Guest post by Erin Sparks (@ErinSparksPhD)
Four years ago I became a first generation beef farmer. I had just started a postdoc studying the development of plant roots when my husband told me that his parents intended to give us beef cows as a wedding present. Whoa. Wait. What?!?!?! First of all, we live in a very small apartment – where are we going to put cows? Second of all, we know nothing about farming. Fear not fair reader, the good news is that my in-laws keep the cows for us and they are “many”-generation beef farmers so they know what they’re doing. Through their tutelage, I’m slowly becoming a beef farmer. I’ve learned about herd management, breeding, economics and more. Although all aspects of farming fascinate me, I wanted to tell you specifically about how plant science contributes to our farm.We run a cow-calf operation, which means that we keep a herd of cows (100+ in total) and three bulls on the farm. These animals are bred and their calves are then sold to market. What do these animals eat? Feeding cattle is a basic cost-benefit analysis. If you pay more to feed your animals than the profit you gain, you can’t make a living. Although it is not as simple as that, because beef prices are constantly fluctuating, so you also have to consider market projections. On our farm, we strive to be self-sufficient for feeding our animals. This means we grow over 200 acres of hay that is rolled and stored. In the summer, the animals are grazing in the fields, but come winter, when the fields freeze over, the animals get fed these hay bales. Alternatively, you can raise animals on grain feed, but this is exceedingly more expensive. We save grain feed for the calves after weaning, and to increase growth before selling.
Hay is any number of different plants. On our farm, hay is composed of fescue, orchard grass, and clover. Our hay fields are mowed at least twice a year, and the grass is rolled in large bales and stored. When to mow and roll the fields depends on the weather, and the moisture content of the grass. Before you roll the hay, the moisture content must be reduced to 14-18%. If the moisture content is 22% or greater, there is a risk of spontaneous combustion. You’d be surprised by how many barn fires have been caused by high moisture content in a hay bale. After rolling, it’s important to leave the bales in the field and check with a thermometer to confirm the temperature is <130oF before storing. An alternative approach is to turn the hay into “haylage”. Haylage is made from hay bales with higher moisture content that are wrapped in plastic and left to ferment. While haylage is considered to be more nutritious than hay, it is more difficult to store. We produce both hay and haylage to maintain our herd.
Although hay is our main source of feed, we have begun to experiment with additional crops – last year, we planted 14 acres of soybeans. I would love to grow more grain crops on our farm, but grain is expensive and beef prices are low. It’s impossible to feed our herd on grain crops and still make a profit. While every farm is managed slightly different, all farms rely on plant science to thrive. Advances in plant science that improve productivity and stress-tolerance are vital for the sustainability of farming.
About the author: Erin Sparks is a postdoc in the Benfey lab at Duke University and part-time farmer. She is fascinated by plant roots and linking genotype to phenotype. You can follow her on Twitter @ErinSparksPhD