Carrie Mendoza, Schultz, Bruce | 5/20/2006 2:20:15 AM
LELEUX, La. – Converting crop land to pasture for cattle is more than turning the herd loose to graze on whatever grass takes root.
Craig Adam found that out when he switched from growing rice to raising cattle.
More than 75 people learned about Adam’s experience recently at a May 12 field day for the LSU AgCenter’s Master Farmer Program.
Adam will be one of the state’s first farmers to receive Master Farmer certification this summer.
The fifth generation of his family to farm on the Vermilion Parish property, Adam said he stopped rice production in the late 1990s. Now he raises approximately 100 head of cattle on 260 acres.
Adam said he had drainage work done for weeks to prepare the land for a 22-acre pasture that is only used for hay production.
"I had neighbors who thought we were going to have a trailer park out here," he said.
Adam said the advantage of the drainage work becomes obvious after a heavy rain. Normally hay would be ruined if it is cut just before heavy rain, he said, but the cut grass dries quickly on the swales.
Adam divided the 22 acres with a series of parallel trenches. Between trenches, the ground has been sloped in a turtleback fashion to help drainage. Jiggs Bermuda grass and east gama grass, a native plant, were sown into the soil.
Stuart Gardner of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service said seedbed preparation was critical for gama grass, requiring the ground to be worked 45-60 days before planting, and it has to be worked well with no lumps.
"You can’t have any green decaying material in the soil," he said.
But Gardner said the grass is prolific. "It’s highly productive if it’s fertilized," he said.
Seed companies have developed a patented method of preparing the seed for germination, Gardner said.
Gardner said after 50 years of rice production, the ground had to be worked thoroughly with a chisel plow to penetrate the hardpan layer of clay.
"Now these plants are able to get their roots down," he said.
Improving pasture and using a rotational grazing system allow for a higher density of cattle to graze on the land, Gardner said.
"We’ve just begun in this part of the country to manage the grazing efficiency aspect," he said.
Brian Naquin of the LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Master Farmer Program said improvements on grazing lands benefit water quality, too.
Adam’s farm was selected as a model farm not only to demonstrate good conservation but also to establish a monitoring project to look at the effects that specific practices have on the water running off of the fields and pastures. Water samples are analyzed for nutrients, solids and oxygen-demanding pollutants.
Dr. Ernest Girouard, a farmer and member of the Vermilion Parish Soil and Water Conservation District, said federal funds are available to help farmers with the costs of implementing conservation measures.
The amount of federal funds spent in the parish has totaled $1.5 million in a little over a year, he said.
The improvements being done should help farmers satisfy environmental regulators, Girouard added.
"Somewhere down the line, it’s going to help with the Clean Water Act," he said.
Carrie Mendoza, director of the LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Master Farmer program, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is interested in using the LSU AgCenter program to formulate national strategies to address environmental challenges in agriculture.