Livestock potluck makes efficient use of pasture

By Matt Reese

As folks work their way down the table at a church potluck, some people will get a healthy helping of Mrs. Turner’s delicious mashed potatoes, while others may prefer the Au Gratin potatoes brought by Mrs. Benson. Some diners will choose green beans, while others will select peas as they heap the bounty upon their plates. In the end, everybody gets what they want at a church potluck and, if it is done just right, there are few leftovers.

Francis and Shirley Steffee may have had a church potluck in mind in the late 1990s

The sheep get the first pick of the pasture before cattle are moved in.

when they added sheep and goats to their 241-acre Muskingum County farm that had predominantly been a beef operation for many years. The idea behind the sheep and goats was to diversify the culinary pasture preferences on the farm to better utilize pastures and better care for the land. That decision has helped shape the farm into the 2012 Ohio Environmental Stewardship Award winner for sheep production.

The farm has been in Shirley’s family since the 1940s. When Shirley was growing up, the farm was home to sheep and cattle, among other livestock, but eventually her father switched to predominantly beef cattle production on the rolling hills. As her father got older, Shirley and Francis became more involved with the farm and saw some possible ways to improve the operation with diversification. Since they have retired in recent years, they have been able to implement many of those ideas on the land.

“We got into the sheep business in 1998. We brought sheep to the farm to clean up the pastures. They are easy on the land and they don’t make paths that erode. When we first started, we had goats too for cleaning up brushy areas,” Francis said. “We have been without goats for two years. Next year we’ll probably go back with goats as we need them to clean up the brushy areas.”

By rotating pastures with the different species, the Steffees have really improved the productivity of the farm.

“We have 27-head of mixed Dorset sheep. We have one Dorset ram and the rest are ewes. We want that Dorset because they grow well and they are good mothers. We currently have four head of calves and we do pasture rotation,” Shirley said. “Once the sheep are done with a paddock, I move them and move the calves into the paddock that they just left. It is a continuous rotation.”

The beautiful farm is popular with visitors.

With the Steffees’ careful management, the pastures and livestock benefit from the arrangement. They survived the drought this year by closely monitoring the pastures to prevent overgrazing.

“We’re at a good size right now because you never know when a drought is going to hit and, this year, we came through this drought pretty well,” Shirley said. “I don’t believe in overgrazing.”

The water for the livestock is mostly from two natural spring systems on the farm.

“We are very fortunate with the water we have on this farm,” Francis said. “We only had one spring slow down, but it did not stop. We have 100-gallon concrete tanks that can serve three paddocks. We interconnect the tanks so we can pull the supply off of different springs. At the barn we have a well.”

Their spring and pasture development efforts were bolstered with funding through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). They have 75 total acres of pasture and roughly 50 acres of hay that is baled in both small square and round bales.

“We have round bales and square bales that are like little hunks of gold right now,” Shirley said. “We try to put up 600 or 700 square bales a year, but this year we won’t make that because the yield is just not there. We’re waiting on the third cutting yet. Our mixed grass hay has been slower to recover from the drought than the alfalfa.”

The livestock from the farm and the extra hay are sold at the Mt. Hope auction that is about 50 miles away.

Additionally they have installed drainage tile to help alleviate wet weather springs in hay and pasture fields; installed culvert crossings, grassed waterways, and a farmstead windbreak; filled, seeded and mulched eroded ruts in an abandoned oil well road through crop fields; conducted soil tests and applied fertilizer according to Ohio State University recommendations to resolve nutrient deficiencies; installed geotech fabric and stone pads around water tank areas to prevent mud from accumulating; installed contour strips that slow runoff water and trap sediment to reduce soil erosion while at the same time providing food and cover for wildlife, and use electric poly fencing to keep fence rows clean.

The farm’s nearly 90 acres of wooded lots are managed according to a forest stewardship plan developed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry. They leave hollow trees and tall grass areas for wildlife habitat and they have installed fencing to keep livestock out of these natural areas on the farm.

The Steffees have also been very active in environmental education efforts, hosting the 2007 pasture walk and an environmental field day for local farmers that highlighted the environmental enhancements that have been made on their farm.

“Shirley and I, we’re just doing our jobs. We are just doing what we feel is right for our area and our ground,” Francis said. “It’s not just the grass, the trees and the water, we just want to preserve everything better than the way we found it.”

And that involves building upon the family legacy on the land.

“The farm has been in my dad’s family since 1940s and we’d like to keep the legacy moving on and keep it going for our children,” Shirley said. “We feel if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you and people love to see that. A lot of people out on a Sunday drive come out just to see how we maintain our property.”

Or maybe they are just looking for a potluck.

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