Professional Development Program






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Unit 2: The Agricultural Professional's Role

Consider the following scenarios:
  • You have a meeting with a farmer who wants to go over soil test results and who is looking for recommendations for how to improve soil fertility. You know that the market for her crop is failing (prices have bottomed out), and you also note a disease outbreak in the fields you see as you drive up to the farm office. What are you going to say when you sit down to discuss business with this farmer?
  • You make a visit to a rancher who is eager to convert some of his land to an agroforestry enterprise. In the process of discussing this change with him you learn about some conflicts between the rancher and one of his assistant managers that could affect the success of the enterprise. It also becomes clear that the rancher hasn't thought at all about the market for the agroforestry enterprise. What are you going to advise when the rancher asks what he needs to do to get the soil ready for planting?
Reading the Farm means identifying the major challenges to a farm's or ranch's sustainability and developing an action plan that takes into account the assets, strengths, limitations and opportunities of that particular farm business.

Ray MeismerRay Meismer wanted to improve profits and lessen the impact of his steeply sloped 300-acre central Illinois crop and livestock farm on the Illinois River watershed. With a SARE grant and help from his local Extension agent and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Meismer designed a new system reliant upon nutritious forages for his cattle and a "ram" pump to power water to his pasture in an electricity-free system.

He started by devising a more intensive grazing system for his cow/calf herd to make better use of his terrain. To learn more about forages, Meismer sought help from Illinois extension. University of Illinois Extension Educator Jay Solomon worked with Meismer to create 16 paddocks and manage grasses in those paddocks. Their rotation relies on a basic principle: move cattle into a paddock when grasses are at an optimum size of 8 to 12 inches, then out when they graze the forage back to 3 to 5 inches.

On some of his most challenging 56 acres, Meismer manages a five-year rotation of corn, soybeans, and forage. He plants crops for two years, then rotates to forage for the next two. He also grazes the herd on corn stalks and inter-seeded rye grass in the fall.

"From an environmental standpoint, the grazing rotation maintains a better vegetation cover through active plants, which helps prevent erosion," Solomon said. "It's a sustainable system that can easily provide continual food for livestock 10 to 11 months out of the year, so less supplementary feed is needed."

With NRCS, Meismer installed a water-powered pump and a watering system that reaches 1,200 feet from a spring to the farthest paddock. He moves a storage tank on a wagon among three steep sites, then, using gravity, moves water to a tank he rotates among paddocks as he shifts his herd. By covering the soil with vegetation, Meismer has reduced erosion. Moreover, he set up his watering system to keep cattle away from the spring itself, protecting water quality.

"Some of my ground was rougher and not as productive for cash cropping, but was suitable for grazing," Meismer said. "After I pushed the pencil, I thought I could get more dollars per acre grazing and selling feeder calves than on corn and soybeans."

Meismer increased his stocking density from 32 cow/calf pairs to 37 because he had better pasture, and those animals gained more weight, bringing better returns.

Meismer's net return in 2000 from the calves was $65 per acre compared to $59.70 an acre for soybeans and $55.73 per acre for corn. "The increased revenue from calf sales more than offset the decrease in revenue from cash crops," he said.

In 2002, Illinois Extension educators hosted grazing field tours for area farmers to learn more about the system on Meismer's farm. Jay Solomon, in fact, still cites the Meismer grazing project when speaking to farmers and ag professionals as an example of an effective three-way partnership. He helped create an intensive grazing system with fenced paddocks, while NRCS soil conservation technician Jim McQuilkin designed a system featuring a water-powered ram pump that drives water from a spring uphill to Meismer’s pasture. “It was the three of us working together than enabled us to pull off this concept,” Solomon said.

Adapted from SARE 2004 Annual Report.

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