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We have been blessed beyond measure

Published on 27 February 2018
Ted and Patsey Hughes

At the American Forage and Grassland Council’s annual meeting in mid-January, 75-year-old Ted Hughes, a self-professed “grass farmer” and beef cattle producer from Georgia, competed in the annual Forage Spokesperson contest.

Hughes and his wife, Patsy, own and operate Chantilly, a small farm in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. Hughes’ presentation took first place in the competition. Excerpts of his speech are presented below.

We started 54 years ago with little more than a dream. We purchased 25 acres of a worn-out cotton farm in 1966, and now we have around 150 acres we own and 60 more we rent.

Things are a lot different now than they were when I first came to Georgia almost 70 years ago. As a young boy in Oglethorpe County, I remember hard times, not only economically hard times but also hard times for the land.

Nearly every inch of farmland in the county was being plowed and planted in an effort to scratch a living from land void of topsoil. I remember playing in large eroded gullies, red and raw, when a thunderstorm would fill the ditches with enough muddy water for kids to paddle around in.

Oglethorpe County was like a big red sore on the face of the earth. Our dream was to reverse this trend and never let this happen to our farm again. Forage production and management is what kept our dream from becoming a nightmare.

The working cattle farm the "Garden on Chantilly" and a large crater caused by the Simthonia Siderite

And it is also what we saw, slowly but surely, rebuilding the land and changing the complexion from red to green. This is why I can say to you, today, I am dead serious – I believe in what we are doing.

Chantilly is a working cattle farm. Our entire operation is designed to provide the nutritional requirements of our cattle through forage production. But don’t let boots, hats and cows confuse you; we are not cattle producers. We are “grass farmers.” Our cash crop is grass. Our cattle simply convert our grass into a valuable, marketable product.

We have an extensive rotational grazing system consisting of 25 pastures ranging in size from 3 to 8 acres. We have six heavy-use area water stations with large, concrete water tanks. Fences extend out like spokes of a huge wagon wheel.

Wagon Wheel grazing system

Not only does rotational grazing allow us to increase the quality of our forage and the production of our pastures, it also allows us to carry one cow on much less than 2 acres, and it keeps us closer to our cattle; they are calmer and easier to handle.

We use temporary fencing to split some of the larger pastures and strip-graze others. As the cattle rotate, nutrients (as some folks call it … I just call it manure) are scattered over the pastures, eliminating areas with extreme quantities. Our mineral feeders are mounted on tires and are easy to place in areas where grazing is light.

Philip Brown, grassland conservationist for NRCS, says, “Anything you place between your grass and your cow is expensive – especially iron and oil.” Hay is really just insurance. Sometimes I feed hay because the moisture content of the grass is very high, and the cattle may just need some extra dry matter. We feed hay when we have to, but we feed as little as possible.

Chantilly is a cow-calf and stocker operation. We run commercial brood cows (mostly Angus), and we pre-condition and stocker our calves, doubling our stocking rate for a two- to four-month period.

Chantilly is a working cattle farm

Our calves are born in winter and weaned in late summer or early fall. Steers usually weigh 630 to 650 pounds, with heifers about 40 pounds lighter. These are not 205-day weights but actual weights when we wean them.

Our pastures are predominantly tall fescue, common bermudagrass and several varieties of white clover. We also plant (no-till) ryegrass in some pastures and broadcast clover seed in areas that need it. We have been blessed with an abundance of vetch and other winter-annual forages we never planted. And many of the weeds are quite desirable if the cows get them when they are small.

Timed fertilization and grazing management keeps a proper balance of forages. And we don’t graze to the ground like we used to. We leave 3 to 4 inches of leaf, which reduces recovery time.

Around the first of September, we set aside several pastures with good stands of fescue (and whatever else is growing) and stockpile forage. We have discovered, both by forage test and actual performance, the quality of this stockpiled grass is quite good.

The relative feed quality of a recent pasture where we had stockpiled some forage ranged from 147 to 177. And because there is no cost in harvesting, storing or feeding out this stockpiled forage, it is really one of the most promising practices we can do. Another way to store feed is on the cows. We like to see some flesh, with body condition scores of 7 or 8 on the dry cows going into winter.

Call it what you will – cell grazing, flash grazing, rotational grazing or managed grazing – if you’re going to spend money growing quality forage, and you want to see a good return on your investment, management is the key.

Growing and managing top-quality forages really pays off for us. If you aren’t already into intense grazing management, the best way to start is simple: Just build a fence. Cut your pasture in half. And it doesn’t have to be an elaborate, expensive fence.

A single, temporary hot wire will work. You will soon see the value in it as your calves start creeping ahead of the cows. Then do it again and again and again.

And here’s a bit of good news. You don’t have to re-invent the wagon wheel. You can do what works for you, with your cows, on your farm. And you don’t have to do it alone. We didn’t. We had help, and there’s help out there for you. I think it’s safe to say there’s not a person in this Forage and Grassland Council who would pass up the opportunity to help a neighbor.

The NRCS, the Broad River Soil and Water Conservation District, and the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service have also been helpful. The people and programs are invaluable. We appreciate the technical advice, information, friendship and support we receive. Our farm is available to them for research, meetings, teaching opportunities or other events.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Ted and Patsy Hughes took a “scabby” piece of red ground and turned it into lush pastures.

PHOTO 2: The working cattle farm, the “Garden on Chantilly” and a large crater caused by The Smithonia Siderite (a meteorite found on the farm) are additional lures for community groups to visit Chantilly Farm, where the Hugheses promote agriculture. 

PHOTO 3: Using the “wagon wheel” grazing system developed in the ’70s, Hughes began rotational grazing to increase productivity per acre. 

PHOTO 4: Chantilly is a working cattle farm with an emphasis on grass farming. White clover and ryegrass are seeded into bermudagrass and tall fescue stands. Photos provided by Ted Hughes and Becky Mills.