farm is large in comparison with other farms in the eastern United States. The land is in one parcel of more than 3,000 acres, half of which is in forest. The Fishers purchased an adjoining farm of an additional 480 acres 4 years ago, making their total holdings 3,530 acres (Table 1~. The average size of a farm in Goochiand County is 200 acres. GENERAL DATA Sabot Hill is a diversified beef cattle, forage, and cash grain farm. The livestock enterprise consists of 500 head of cattle. Three hundred cows are bred to calve in the fan, and 200 are stocker cattle. The Fishers produce hay both as cattle feed and as a cash crop. They plant approximately 125 acres in an alfalfa-orchard grass mixture grown on Madison soils and normally harvest from 3.5 to 4 tons per acre. This hay is square-baled and sold primarily to neighboring horse owners. The Fishers grow orchard grass on another 65 acres, which yield 1.5 tons per acre. The rest of the hay acreage (300 acres) is a mixture of fescue, Johnsongrass, legumes, and millet, which is primarily used on the farm or sold as cattle roughage. Yields of 2 tons per acre are common (Table 2~. Corn and soybeans are major cash crops. The Fishers produce approxi- mately 175 acres of corn each year, of which 75 are irrigated, and 150 acres of soybeans. They also participate in the Federal Feedgrains Commodity Program and raise the corn to maintain their corn base. The established yield at the farm is 78 bushels per acre. The Goochiand County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) corn base average, by com- 275
276 TABLE 1 Summary of Enterprise Data for the Sabot Hill Farm Category ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE Description Farm size 3,530 acres, 500 beef cattle Labor and The family provides farm management and much of the labor, management although there are several hired employees. Animal births are practices timed to coincide with the maximum amount of available labor. Livestock management The farmer raises 300 cow-calf units and 200 stocker cattle. A practices Hereford-Angus cross is predominant, with some other breeds raised on a trial basis (for example, Brahman). Feeder calves are grazed with no supplement used. Marketing strategies Cattle are sold in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, market in 60-head lots. Weed control practices The farmer interseeds native Johnsongrass with legumes and harvests it as a crop until the grass is depleted. The farm uses a 2- or 3-year rotation of corn, hay, and soybeans. The estimated . . . . savings on chemicals is $2D,000 per year. Insect and nematode No insect or nematode problems are reported. control Disease control Pinlceye (conjunctivitis) and lumpjaw (caused by eating foxtail) are practices the major livestock diseases. All cattle receive complete injections for bovine diseases. Calves are not fed antibiotics. Soil fertility The farmer uses 2- or 3-year rotations with corn, hay, and management soybeans sometimes double- or triple-cropped. Commercial fertilizer (20-20-20) is applied at corn planting; 30 pounds N is applied by side-dressing. No other crops receive commercial fertilizer. Irrigation practices The farmer irrigates 75-175 acres of com with moving sprinkler guns (280-foot diameter coverage). Other crops and some corn are grown dryland. Crop and livestock Hay yields range from 1.5-4.0 tons/acre. Corn yields are 100 yields bushels/acre dryland and 165 bushels/acre irrigated. Financial performance The farmer reports annual savings of $20,000 on chemicals, largely ~ , .. . ... . . . . . Because or the snot trom chemical control of Johnsongrass to cultural practices (overseeding with competing legumes and harvesting as hay). parison, is 61 bushels per acre. The Fishers' primary focus, however, is on maximizing forage production, the main feed input to their beef cattle. PHYSICAL AND CAPITAL RESOURCES Soils The topography of Sabot Hill runs from flat cropland along the James River to rolling to steep hillsides, which are primarily in permanent pasture, hay, or forests. Most of the land is not well suited for row-crop production. The soils include Louisburg, Madison, and Pacelot varieties. The Soil and Conservation Service (SCS) has placed Virginia's soils into four categories according to their productive potential for specific field and
