‘The goal is to make money farming and improve the environment at the same time — not to see those as conflicting goals.’
By Paula Combs
Piedmont Environmental Council
A large herd of fluffy, yet still intimidating, sheep run full speed through a gate as they’re rotated to an alternate pasture at Over Jordan Farm in Flint Hill.
“I don’t use herding dogs. The animals are trained to come to me and follow me,” said farm manager and Bean Hollow Grassfed owner Mike Sands, who has more than 30 years of experience in sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation and community-based economic development.
Like many farms in the region, Over Jordan Farm is a pasture-based operation. But the land faced issues from years of overgrazing, according to Sands. Poor soil health and a lack of grass and plant diversity resulted in a lack of nutrients for livestock.
Pasture walk postponed
Due to the heat, PEC and Mike Sands have postponed the final pasture walk at Over Jordan Farm scheduled for next Tuesday (Aug. 2) for anyone interested in learning about the management techniques discussed in this article. It will likely be rescheduled for September; if you would like to attend, updates will appear online (where you can also register) on PEC’s event page, or call Mike Kane at 540-347-2334, ext. 7063.
In an effort to increase his farm’s profitability and reduce environmental impacts such as runoff and soil erosion, Sands began working with The Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) in 2013, per a grant they received from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“The three-year project with Sands, which wraps up this fall, is an effort to create a place where livestock producers can see and evaluate different management practices and the effects on livestock health, weight gain and soil and pasture health,” said Mike Kane, PEC’s director of conservation.
Sands is a business-driven man, but he also expresses devotion and regard for the land. “The goal is to make money farming and improve the environment at the same time — not to see those as conflicting goals.”
During the project with PEC, Sands has practiced rotational and multi-species grazing — two techniques shown to improve the health of the land and livestock, according to Kane.
With the use of portable fencing, Sands moves about 200 ewes, 220 lambs and 15 to 25 cattle from field to field. “I use poly wire, which is basically plastic and metal on a reel, and I run the juice through that to make an electric fence. This allows me to change where I graze at any given time, based on how much grass there is, or drought conditions, or wet conditions, or middle of summer, or end of summer — whatever,” explained Sands.
Other management objectives for the farm are implementing native grasses for summer grazing, stockpiled fescue for winter strip-grazing, and improved and unimproved mixed-grass pastures. “In this environment, it doesn’t make sense to just have native warm season grasses, but they are the perfect complement for me in July and August, when other grasses start to slump. And at that point, the warm season grasses — whether it’s switchgrass or big bluestem or Indian grass or eastern gamagrass — they all produce an enormous amount of biomass,” Sands said.
“Every six months, we collect data on the farm with Mike to measure plant diversity, soil and abiotic characteristics, and water holding capacity. The project also measures animal performance and financial performance,” said Kane.
So far, there has been an increase in organic matter over the last three years in all of the fields. “There are no bare spots in the fields anymore. Greater soil cover. More diversity in the pasture,” said Sands, “The benefits of grazing the sheep and cattle together, number one: they eat different things so you get a better utilization of the forage. And for soil health benefit: We try to group the animals tighter together in smaller areas. So what we’re doing is giving longer rest periods but more intense pressure — disturbance — on the soil.”
Sands’ management techniques are also having a positive effect on plant diversity, Kane said, noting that weeds are decreasing significantly due to the rotational grazing, which safeguards the lush grass that hinders weed growth, allowing for less use of herbicides.
“In two years, we saw an improvement in both the productivity of the pastures and the financial returns. We expect to see increased productivity and returns over the next few years,” said Sands.
Reflecting on the project, Sands advice to other farmers is, “If you’re going to look at your animals on a daily basis anyways, then this type of grazing isn’t more labor if you train the animals. And I think in the long run, it’s actually labor saving because you’re with the animals so much. They’re much calmer around you. So, when you do have to put them into a corral, it’s a piece of cake.”