We attended the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association annual conference at the beginning of the month. It was here in Winston, which made it doable for us, and although it was about sustainable agriculture in general, we learned many things in the seminars I think we can use on our farm. We attended a seminar about soil biology, which although geared towards folks growing vegetables, was very interesting. It would appear that tilling in cover crops is still considered a way to improve poor soil, but this seminar showed us how damaging the act of tilling can be. Disturbed soils don't soak up the rain the way undisturbed well-grown soils will, which contributes to run off and less drought tolerant soils. The guy doing the seminar was showing how crushing the cover crop and planting through it remaining layer would work, and also showed how careful we must be not to compact the soil running the tractor back and forth over it. I assume there are trends in ag like there are trends in everything else, but it seems the trendiness of tilling in a cover crop every year is beginning to be tempered with a little bit of "tilling in has its place, but should not be overdone." I suppose in all of farming, there is a learning process at every level. What was done for years left us with some pretty pathetic dirt in some cases.
Another seminar I attended that was pretty interesting was about mob grazing. While geared mainly towards cattle, it showed how some pretty pitiful soil (like we have on the Knight Place) can be brought back to life by having a very dense animal population on it for a very short time to add manure, and crush the current vegetation into a sort of mulch. The cows are moved to new spot each day, and the previous area left ungrazed for as long as possible. A person in the audience said she would have to deworm her sheep anyway (as the presenter said he no longer has to deworm his cows) and the State goat specialist, who happened to be in the audience too, piped up and commented that if she moves those sheep every day, she should not have to deworm, and if she found individual animals that still needed deworming in that regimen, she should consider letting them die. That was pretty interesting to hear in an "out loud" voice in this sort of venue. If we can make it work on the Knight Place, I would like to implement some sort of mob grazing rotation. This will depend of course on the setup, and we would no doubt have to use some electronet as front and back fences within the larger areas.
The presenter also uses pigs and chickens in his rotation, and we do have chickens we could use as a clean up crew. I don't see how we could pull it off on the Taylor Place, in the woods, but we have seen a new "topsoil" of sorts where the goats collect and the lespedeza stems have decayed. This grows stuff really well, and seems to hold together in the rain. Now I just need to get the goats off it for at least a season so it can grow some tall vegetation and we lose the parasites that are surely on it. It would be really nice to create more fertile soil at the Knight Place in a proper pasture, especially for the winters. The man doing the mob grazing seminar says he no longer has to fertilize, lime, or seed, and even though his cows may not have the highest weaning weights, they instead have the lowest inputs. Interesting stuff.
Now, I must say, for folks in the Southeast, if the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Conference is not too far from your neck of the woods any time in the future - attend if you possibly can. Even if there weren't a lot of great seminars and opportunities for networking, there is the food! Oh, the food! The ingredients for the dinners were provided by many of the farms presenting or attending the conference, and it was just amazing. Besides being delicious, it was sustainably produced (often organic) healthy food I could feel good about eating. I wish my daughter, also a "foodie," had been there with us for the purple homestyle cooked cabbage and purple sweet potato hash with chorizo... and the shrimp and grits, and the steamship round of beef, and the mountains of fresh veggies around the salads... I think you get the idea.