THE SABOT HILL FARM TABLE 2 Crops and Yields on Sabot Hill Farm, 1986 . 277 Crop Acreage Yield/Acre Cash grains Corn, dryland 100 100 bushels Corn, irrigated 75 165 bushels Soybeans 150 34 bushels Forest 1,500 Hay Alfalfa-orchard grass 125 3.5-4.0 tons Mixture (fescue, Johnsongrass, legumes, millets) 300 2 tons Orchard grass 65 1.5 tons Pasture 1,215 a Total 3,530 . aThe carrying capacity is 0.5 animal units (cattle)/acre. forage crops. The Louisburg and Pacelot soils found on Sabot Hill are in class 4, which is the least productive soils classification (their productive potential for corn is less than 90 bushels per acre). Madison soils are in class 3 for corn, having a productive potential of 90 to 110 bushels, but they are in class 2 for alfalfa hay production. Approximately 400 acres of the farm lie along the floodplain of the lames River. These soils are silt loam, mostly of the Monocan classification. Mon- ocan soils are class 2 soils, having a productive potential for corn of 110 to 135 bushels per acre. The Fishers have invested nearly $600 per acre in a drainage tile system on 200 acres of river bottom ground now being used for crop production. The Monocan soils have less than a 2 percent slope. The rest of the farm is considerably more hilly. Approximately half of this acreage is in woods that have slopes in the D and E category (12 to 25 percent sIope) (Cook, 1962~. This land is composed primarily of Louisburg soils. Much of the woodlands are fenced for cattle. The rest of the farm, which lies on the Piedmont Plateau, is composed of primarily Madison- type soils having B (2 to 6 percent) and C (6 to 12 percent) slopes. Before the Fishers took over the farm, most of this land, over 800 acres, was conventionally farmed. Soil erosion on the more hilly ground was estimated to have exceeded 30 tons per acre; on some of the less sharply sloped ground, erosion was estimated at 15 to 20 tons per acre. Corn yields on these upland soils rarely averaged over 80 bushels per acre during good years, and the yield was half that during dry seasons. Through strip cropping and converting much of the highly erodible land to permanent pasture and hay ground, and through the use of no-tiliage planting equipment, the Fishers have been able to cut soil erosion to 4 tons per acre. Sandy Fisher has been a leader in the use of no-tiliage equipment and conservation measures in the county and state. By shifting from con- ventional row-crop farming to a more sound, conservation-oriented opera-
278 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE tion with primary emphasis on forage and livestock production, the Fishers have significantly reduced the rate of soil erosion. Indeed, the Fishers take a keen interest in their soils. They regularly have ah of their fields soil-tested by the Brookside Farm Laboratory Association, which tests annually for nitrogen, sulfate, phosphate, calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, zinc, and boron. The Sabot Hill Farm also includes a custom lime-spreading company, which spreads about 5,000 tons of lime per year on various other farms at $21.00 per ton. Because they own this company, the Fishers apply lime on their farm more frequently than most other farmers in the area. They also lime their pastures whenever necessary to maintain a soil pH of about 6.5. Irrigation The Fishers currently irrigate 75 to 175 acres of corn using a movable, self- coiling, single-head sprinlder gun. The moving gun sprinkler attached to the 6-inch retractable hose line can be extended 300 feet. The gun can irrigate a 280-foot-diameter field, pumping 600 gallons per minute. The pumping station is a movable 100-horsepower air-cooled engine with a 4 x 4 pump, burning from 2.5 to 3 gallons of diesel fuel per hour. The irrigated ground receives two applications of water at 2 inches each time. Normal annual precipitation in the area is 42.6 inches of moisture, nearly all of which is in the form of rain (Table 3~. The Fishers' irrigated corn crop on 75 acres yielded 165 bushels per acre during a severe summer drought in 1986; their nonirrigated bottomIand corn crop yielded 100 bushels per acre that year. Buildings and Facilities The Sabot HiD Farm has an extensive set of buildings and facilities. There are over 20 houses on the farm, half of which house employees; the rest are rented out. The inventory of equipment and machinery is extensive. The farm has a well-equipped modern shop in which much of the machinery is overhauled. MANAGEMENT FEATURES Crop Rotations When the Fishers took over the management of this farm 9 years ago (they had spent more than 7 years previously farming and ranching in Colombia), the farm was planted with nearly 300 acres of corn and 200 acres of soybeans. Herbicide expenses for these crops were more than $26,000 annually, much of which was spent to control Johnsongrass in the cropland along the river. The farm was using EPTC plus R-25788 on 500 acres of cropland, applying 1 gallon of active ingredient per acre at $40.00 per
