Okay, calculus lesson of the day, courtesy of some pasture grass, fencing and a herd of ruminants. Calculus, in case you’ve forgotten, is the mathematical study of rates of change. It can be a handy way to calculate where you’re headed and how long it will take to get there. Let’s say you are a farmer who, while walking in a rotationally grazed pasture, is trying to assess how much forage will be available for how long and for how many animals. The problem is that pasture plants don’t grow at the same, uniform rate; you’re measuring a quantity that is a moving target.
“It’s either increasing at a decreasing rate, or increasing at an increasing rate,” says farmer Keith Johnson, who, while studying electronics engineering at South Dakota State University became well acquainted with the wonders, and frustrations, of utilizing calculus to solve problems. “Well, that’s the start of setting up an integral in calculus. So you can use integrals and derivatives and all your calculus and look at things like where are you? Where are you going to be? Where’s the curve going?”
For Johnson and his wife Anna, such calculations are a key component of their farming operation. Like many beginning farmers, they are constantly stepping back to assess not only when a particular pasture will peak in its productivity during a specific growing season, but where the “curve” of their overall agricultural enterprise is headed years down the road. At first blush, their backgrounds—besides his training in engineering, Keith has worked as a logger and in the commercial fishing industry; Anna holds a doctorate in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin and could tell you all you want to know about Phytophthora infestans, the late blight pathogen of potatoes and tomatoes—would appear to have little to do with raising livestock on grass in west-central Minnesota’s Sibley County. But to the young couple, it’s not so much about what you study or what you are trained in, as it is about learning to engage your brain and apply critical and analytical thinking skills to addressing tricky questions.
And if there was ever a profession that requires such mental (and physical) gymnastics, it’s a form of farming that strives to step out of the dominant corn-soybean monocultural system by working more in tune with natural, perennially-based processes. Such an approach to farming is about studying the whole system, and the interactions of soil biota, plants, animals, weather patterns—even human behavior.
“It’s very difficult to study a system because there are a lot of variables,” says Keith, 37. “Our minds are challenged—we’re both fascinated about what we’re doing and trying to figure out the puzzle.”
Anna, 30, puts it even more simply. “There’s so much to farming,” she says. “It’s not just putting sheep on grass.”
Seeking a way to take a systems approach to agriculture is one of the reasons Keith and his brother Lindsey took the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course in 2011-2012. That winter, they traveled twice-a-month to Hutchinson, Minn., and learned from other farmers about goal setting, business planning and, as Keith puts it, “funneling interests.” The brothers had both grown up on a corn-soybean farm in Sibley County, and were interested in investigating a variety of enterprises. In Keith’s case, his interest in alternative ways to farm was sparked by experiences he had outside the community after high school.
Keith grew up loving farming and being on the land, but had a knack for gadgets and working with his hands, a passion he indulged in while spending countless hours in his family’s farm machine shop. That led him to study electronics engineering, but after doing some internships in the field, decided he preferred working outside. So after college, Keith worked out West and in Alaska, doing everything from logging and commercial fishing to sheep shearing. But the home farm kept drawing him back—each fall Keith found himself in Sibley County helping with harvest. About a decade ago he returned home for good when his father Alan was paralyzed by a farm accident.
Those years Keith spent out of state exposed him to different ways of making a living on the land that didn’t involve just raising corn and soybeans (the rich prairie soil of Sibley County makes it one of the biggest corn-soybean producing areas in the Midwest). The Farm Beginnings class helped him narrow his interests and focus on his strengths, as well as determine what he has time for. The issue of time, in particular, has come to the forefront as the two brothers’ families grow: Keith and Anna have a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old; Lindsey and his wife Naomi (who is Anna’s sister) have five children ranging in age from 2 to 9.
“You’re young and full of energy and a big fan of a heap of ideas, but you need to have a solid goal in mind and develop who you are, what your talents are and what you want to pursue,” says Keith. “Otherwise, you try and do everything and you get nothing done.”
Today, he and Lindsey raise corn and soybeans on their parents’ 360 acres, but they have also launched a bit of an experimental pasture-based enterprise on a small parcel of their own land. The opportunity to pursue that experiment came soon after they graduated from Farm Beginnings when a neighbor offered to sell the brothers 50 acres of a 160-acre farm that sits next to the original Johnson farmstead. The neighbor wanted to sell the land to someone who wouldn’t just bulldoze the farmstead to make way for more row crops, a common occurrence in the area. The brothers split the 50 acres in half, with Lindsey now living in the original farmhouse with his family.
“It’s really just out of the goodness of his heart that he did that,” says Keith of the neighbor who sold them the land. “He wanted to see a young person get started and utilize those buildings on that farm that he grew up on. It is an incredible opportunity because as a young farmer looking for land, I can’t afford 160 acres or even 80 acres.”
