Clay County, located in eastern Kentucky in Appalachia, is one of the last places most folks would look for a grazing operation, but that’s exactly what Ronnie Bowling and his family is doing with their farm. The Bowlings live on a 91-acre property, and are managing about 60 acres of it for grazing. Their goal is to provide for their family in a sustainable way.Working with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Bowlings recently installed fencing and watering systems and planted forage for the cattle.
The livestock on the farm include Angus cross cattle, Boer/Kiko cross nanny goats, a Kiko buck, 16 Katahdin sheep, 15 ewes and one ram. The operation also has 20 laying hens and produces 50 to 200 broilers a year. No antibiotics or supplemental growth hormones are used on the cattle, and their feed is not supplemented with grain—with the new pasture plantings, the cattle are able to live off the land.
Bowling says he’s used much less fertilizer, lime and fuel since he implemented the comprehensive grazing management plan. In fact, he hasn’t fertilized the fields in years. He explains, “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 than before, and he credits the new plant diversity he has established. Overgrazing shortens root depth, but managing the pastures well means deeper roots—and “if you’re growing roots, you’re growing forage,” he says. More water is being absorbed by the fields, which in turn means there’s less runoff from the farm entering nearby waterways.
Bowling advises beginning farmers to start with fewer animals and develop a grazing management plan with their local NRCS office. He says that starting a cattle operation thoughtfully decreases workload in the future. Bowling also recommends taking the Master Cattleman’s Training offered by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, as well as getting involved in any mentoring programs available.
This year Bowling has been recognized with the 2012 Kentucky Prescribed Grazing Hero Award by a partnership of conservation organizations including NRCS, Kentucky Division of Conservation, Kentucky Association of Conservation Districts and the Kentucky Soil & Water Conservation Commission. This award honors his distinguished efforts to improve soil quality through the adoption of prescribed grazing technology.
Check out more conservation stories on the USDA blog