ALFRED, NY — Some folks have been pondering whether grass-based farmer, Russ Wilson, enjoys being categorized as a livestock producer more or being labeled as a soil microbe savant more. One thing’s for sure, you can’t deny his optimism for the future and his passion for improving land by creating a resilient base of grazing forages as the centerpiece of profitability.
His message of staging permanent pastures and planted cover crops for grazing resonated well with fellow farmers and conservation professionals at a recent farming conference titled, “Show Me the Money: Grazing Strategies for Farm Profitability” hosted by Alfred State University. The “microbe-ologist” who hails from Tionesta, PA, adaptively manages Wilson Land & Cattle Co., a 220-acre farm in Forest County along with his wife, Lennie, and two children, Emmylou and Walker. They collectively raise Black Angus cattle, hair sheep, goats, poultry, guard dogs and custom graze for other producers while enhancing the soil life, wildlife populations and their savings account.
“I’m proud to say I’m here today because our system of farming allows my children to manage the livestock,” said Wilson. The former logger, steel fabricator and farrier joked that a misinformed doctor suggested he stay with the previous professions, rather than getting into the much harder, farming life. “When we adopted the mindset that earthworms, dung beetles, microbes and wildlife are our #1 livestock and everything follows nature’s cycles, farming has become quite joyful, interesting and less strenuous and stressful. Having tested that our soil can now infiltrate 17 inches per hour has given us the appreciation that we are moving in the right direction.”
“Stored feed and depreciation costs are the bane of the input game. Low input requires a high level of management, because at the end of the day, you must be profitable,” said Wilson. Through careful financial scrutiny several years ago, Wilson found that hay making and corn production was unsustainable and proceeded to sell off 28 pieces of equipment and invest in fencing and watering infrastructure, paddock design, no-till technology, cover crop seed and purchasing feed from neighbors in the hopes of increasing dry matter production and grazing year-round.
How’s he doing you might wonder? The operation has seen grazing days go from 120 days in 2012 to 294 grazeable days in 2016 and net profit increasing three fold with improved animal carrying capacity and weight gain, sales of breeding stock and significantly reducing costs. “Our multi-species livestock have become our harvesters, lawn mowers, brush-hogs, weed control, manure spreaders, seed planters and whatever innovative thing we can think they can do”, said Wilson. He credits the high stock density rotational grazing style, increasing living roots in the soil at all times, a take half-leave half grazing residue strategy and monitoring his whole farm every 15 days as the principles for their positive transformation.
Cover crop planting and their subsequent grazing, account for about 10 percent of the land base per year on the Wilson Farm. “Cover crops are the reset button for degraded land, said Wilson. We use them in staging forages to fill in our production gaps and increase root diversity for soil health. They also help us stay off stockpiling cool and warm season pastures for extended grazing into winter. Seed is our number one expense right now but with the dry matter tonnage yields and increased fertility we are seeing, it has a net benefit. Still, our ultimate goal is to arrive at a perennial pasture situation with cool and warm season plants working in tandem with forbs and legumes to feed our livestock and land, but we’re not there yet.”
Innovations like inter-seeding cover crops into pasture stands, no-till technology, seeding with animal impact, grazing corn, using a “fence jumper” on the ATV to run over fences in lieu of gates, portable flat hay wagons tipped on their sides as winter windbreaks, his homemade spring-gate releases for frequent paddock shifts, tiny water tubs with high flow valves, and utilizing a wood-fired winter waterer all contribute to the well-being of the farm.
One of Russ’s most important tools is his smart phone equipped with Google™ documents and sheets he customized to track his daily grazing decisions, nutrient management, animal production records, weather monitoring and notes, specific to his over 80 delineated paddocks, fields and forestland. “I like measuring stuff and making comparisons, recording video, taking pictures in real time and learning from trial and error. I don’t make mistakes, I have learning experiences,” emphasized Wilson.
His acclaimed 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. ritual of researching the web for information pertaining to improving his family’s operation is a testament to his drive and appetite to achieve the goals of the farm which may be the first north easterner to graze 365 days without feeding hay. This passion has excited the scientific community at Penn State University, conservation agencies and a legion of interested farmers seeking the holy grail of year round grazing. He has several field trials going on and entertains guests at the farm who want to see practical applications of management on the land.