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Martin Went Down to Georgia with Cattle on His Mind

by Martin Franke
LaGrange Co. SWCD manager

Published: Friday, November 24, 2023

Grazing in Michiana

Jerry Goshert, long-time editor of The Farmer's Exchange, asked me a couple weeks or so ago if I would write another grazing-related article, and if so, asked if I could write it on the topic of beef grazing. Of all the livestock that can be managed in a grazing environment, my knowledge and experience with the grazing of beef is the most incomplete. Rotational grazing used as a livestock management tool in this geographic area came on the strongest in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in dairy production. Beef grazing, strong in many other parts of the country, is just something I have not had a lot of experience with because, relatively speaking, there are not many beef graziers in this part of the country.

So, it came as pure coincidence when Jerry asked me to focus on beef production that I had just come back from a week in northwestern Georgia looking at, of all things, beef grazing operations!

I have been acquainted with Vernon "Shorty" Hochstetler since he started riding the same school bus as me in about 1973. Vernon is a few years younger than I; his older sister Mattie was in my class. I worked on a construction crew with him while I was in college and again for seven years full-time while working at Kuntry Lumber.

Since that time, Vernon has become quite a local authority on the raising and grazing of beef cattle, having, himself migrated from breeding Belgian draft horses to developing a passion for raising breeding -stock, Murray Grey beef cattle. He has also cultivated an extensive partnership with Seven Sons Farms of Roanoke, who are involved in marketing grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs and poultry and organic and natural foods of all kinds.

Shorty, as we now know him, through his business pursuits became acquainted with a southern gentleman by the name of William Hodge. Bill is a retired University of Georgia Extension ag agent with almost 30 years of experience. Last winter, Bill travelled to our community here in northeastern Indiana to attend our Northern Indiana Grazing Conference. He has also visited Shorty on his farm just a few miles south of LaGrange on a few occasions.

During these contacts, Bill has seen some things in our community here in northeastern Indiana that he feels could be beneficial to his home region around Carrollton, Ga. So, he went about setting up Shorty as a consultant. Shorty asked me to consider going along on the trip as chauffeur, with the visit to Carroll County, Ga. set for the last full week in October.

So, early Monday morning, on Oct. 23, Shorty, my wife Christine and I set out from LaGrange to Carrollton, Ga. After driving for about 12 hours, we ended up about 40 miles from LaGrange, but this time it was LaGrange, Ga. The trip was a real revelation for me, a northern boy, who had never been further south than a little ways into Tennessee. The thermometer ramped up about 20 degrees F from what it had been at home, and the flora and fauna was remarkably different. The tree species were different; we saw cotton instead of corn, and armadillos hit on the road instead of groundhogs.

The purpose of the trip was for Shorty to act as a consultant for local livestock producers. The tour that we received over the next three days was nothing short of amazing. When people talk about southern hospitality, they ain't just a-kidding! Mr. Hodge had organized our visit on a grand scale indeed. Not only did we meet local beef graziers, but also four of the seven Carroll County commissioners, the entire staff of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, and retired and current county agriculture agents of the Extension Service of the University of Georgia. Our welcome to Georgia was truly spectacular.

Over the next three days, we toured a half dozen local beef grazing farms. We also got to visit a newly opened grape growing operation and attended the Carroll County Extension and FFA annual meeting. On another evening, we attended the local beef-growers association dinner. Everyone was gracious without exception; even when traffic was dense (Carrollton is only about an hour's drive from Atlanta), I saw no incidents of "road rage."

Shorty, Christine and I spent the whole second day of our visit with a school bus load of high school FFA members touring livestock handling facilities and engaged in two pasture walks. Boys and girls both were polite and respectful all day long; I don't think I have ever been addressed so many times in my entire previous life as "sir," and, of course, Christine was always "ma'am." The students treated their teacher, Mr. Ryan Ayres, with utmost respect, and nobody saw many breeds of beef cattle in the south, but predominantly Red and Black Angus. The breeder bulls belonged to Bill Hodge of the University of Georgia Extension (retired). smirked when he finished up a technical explanation of forage grasses on his farm with the comment that "This is the way the Good Lord intended things to be!"

At every supper meeting all three days, we began each event with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a fervent prayer and blessing on the meal. It was reminiscent of the America I dimly remember growing up in during the 1960s and 70s. A challenge to us here in the upper Midwest, to be sure.

As I started out to report, however, the visit had a purpose, in that Bill Hodge had seen some things in the Midwest that he wanted to bring home to Georgia. Instead of the rich topsoil and dense grazing forage that we are used to seeing in our part of the world, most of the Georgia farms that we got to visit had hard, compacted, red clay soils with sparse forage and some serious weed issues. The farms were, in many cases, owned by multigeneration families, many of the farm owner/operators in their 70s. Carroll County Ga. before WW II, we were told, was the major cotton growing county in the state. Cotton tends to be hard on soils, requiring conventional tillage and denuding the soil of precious nutrients. Cotton as a crop there was largely abandoned by 1950, with only a few fields left to be seen today.

On the hills where cotton once grew, beef cattle now grazed, but according to the locals, in fewer and fewer numbers every year. At one of the meetings, we attended (I believe it was the beef growers association), the figure was given that Carroll County (with a human population of 119,148 living on 322,560 acres) is losing production of around 2,000 head of beef cattle per year. This reminded me of the old German proverb that I learned when living in my wife's home community in southeastern Pennsylvania: "No cattle, no manureno manure, no cropno crop, no seedno seed, no cattle."

One problem is urban sprawl, but loss of farm productivity is a serious issue as well. One of the chief causes appeared to be over-reliance on herbicides. Chemical resistance was occurring in a big way, so the local herbicide of choice was not really controlling the weeds and was suppressing forage growth and vigor. At the same time the overhead cost of the herbicide was continuing to be a burden to local farmers.

One farm, the last day of our tour, had discovered this and had discontinued use of herbicides, electing to concentrate on intensive pasture rotation and management instead. The fields here were greener, the soil healthier, and the overall productivity of the farm noticeably better than most of the neighbors.

Another problem facing Carroll County is youth "brain drain." As I mentioned before, most of the farms we visited were owned and operated by married couples in their 60s and 70s. Many of the young people in the community went to college a generation ago, and then for most of them it was off to Atlanta!

The result was that the older generation was left shouldering the burden of operating local farms for far longer than they should be expected to, with very little prospect of anyone coming along to take their place in the future. Small wonder that people like Bill Hodge were starting to become concerned.

The greatest challenges evident to agriculture, and especially to beef production, in northwestern Georgia were underutilization of resources, over-reliance on herbicides, long-term soil depletion, and a lack of youthful participation in farming. The farming families there were aware of the issues that they face, and they were willing to sponsor help at great cost.

Observing this, I was humbled by the perceived "problems" that we have here at home. We take for granted prime, productive soils, adequate water and relatively easy soil conservation due to our flat topography. Where we lament crowding, expensive land and too much activity, other communities fear slow obsolescence and gradual decline.

I know this description was only incidentally about beef grazing; it was more of an observation of societal norms. I hope that it challenges us here in northeastern Indiana to be truly thankful for what we have and inspires us to share those blessings with other communities in need.

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