This is the third in a series about the grazing management changes the Wahl family has made and how it has improved soil health and increased animal productivity dramatically. (Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 2.) It’s drawn from an article by Robert Hathorne with photos by Tracy Robillard, both of the Oregon Natural Resources Conservation Service. I’ve added the videos they made and suggestions for how you can translate the principles the Wahl’s are using to your own operation.
Does It All Pay Off?
It’s the combined approach of high quality, diverse forage and a “mob grazing” management system that are yielding dividends for the Wahls. The two practices work in tandem for a common goal – soil health.
When animals graze, they consume nutrients taken up by the plant from the soil. As you know, in order to regrow, plants need more nutrients. When we ask plants to regrow more than what they can based on available soil has nutrients, soils become depleted and plants wither. For most ranches, the solution to this problem is fertilizer.
But the Wahls have skipped their last six fertilizer applications.
“We’ve gone two full years without fertilizer. We’re not short of feed, we’re running more sheep and they’re healthier,” Pete says. Will that always be the case? Pete doesn’t know for sure, so he’s paying attention to what he sees happening on the ground and will make changes when and if necessary.
If that makes you skeptical, well Pete shares that feeling with you as you’ll see in the video below. He kept his equipment and maintained his relationships with the fertilizer sales people because he’d tried reducing nutrient inputs in the past, and it hadn’t worked out and had cost the farm a lot of money.
But he’s grown cautiously optimistic and you can see from the 2:35 video below. Watch it to see how he describes their process for reducing their nutrient inputs and how they’re managing fertilizer. (Kathy especially likes the expression on Pete’s face when he says, “This is new territory! This is like nothing I’ve ever seen!)
Why Is This Working?
Pete connects the dots in the 3:30 video below. Because the pastures are allowed to rest for much longer periods, plants have extra time to grow deeper roots. In fact, a soil pit dug for a field day on the farm showed orchard grass with roots reaching 36 inches through the soil and another 4 or 5 inches into the gravel below it. With 36 inch roots, his pastures are accessing more nutrients and water than average pasture grasses. That means they’re growing green feed a lot longer into the summer. And of course more grass means more livestock and profit.
“It sounds like such a nonsense story, but when you see the numbers right in front of you, it’s not nonsense,” Pete says. “This whole deal here, it’s less inputs and an increase in production. Where else can you get that?”
“We don’t have to read someone else’s numbers now,” Pete continues. “When you can run 930 ewes for less than a month on 19 acres – if you’d told me that 5 years ago, I’d tell you you’ve been drinking!”
As Pete says in the video below, he doesn’t want to go back. He says the health of his flock was the real stunner. “Who would expect to spend a fraction of the money and end up with that change in health?” His sheep shearers are wondering where those dirty sheep they did the year before.
He even saw gains on drought years, the years when you’re supposed to be hunting for feed trucks. But the 930 ewes for a month on 19 acres was actually in a drought year.
Success Thanks to Partnerships
A conservation mindset and working with partners have been an important part of the success of the Wahl Family Farm. The Wahls consistently take initiative to protect all the resources on their land and to do that, they frequently work with conservation agencies such as Curry County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Curry Watershed Council. They participated in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to protect riparian areas on their property. And they worked with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service on their grazing management strategy and cover crop mix.
Today, their 2,000-acre ranching operation includes forested areas, and ponds, riparian buffer vegetation, and wetland habitats. As the fifth generation begins to have a hand in stewardship, the family remains central to their operation.
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