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280 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE gallon, for a total of $20,000; in addition, the farm spent approximately $5.00 per acre to prepare the land and apply the chemicals. The Fishers said that when they first took over the farm, they tried many herbicides, especially EPTC plus R-2578S, but the effectiveness of the her- bicides appeared to be decreasing. The conclusion they reached was that · .. . . . ~ either the Jonnsongrass on the term was building up a tolerance to the chemical or the organic matter in the soil was tying up the chemical. Faced with this realization, the Fishers decided to change their primary goal from that of cash grain farming to forage production and to alter the farm's cropping system. Their experience in South America led them to believe that there might be some value in intensively haying Johnsongrass, especially if it could be interseeded with a legume. With this in mind, their focus shifted from trying to eliminate lohnsongrass by spraying to accepting it as a part of the forage mix. The main management strategy changed to one of maximizing the amount of food and feedstuff the farm could produce with a minimum of purchased inputs. Today, the farm's acreage in corn and soybeans has been cut to 175 and 150 acres, respectively, and the chemical bill has been reduced to around $6,000 per year, a savings of $20,000. Most of the corn and soybeans are still sold on the cash grain market, but the focus of the Fishers' production and marketing strategy is now trained more intensively on getting as much feed value as possible from pasture for the cattle and selling roughage to the farm's neighbors. The feeding values of Johnsongrass and other species are given in Table 4. The farm has a complete complement of haying equipment. But the key piece of equipment that assisted the switch in cropping systems was the purchase of a no-tillage grain drill. By using no-tillage planting, the Fishers avoid the high cost and severe erosion that would result from the tillage of pastureland prior to planting. No-tillage planting makes pasture renovation economically feasible. The farm currently owns two no-tillage drills. The drills, which cut easily through heavy corn stubble or heavy soil on pasture- land, are heavy (5 tons when loaded) and are equipped with 14-inch hy- draulically operated courters. Although the rotational system varies for different areas of the cropland, the Fishers use two main rotations on various fields: a 2-year rotation of corn, hay, and soybeans with three crops in 2 years; and a 3-year rotation of corn, hay, and hay-soybeans. In the 2-year rotation, the Fishers plant corn in early spring and harvest it in September or October. They drill a millet-pea-rye mixture into shredded corn stubble around October 15 and harvest two cuttings of hay the following spring before drilling soybeans in July. They plant corn in the spring (in conventional 38-inch row centers with a high plant population of 26,000 seeds per acre) on 175 acres of bottomland in fields from 20 to 40 acres in size that are plowed and disked before planting. The Fishers use a corn variety that requires 115 days from planting to maturity. This cultivar is resistant to viruses carried by the lohnsongrass but produces yields of from 10 to 15 percent less than other cultivars that do not have this resistance.
THE SABOT HILL FARM 281 TABLE 4 Feeding Value for Ruminants of Selected Plant Species on Sabot Hill Farm (in percent) Total Total Dry Crude Digestible Roughage Matter Protein Nutrients Calcium Phosphorus Dry Alfalfa end bromegrass 89.3 13.3 46.0 0.74 0.24 hay Alfalfa hay (all 90.5 18.4 54.0 1.33 0.24 analyses) Johnsongrass hay 89.0 8.5 48.0 0.87 0.26 Millet hay (foxtail 87.0 7.5 51.0 0.29 0.16 varieties) Mixed hay (good)less 88.0 8.4 49.8 0.61 0.18 than 30% legumes Orchard grass hay 89.0 13.4 58.0 0.35 0.32 (early cut) Pasture grasses and 90.0 20.3 66.7 0.58 0.32 clovers (mixed, from closely grazed fertile pastures; dried, from Northern states) Pearl millet hay 87.2 7.0 49.8 - Soybean hay (good, all 91.0 15.7 52.0 1.15 0.24 analyses) Sudan grass hay (all 91.0 7.3 51.0 0.50 0.28 analyses) Green Cabbage, entire 9.4 2.2 8.1 0.06 0.03 Clover/m~xed grasses, 27.3 3.0 18.9 0.16 0.08 hay stage Corn fodder, dent (all 30.0 2.5 21.0 0.09 0.08 analyses) Johnsongrass pasture 25.0 5.2 15.6 0.22 0.07 Orchard grass pasture 23.0 4.3 17.0 0.14 0.12 Pearl millet pasture 21.0 1.8 13.0 Soybeans and pearl 24.5 4.2 15.9 millet pasture Turnips, roots 9.0 1.1 7.8 0.06 0.02 Turnips, tops 15.0 2.0 10.8 0.49 0.06 NOTE: A dash indicates that data are not available. SOURCES: Morrison, F. B. 1949. Feeds and Feeding, 21st ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Morrison Publishing Company. National Research Council. 1982. United States-Canadian Tables of Feed Composition, 3d. rev. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. The Fishers also broadcast up to 500 pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) per acre in a 20-20-20 mixture and chisel the soil 11 to 12 inches deep before planting. After planting, they apply 2.5 pints of atrazine and 1 gallon of EPIC plus R-25788 with 60 pounds N over the top; they apply an additional 30 pounds N as a side-dressing at 50 days just after planting.
