Land management key, farmer says
The way Linda Fisher sees it, raising cattle these days is as much about land/crop management as actual care of the animals.
“There’s less money in cattle these days, and profit margins are thin,” Fisher says. “The [producers] who stay in business are having to rethink expenses. You can’t buy expensive feeds and stay in business. We’ve got to use more byproducts [on farms] and rotational grazing.”
Fisher, who lives in Red Oak, N.C., and has four farm locations totaling 700 acres in Nash and Halifax counties, has been getting so creative with feeding her herd of nearly 200 cattle she could almost be considered a row-crop farmer — of grasses. Her efforts earned her the 2009 North Carolina Environmental Stewardship Award, handed out by the N.C. Forage and Grasslands Council.
She has several projects that not only have been good for her farm and bottom line, but helped earn the recognition.
• Using rotational grazing, beef producers can cut down sharply on purchased feed.
• Local associations offer programs to help farmers develop a rotational grazing plan.
• Moderately framed beef cattle tend to make better grazers and finish out sooner.
Her first Environmental Quality Incentives Program was a heavy-use area on an Aventon farm. It was sloped for drainage, geo-textile fabric was laid down and then covered with gravel. The result was erosion control.
“It never gets mucky,” Fisher says. “We wean calves in that area, and compile truckload lots to ship out.”
Another project fenced pasture off from the creek, not only protecting endangered mussels, but also providing a boost to rotating pastures. Watering stations were installed on the farm.
“The main benefit to the farm was it allowed better use of the grass, because the cattle don’t have to be near the creek for water,” Fisher says. “The waterers allow for the pasture to be sectioned off.”
Fisher participated in the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, providing a quail habitat by not planting the edges of fields on part of the farm.
“It was a cost-share done through EQIP and it ran PVC pipe across all the pastures [on the Red Oak farm] from the well to watering stations. The low-lying areas with standing water were also fenced off. It will allow us to fence off different sections of the pastures to let the cattle graze and get access to water, without having to keep them all open so they can get back to the water supply at the other end of the farm. They can work on any type of grass while the other comes back. We’ve got mostly fescue and rye out for winter grazing, with the rye drilled in with a no-till drill. We want to get to the point where they graze on one area for 20 days, then move to another. That’s a lot of hay you don’t have to buy.”
In December, Fisher had her cattle grazing on a freshly picked cotton field on the farm, providing no-cost nutrition to her animals while offering fertilization to the land.
“Cotton, especially cotton trash, is high in protein,” she says.
Her herd is mostly Angus-Gelbvieh cross, with some Simmental cross as well. She has an “ideal structured” animal that works well with her feeding strategies.
“I don’t want a big frame, but I want a deep body; a moderate frame is what I’m pushing for,” Fisher says. “You can get a cow that is too big. Big-frame cattle eat too much and cost too much to produce. A deeper-bodied cow makes a much better grazer and should finish out sooner. You can still put an Angus bull out there, you just need [to produce] more efficient animals.”
Fisher Farms dates to the early 1900s, when Jack Fisher bought the farm and expanded his tobacco operation by acquiring more land. The Fishers were still using mules in the 1960s, and instead of going to full mechanization in the early 1970s, Jack’s son Sullivan decided to go into cattle.
Besides cattle, other livestock on the farm include Boer-cross goats, as well as sheep. These animals are targeted as show animals for 4-Hers, school groups, and the local meat and animal show.
Fisher works 10 acres of pumpkins, selecting seed from her own plants each year. She also has gourds, as well as acreage in hay, millet and oats,
She is a big believer in education. Each October, over 2,000 schoolchildren visit the farm.
“We talk to them and show them that pastured animals can live with people and not hurt the environment,” she says. “I have to credit my father for teaching me how to handle cattle. All the education I’ve received is from the [Nash County Cooperative] Extension office, [Extension agent] Mark Hucks and from groups like the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association. For just $25 a year, it is well worth it, just from their publication. And, the [N.C.] Forage and Grasslands Council has more forward-thinking ideas in grazing than anyone out there — not just for cattle, but horses, sheep and goats.”
Despite the many innovative projects she has already completed, Fisher says she is far from done.
“I’ve not done all this stuff and consider myself finished,” she says. “It’s a work in progress, maybe one-half or three-quarters of the way through. My philosophy is to leave my land, farm and water in as good or better [condition] than I how I found it.”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.
This article published in the April, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.