Monday, 29 August 2011

Sweltering in Mississippi

I was fortunate enough to meet Sledge Taylor and a neighbouring farmer-friend of his, Sonny Henry, at the mob-grazing school hosted by Greg Judy in April. Somehow, I managed to get myself invited to visit Sledge's farm (he was probably too polite to refuse my request!)

Sledge is a successful cotton and cattle farmer based in Como, Mississippi. He is also a busy man, and on my arrival was in the throws of installing a huge cotton gin into his factory. Corn harvest was also about to start, cotton was in full bloom and being regularly irrigated, soybeans hung heavy with pods and he was carrying 400 cows on the farm. Despite all this, and typical of the kindness and hopsitality shown by all the people I met on this trip, he willingly gave up his whole day, and evening, to ensure I was shown all aspects of his operation.

It was fascinating. Whilst looking at his mob grazing setup, the adage "If you want something doing, ask a busy man" sprung to mind. Sledge had only visited the mob grazing school a couple of months ago but had already installed miles of fences and water pipes and was mob grazing cattle across a large part of his land.
Sledge inspecting a water connection within his recently laid water system

It was early days for the mob grazing system on Sledge's farm but already things were looking good. Lespedeza and other legumes were interspersed within the warm season grasses and the diversity is likely to increase with the longer rest periods given to the pasture land.

Mississippi is also extremely hot and humid, which further aids vegetation growth, though it does make things hard for cattle - they spend the heat of the day in the shade of the trees. One problem faced by livestock farmers in the warmer states of the US is that of endophyte-infected fescue which is toxic and exacerbates the effects of heat. Careful management of the pastures under the mob grazing regime and selective breeding of cattle are both necessary to combat its ill-effects.

A further indicator of the early success of the mob grazing was the signs of life in the soil. Dung beetle activity was visible in cow pats and there was an incredible array of grasshoppers and other insects rising in front of us as we crossed the grass fields.

Heaps of earth within the cowpat are a sure sign of dung beetle activity. They roll the manure into a ball and bury it underground, naturally cultivating the land.

Cotton farming is something new to me (not surprisingly, coming from the UK where, as I was sweltering in 98 degree F temperatures and near-100% humidity, my wife told me it was mid-60's and raining in the UK, with 'a touch of autumn in the air in the early mornings'!) I spent a fascinating few hours looking at all aspects of its production - the half-mile long centre-point irrigator on land within the Mississippi delta was particularly memorable, as was the logisitical challenge of installing a nearly-new cotton gin into a factory with the cotton harvest only weeks away.

Following a delicious steak, eaten in the enjoyable company of Sledge, his wife Denise and various neighbours at a local restaurant I retired to an old wooden house, moved 20 miles and renovated by Sledge in the last few months.

Huge programmable centre-point irrigators watered the crops growing on the Mississippi delta, driven by powerful diesel engines. The wheels on the irrigator are driven by electrical motor and operated by a pressure switch - as a wheel is activated, it moves its section of the pivot forward, thus tripping the switch of the next wheel along the boom and activating it too.

It's not mob grazing but.... cotton growing on a plant in Mississippi

A cotton harvester

The house that Sledge (re)built. In fact, he had it moved from his land on the delta, some twenty miles away. It was jacked up and transported by a specialist firm of house movers. Sledge added the veranda oncve in-situ here

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