Prescribed Grazing and Focus on Soil Health Improve Eastern Kentucky Farming Ope
Ronnie Bowling and his family own a 91 acre farm with more than 60 acres of prescribed grazing implementation in Clay County, Kentucky. Clay County is in eastern Kentucky and would be one of the last places to look for a grazing operation, but that’s exactly what the Bowling family is doing with their farm.
One of six children, Ronnie grew up in a family that produced 95% of what they ate from a small farm. He had the same desire for his family so he began the prescribed grazing operation in 2004 and now the Bowling family farm produces 80% of their food supply. Bowling explained, “We wanted it (the operation) to be sustainable to begin with. We wanted to feed our family from it. We wanted to leave it better than we found it”.
Bowling has diversified livestock which reduces parasite lifecycles and produces animals more suited for the area. His operation includes Angus cross cattle, Boer/Kiko cross nanny goats, a Kiko buck, 16 Katahdin sheep, 15 ewes and one ram. In addition to all this, the operation supports 20 laying hens and produces 50-200 broilers a year. His knowledge of each breed of livestock in the operation is evident. Bowling explained that the Boer goats are a meat goat suited for desert land. Crossing them with Kiko, a New Zealand breed imported into the US in the early 90’s, make it a breed better suited to the Appalachian Kentucky region. Bowling explained his choice of sheep as he stated, “Katahdin sheep were developed in Maine in the 1960s, for the quality of their meat as they have hair instead of wool which decreases lanolin levels making the meat taste better".
The cattle in the operation are healthy. Since they started, Bowling lost only two cows and as he explained, “one of them was from a snakebite.” No antibiotics or
supplemental growth hormones are used nor does he supplement with grain. The improved forage quality the operation experienced extended the grazing period to upward of 80 days in any given year.
Staggering the livestock species among his pasture fields maximizes utilization of all available forages. Bowling also uses a directed approach in his poultry management by including the population in his grazing rotation, confining them in a mobile sheltered fencing structure. The sheep and goats were brought in to control the multi flora rose and ironweed population as well as buttercup infestations created from initial overgrazing and compaction.
Bowling says the use of fertilizer, lime, and fuel has decreased substantially in fact he hasn’t fertilized in years. He explained, “If you are spraying or putting nitrogen on your soils, you are killing beneficial soil microbes and earthworms, which have a symbiotic relationship. If your pastures are working right, you are eliminating (the need for) all that”.
He has also noticed that his pastures are much more drought resistant crediting the new plant diversity in his pastures. Overgrazing shortens root depth, and “if you’re growing roots, your growing forage,” he said. Bowling has also seen a greater water uptake in his pasture land with a substantial decrease in the amount of runoff.
Even though livestock numbers were reduced in the beginning of the prescribed grazing operation, the bottom line has actually increased. Bowling said, “We are direct marketing almost all our beef now, we’ve probably sold all of what we will produce this year. Most of our buyers are professionals who are thinking about what they want to eat. We are not organic, but follow a lot of their standards and probably go above and beyond (them).”
The advice Bowling has for others is to start with fewer animals and focus on management. Putting sound infrastructure in place in the beginning, decreases workload in the future. He also recommends taking Master Cattleman’s Training offered by the University of KY Cooperative Extension Service as well as getting involved in any mentoring programs available.
Through the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Bowling installed fencing, watering systems, pasture and hay land plantings, and other practices that built the infrastructure to implement prescribed grazing.