The following year, Keith and Anna were married, and she brought to the budding farming enterprise an intimate knowledge of plants. “One of the first things he asked me was, ‘What’s that plant that the sheep won’t eat?’ ” Anna recalls with a laugh. She also came equipped with a passion for developing a farming system that was based on creating more biodiversity on the landscape in an economically viable way. Keith and Anna call their enterprise Blissful Bee Pastures for a reason: “Our pastures are full of bees and flowers and I think that’s important for the diversity,” says Anna.
Soon after acquiring the 50 acres, the Johnsons used cost-share funds from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to erect perimeter fencing and started setting up a rotational grazing system. They then set about converting the corn-soybean ground to pasture by seeding a variety of legumes and grasses using a seeder Keith engineered using a servomotor, a micro-controller and an LCD readout screen to monitor seeding rates.
“It was probably a little overboard but I just enjoyed building it,” says Keith of the high-tech seeder.
Such a conversion of land has raised eyebrows in the neighborhood. For one thing, that’s 50 acres that’s no longer corn. And as if erecting fence in an area where farmers have ripped out wire and posts to make room for more row crops isn’t odd enough, the Johnsons have also put in cross-fencing so the land can be rotationally grazed.
“The vehicles slow down and people say, ‘There they go putting in another interior fence,’ ” says Keith with a laugh.
No matter how many perplexed looks the parcel gets, Keith and Anna say it’s been fun to watch how the perennialization of the land has led to the “waking up of the soil life” in the form of more thriving forage species each passing year. And that’s important for a piece of ground that’s serving as the hub of a grass-based cattle and sheep enterprise. During the past few years, Keith and Anna have grown their sheep herd to 70 ewes and have a half-a-dozen beef cattle. They’ve recently started direct-marketing grass-fed lamb and beef, and they hope to eventually double their lamb herd operation and raise as many as 15 to 20 cattle. In 2016 the couple expanded their land base slightly when they bought an additional 10 acres in the neighborhood.
But growth in the scope of the farm is not a top priority at the moment—Keith and Anna are focusing more on putting their analytical and problem-solving skills to work trying to perfect the current way they are doing things. Keith, ever the tinkerer, half jokes about mounting accelerometers on sheep with a radio signal that would alert him in the dead of night if the animals suddenly start to become quite mobile—in other words, they’re running away from predators such as coyotes.
On a more serious note, Anna is using her skills with setting up experimentation to take a deep look at how best to finish sheep on pasture. The sooner the lambs are finished, the more forage that is left for the ewes and the longer into the winter they can graze, leading to less hay usage.
It turns out that by mid-July pasture plants start to lignify, making them less palatable and nutritious, creating a situation where just as the farmers need the pastures to be peaking, they are actually headed into a trough production-wise. The Johnsons have been experimenting with various pasture mixes to try and hit that sweet spot of animal/plant productivity. Lindsey is also interested in utilizing the grazing of annual cover crops as an option.
“Ideally, the lambs would finish by the end of August, which is a hard month to get good gains in, so it may not be possible, but we are trying some different things,” explains Anna. “We’ve gotten close but never quite got there. We’re designing some experiments, setting up plots, collecting and analyzing data. There’s so much to it, the deeper you get into it.”
Cultivating the Curve
Keith and Anna continue to read everything they can get their hands on related to grass-based livestock production, as well as attend field days, workshops and conferences. This has allowed them to network with other farmers who are in various stages of establishing grass-based livestock operations. Keith says Farm Beginnings was invaluable for creating the network required when one is engaging in a kind of agriculture that’s not commonly practiced in the immediate neighborhood.
He says the course also helped guide the direction of Blissful Bee Pastures in a way that goes beyond determining what kind of forage to plant or how often to rotate livestock through a grazing system. Back in 2011-2012, one exercise that Farm Beginnings instructor and vegetable farmer Nick Olson led involved asking class participants to think about what they would pack in a suitcase if they were headed out on a trip. Keith, the practical farm boy used to working with his hands, was thrown a loop by what Olson said next: don’t focus on items like a toothbrush or a change of clothes, but rather think about intangibles like “compassion” or “family happiness.”
“I was like, ‘Where are we headed with this?’ ” Keith recalls.
But as the exercise progressed, Keith started to see that asking questions about what truly are the important things in life is just as key to the success of a farming operation as tending to daily chores is.
“You don’t think about those things on a regular basis,” he says. “Probably the most important thing about being a beginning farmer is figuring out who you are and where you’re headed.”
It’s a bit like a calculus equation with a few human variables thrown into the mix.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.