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Beginning Farmers’ Success with Managed, Multi-Species Grazing, Cover Crops and More

By   /  June 5, 2017  /  2 Comments

Shane and Jessica Blair are new Minnesota farmers getting started with the help of a team from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Here’s how it worked for them. See if there are resources here that might be useful to you, no matter where you are in your farming/ranching career.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm”.  To see that in action, visit to Shane and Jessica Blair, a young farm family, putting their enthusiasm and energy to work in Pope County, Minnesota.

Beginning farmers Shane and Jessica Blair team up with NRCS staffers Melissa Behrens and Jeff Duchene on plans and programs to help them.

The Blair family has been farming on their Fire Rock Farm for the last 5 years. Shortly after they purchased the farm they met with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff Melissa Behrens, Soil Conservation Technician, and Jeff Duchene, Grazing Specialist. This NRCS duo worked with the Blair family to develop a conservation plan for their farm and encouraged them to sign-up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).  An EQIP contract was procured as a result of the assistance provided by the local NRCS office.  Then a few more contracts followed to further improve the pasture and cropland productivity and health.

“The NRCS EQIP contracts each contained several conservation practices such as grazing plan, fencing, watering system, cover crop and pasture plantings,” said Behrens.  “Working on this EQIP contract and grazing plan was a great experience.  It’s nice to know that a co-worker such as Duchene wanted to design the best possible grazing plan for this farm family.  Today it’s personally gratifying to see how the pastureland has changed on this Pope County farm.”

The Blair’s run a 300 ewe sheep flock, with 40 beef feeders, and 40 cow/calves made up of British Whites, Baldy/Angus, and Galloways.  “Working with NRCS professionals on our family farm pasture operation has been an outstanding experience,” said Jessica Blair. “The knowledge of the NRCS in soils, fencing, water system details, stocking rates, and much more has allowed my husband and I to make some key decisions for our farming operation.  We especially liked how NRCS came up with many scenarios and ideas for implementing conservation practices on our farm.”

Jessica Blair and one of her flock.

One of the challenges with developing a grazing plan for this farm included breaking down a 190 acre pasture into several paddocks.  The Blair’s quickly learned the importance of managing the land through trial and error.  “The mixing of cattle and sheep in pasture paddocks has been a big learning experience,” said Shane. “Plain and simple, sheep do not like to eat tall grass, however, if the cows are placed into the pasture first, they do a good job of grazing on the tall grass.  Then, after a few days, the sheep are brought into the same pasture and the sheep take over where the cows left off.  This results in a pasture that is well maintained and the cows and sheep get along and co-exist.”

Cover crops have proven to be useful on this Pope County farm. “The planting of cover crops provides additional forage for the animals, improves soil health and reduces the amount of soil that blows due to the prairie winds,” said Jessica Blair. “Our goal is to have animals on every acre and a fence around all of the land that we own.”

The planting of a multi-species cover crop has proven to be beneficial.  This generally encompasses the planting of 8-10 species cover crop mix following oats and peas.  In the summer of 2016, the Blair family did some experimenting with the broadcasting of cover crop seed on an 70 acre corn field in early June.  The experiment worked well, resulting in more forage for the cows and/or sheep to graze.  The cover crops helped extend the grazing season into December for the Blair Family.

Recently, the Blair’s have worked with the Pope Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS Grazing Specialist Duchene on the grazing of the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) land on their farm, which is an easement program funded by the state of Minnesota.  The plan allows them to temporarily graze the easement maintaining grassland diversity and wildlife habitat. Grazing on the RIM easement has also added more flexibility to the farming operation.

The Blairs and Melissa Behrens check out some fencing work.

A project the Blair family is particularly proud of involved a collaboration with a neighboring farmer to purchase an adjoining property that had come up for sale and convert it to native prairie.  This collaborative project resulted in a multi-species prairie being planted on what was recently virgin prairie in Pope County.  The Blair’s worked with their neighbor, NRCS, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and US Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a seed mix that would be able to provide quality grazing opportunities as well as wildlife and pollinator habitat.  The planting has been very successful thus far at meeting those objectives.

Looking ahead to the summer, the Blair family will be hosting the Pope County Summer Grazing Tour on August 10, 2017. For more information on this tour please contact Melissa Behrens at the Glenwood NRCS field office.  Behrens can be reached via email at melissa.behrens@mn.usda.gov or by phone at 320-634-5143, ext 111.  To find an NRCS staffer to work with in your area, click over here, choose your state and then use the map there to find your nearest office.

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About the author

Julie MacSwain has served as the State Public Affairs Specialist for NRCS in Minnesota since 2003. Effective May 28, 2017. Julie will be working for Oregon NRCS as the Assistant State Conservationist- Partnership Coordinator. Julie has been with NRCS for 32 years. She has worked in Wisconsin and Minnesota and held positions including Soil Conservationist, District Conservationists and Public Affairs Specialist. Julie was born and raised on a beef cow calf operation in Blanchardville, Wisconsin where she learned about crop and beef production, soil and water conservation, and the importance of caring for the land. Julie has a Bachelors of Science degree in Agriculture Education from the University of Wisconsin Platteville. She enjoys many sports, but especially the Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers. Julie values outdoor activities and spending time with family and friends.

2 Comments

  1. Gene Schriefer says:

    I can’t attach photo’s to the comment section, while sheep may not “like” to graze tall forage but once trained, can and will graze rather tall forage. 12″+ grazed to 5-6″.

    Taller forages have deeper more robust root system, shade the soil keeping at a more conducive temperature in summer and less weed seed germination and higher water infiltration rates. The combines to improve pasture resiliency.

    Taller forages with higher residual also keeps parasite re-infection levels lower as the highest concentration of L3 larvae are in the lowest layer of the canopy.

    Keep trying. Who’s the manager here, you or the flock?

    • Steve Meyer says:

      I had my lambs in 16 to 20 inch tall grass last year co-grazing with the cattle. They gained over half a pound per day, so they didn’t suffer too much…

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