September 2007
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Covington County Cattle Operation Thrives—Despite the Drought

  Leon Wages, NRCS Soil Conservation Technician, and Mike Birge admire the cross fencing installed to create a grazing system.
By Julie A. Best

For the past several years, cattle producers in Alabama have really struggled. The drought has forced some cattle producers to sell their herd because they did not have adequate pasture or hay. During drought conditions, the goals for the manager are to minimize damage to the pasture and stay in business. Mike Birge, a Covington County producer, has found a way to achieve both those goals.

Birge and his wife inherited an 80 acre farm just north of Florala. The farm had belonged to Mrs. Birge’s father, S. M. Gohagan. A good bit of the farm was row crop land. About 35 acres were in cotton and there were about 15 acres of pine trees. Upon acquiring the land, which joined a 40-acre tract that they already owned, Birge and his wife set about working the land and making it adaptable to their lifestyle.

For the past five years, the Birges have been developing a cow/calf operation. They started with a herd of about 15 brood cows and they have increased that number to 52. In addition to the land that they own, they also rented land to pasture their cattle. Birge said, "The pasture was just scattered grass in an open field and the water source was a wet-weather pond." After talking with neighbors who had participated in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which is administered by USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Birge established goals to improve his cattle operation. The EQIP program is designed to provide both financial and technical assistance to landowners to address significant natural resource concerns on agricultural lands. Birge said, "In order to improve my cattle operation, I knew I needed permanent hay fields, cross fencing and an adequate water source for the cows."

Water troughs were installed to provide easily accessible water for the cattle.  
Birge applied for assistance through the EQIP program, but was not accepted the first year. EQIP applicants are ranked according to both state and local resource concern priorities. Steve Yelverton, NRCS District Conservationist for Covington County, said, "Mike stayed the course. I tell all the producers who apply for EQIP to be patient. If they don’t get approved this year, perhaps they will be approved next year." That was the case for Birge. His EQIP contract was signed in March 2006 and it called for the installation of several conservation practices to improve the environmental conditions of his land.

One of Birge’s goals was permanent hay fields and pasture. NRCS talked with him about the various types of grasses available. Birge selected Tifton 85 Bermuda grass for the hay fields. He cut the pine trees and established pasture. For the permanent pasture, Birge planted 22 ½ acres of Tifton 9 bahiagrass. The pastures were cross-fenced to establish a rotational grazing system. A 410 foot deep well was installed along with three water troughs, making water available in all his paddocks. Birge said, "We fenced the wet-weather pond completely out of the program. The cattle no longer have access to this water source, which improves the water quality on the farm."

Through hard work and persistence, Birge completed all the conservation practices in his EQIP plan by April 2007. And, what has been the result? Birge has established a rotational grazing system that has thrived, despite drought conditions, and the cattle have responded. Birge said, "I check the cattle twice a day. I watch the pasture. When I see that the grass is getting low, I walk them out of that pasture and into another section. The cattle are so tame I can just shake a bucket and they will come to me. My cattle are just as fat right now as they were in the winter. The cross fencing gives me time to let the pasture rest and recuperate. It also allows me to spread the cow piles, which helps eliminate flies and other pests. During the summer drought, I went eight weeks without rain. I did feed hay during that time, but, because of the grazing system, it was probably 50 percent less hay than I would have fed."

Yelverton said, "The practices Mike installed through the EQIP program have worked very well for him. He has a beautiful cattle operation. He was ready. He and his wife had been working toward improving their cattle operation, and it worked just right for him. Any time you rent land, you are subject to lose it. Mike did lose his rented land this year, but with the improvements he has made, he could move the cattle to his own farm. With the established grazing system, he had enough forage to supply their needs. His grass had a year to get established before he put the cattle on it. The pastures are well established and I think he will be in good shape to move on."

Eddie Jolley, NRCS Agronomist, said, "Although we don’t know what the future holds, we can be certain there will be droughts from time to time. Livestock producers will be faced with the painful dilemma of managing for those conditions. The rotational grazing system that Mike Birge has established has certainly proved beneficial to him during recent drought conditions."

When asked if he would recommend a similar grazing system to others, Birge said, "I sure would. Everyone I see, I tell them about the benefits of my grazing system."

Yelverton said, "The cattlemen in Covington County have really benefited from the assistance provided by the EQIP program." The grazing system that Mike Birge established demonstrates those benefits.

Julie A. Best is the Public Affairs Specialist with USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service in Auburn, AL.