282 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE Hay follows corn in both the 2- and 3-year rotations. Various millets (German and pearI) are no-tilled into the ground along with black-eyed peas (or Austrian winter peas) and rye. These plantings are usually done . , , . a_ ,. ~ . . ~ _ .. . . . . ~ ~ , .... . . . . alter October id, as soon as the corn Is harvested. No fertilizer or herbicides are used. The planting rate is one bushel of rye, one-half bushel of winter peas, and one-half bushel of millet per acre. The total seed cost is less than $20.00 per acre. The Fishers claim that this mixture provides an excellent cattle feed. Peas provide 14 to 15 percent protein, and millet provides 5 to 6 percent. Using this mixture, about 147 tons of round bales were harvested in 1986 in two cuttings from 50 acres (or 2.9 tons per acre). Depending on the weed populations, hay can be cut until fall, and an- other cutting can be harvested the following spring before no-tiliage plant- ing of soybeans. Alternatively, the hay can be cut only twice, and then no- till soybeans can be planted in July. If there are too many weeds, especially lohnsongrass, the Fishers will keep the field in hay for another year before planting soybeans. In this case, they will redrill the hay mixture in the fall. If Johnsongrass is relatively sparse, however, they will drill soybeans after the second hay cutting in May, no-tilIage planting the soybeans in 7-inch rows. If weeds become a problem in the field, they may harvest the soy- beans along with the weeds as a hav crop. The Fishers normaliv do not apply herbicides to soybeans. ./ 1 in summary, the unique feature of the Fishers' cropping system is their view of Johnsongrass and other weeds: they no longer focus on trying to eliminate them but instead cultivate them as sources of feed for the livestock operation. In learning more about Johnsongrass especially its feed value and how it grows the Fishers have developed the strategy of interseeding millet and various legumes in infested fields and putting ground with limited potential for row crops back into productive use. They chose millet because it competes well with Johnsongrass and has comparable feeding value (see Table 4~. Even fields heavily infested with Johnsongrass can eventually be made to produce: the grass can be har- vested as hay three or four times for a year or two to weaken its root system, which makes it easier for grains or soybeans to grow there in subsequent years without herbicides. By incorporating lohnsongrass into a hay crop, the Fishers derive economic benefit from land that would otherwise have little value. (Similar land infested with Johnsongrass rents for as little as $5.00 to $10.00 per acre.) Last year the Sabot Hill Farm sold about 1,500 tons of regular bates of hay as weD as about 600 tons of large round bates. Forage yields per acre vary considerably depending on whether the hay ground is harvested only twice and then planted with soybeans or whether it is hayed all season long. Pasture Renovation and Interseecling By using a no-tilIage planter the Fishers estimate that they have more than doubled the productive capacity of many of their pastures. For seed costs of under $20.00 per acre (plus a cash operating cost for planting of
THE SABOT HILL FARM 283 less than $5.00 per acre), they have been able to field-graze their cattle until February, compared with grazing only until September or October for un- improved pasture. This extension permits them to seD most of their round bale hay crop to neighbors short on feed, thus increasing the farm's profits. The following outlines a typical approach to pasture renovation at Sabot HiD. After the pastures have been grazed down around September 1, the Fishers drill in 1 bushed to the acre of wheat, barley, or rye, mixed with 0.5 bushel of Austrian winter peas. They also recommend including 10 to 20 pounds of orchard grass or some endophyte-free fescue per acre. According to Sandy Fisher, fall is the best time to lime and fertilize, if necessary, because the slots created by the no-tiliage drill allow the lime to penetrate the soil more easily. After seeding, animals are kept off the pasture until late fan and then are allowed to graze it down two or three times during the winter and early spring. The Fishers have also tried other methods such as no-tillage planting of bluestem grass (which is native to Kansas) into fescue pasture, allowing it to grow throughout the summer and fan, and then letting the cattle graze it in March. By using a combination of pasture renovation methods, the Fishers find it possible to graze their cattle throughout the year, requiring little supplemental feeding most years. The Fishers maintain that by using this system approximately every 2 to 3 years, they enhance the fertility of the pasture for subsequent years. They observe that the vigorous growth of the small grain root systems actually serves much like a shallow subsoiling, loosening up the sod to allow im- proved water penetration. They believe that the animals also get improved nutrition from the seeded crop (compared with unimproved pasture). In other areas of the farm a similar method is followed using oats and . . .~ ~ ~ ~ ~ A ~ ~ ~ r 1~ 1_ _1 ~ _ ~ ~ _ _ _ :~ ~ ~~ turnips. the Fishers drill oats at a rate ot up tunnel per acre ana turnips at a rate of 1 pound per acre. Turnips provide valuable feed and improve the condition of the soil (see the BreDah! case study). The key to success with this practice is to fertilize the crop heavily, promoting vigorous growth (10 to 14 inches high); graze it quickly with a large number of cattle; and then rotate the stock off so that regrowth can take place. The Fishers are also considering seeding broccoli in place of turnips on the pastures to take advantage of broccoli's fast vegetative growth and its capacity to withstand light frosts. An added benefit of the Fishers' system is that because the beef cattle are on pasture constantly, the pastureland requires no manure handling except dragging (with a section of chain-link fence) every few months. The Fishers clip some of the fields for weeds, but they look on such practices as an indication of a failure in pasture management. Cattle The farm is currently running 500 head of cattle. Of that number, 300 are cows bred to calve from September through November 15. The Fishers breed for calving in the fall to avoid labor shortages that might be incurred
284 ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURE in spring calving. It is also believecI that cooler fall temperatures minimize pest problems for the newly born animals. The Fishers keep the calves until the following fan and then seD them as stockers weighing 750 to 800 pounds. The farm's predominant breeds are Black Angus and Hereford. The Fish- ers prefer the Fit generation cross between the Hereford and the Angus, which produces Black Baldies, and plan to keep heifers from this cross as replacement cows. They are also considering what breed of bulls would be best to cross back to these cows; at present, they are trying out two Brah- man or Zebu bulls. Feeder calves do not get a grain supplement but are allowed to graze on the farm's improved pastures, which have been interseeded with various legumes and grains. The calves' primary health problems have been pink- eye and lumpjaw. They receive a complete set of shots for various bovine diseases. When ready for sale, the cattle are sorted into 60-head trailer loads and sold in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is more competitive than the local market, justifying the additional cost of shipping the animals. As of July 1986 the cattle sold by the Fishers brought an average of $0.58 per pound liveweight for heifers and steers combined, or about $450.00 per head. PERFORMANCE INDICATORS Environmental Impact The Fishers are deeply committed to soil conservation practices and are wiring to experiment with new methods. They try to use as few purchased inputs as possible on their farm to maximize the land's potential without harming the soil or polluting the environment. During the interview for this study, Sandy Fisher, who is president of the Virginia Soybean Produc- ers Association and a member of the local soil and water conservation district board, observed that in Goochiand County, few farmers are willing to cut back on corn because they are reluctant to lose their corn base, on which corn price support payments are computed. What the Fishers have accomplished on their farm is similar to the goals established by the Conservation Reserve Program in the 1985 Farm Bid, which is designed to take highly erodible land out of row-crop production. Ironically, early innovators such as the Fishers, who have already achieved this goal, are not eligible for government payments on the acreage that they have voluntarily removed from the production of price-supported crops. Financial Performance Cost and returns data for the Sabot Hill Farm are not available for pres- entation in this case study. Yet some generalizations can be made. Cash
THE SABOT HILL FARM 285 operating costs are low in comparison with those of farms dependent on purchased feed, and the Fishers have reduced their herbicide costs by about $20,000 through cultural practices. The farm's acreage is large in relation to that of other farms in the county. The relatively large size of the farm may provide the Fishers with enough economic stability to experiment with alternative production systems. Finally, the farm is a diversified operation, with its primary sources of revenue being the sale of stocker cattle and hay, with some income from the sale of corn and soybeans. REFERFNCF Cook, R. L. 1962. Soil Management for Conservation and Production. New York: Wiley.