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Tracking his pasture’s history

By Staff | Feb 18, 2011

Nathan Anderson, of rural Cherokee, scoops feed to his calves. Anderson's focus on his pasture has lead to a high rate of gain for his calves.

CHEROKEE – It’s said that the contents of a man’s bookshelf said a lot about him.

Nathan Anderson’s shelf is full of history books. Anderson, a 23-year-old crop and livestock farmer, got his love for history from his maternal grandfather. Works of nonfiction show Anderson’s desire to learn more about the world, where it’s been and where it’s going. The books, however, are also a symbol of Anderson’s desire to study history as a way to improve the future.

A May 2010 graduate of Iowa State University, Anderson became affiliated with Practical Farmers of Iowa while still in school. PFI was instrumental in connecting Anderson with other farmers and the methods they used to farm productively.

But it wasn’t just formal education that taught him about crop and livestock farming – he already had quite a bit of it in his blood.

“I honestly thought about being a history teacher at one point,” Anderson said. “It was during middle school when I found out that this farming stuff is hard work. My dad, Randy Anderson, grandpa, Lawrence Anderson, and Uncle Ron (Anderson) are all farmers.

Shown working in his home office, Anderson connects with other farmers by sharing information. He keeps statistics on his home computer concerning separate components of his farm operation, such as his pasture and cover crop. He said that he finds this aspect of farming challenging and enjoyable.

“I’ve got a great deal of respect for their experience.” It is the combination of Anderson’s family background and the experience of others that has him excited about his future in farming.

Both at ISU and PFI, he learned that many farmers are adept at sharing information based on their own farming data.

“Of course, most of what I know I’ve gotten from other farmers. Now it is my turn to give back.” As part of his involvement in PFI, he uses the history of his own pasture development to help others. Last June his farm was the focal point of a PFI-sponsored pasture walk.

“As part of my pasture project, I enter labor and cost inputs on a chart and relate it directly to the productivity of my livestock. I measure the rate of gain and the body condition of my calves. I look for long-term changes in my soil and forage samples.”

Not surprisingly, he said he’s found that a high-quality pasture leads to excellent weight gain and healthy animals. He’ll share his results with other farmers.

“I believe in the wisdom of farmers with experience,” Anderson said emphatically. “Farmers have always talked about forage mixes and how one was better than another. All I’m doing differently is putting a number to those differences.

“I’m tracking and analyzing the health of my pasture based on what I’ve done and then adjusting as necessary. It’s all about learning to manage systems rather than issues.”

It’s not just his pasture and livestock that receive Anderson’s scrutiny, it’s also his farm land. “I’ve been experimenting with cover crops,” Anderson said. “In the fall, I planted winter wheat which goes dormant and then greens up in the spring. It helps to scavenge nutrients and nitrogen. I’ll take a sample of the biomass above ground to see what we brought up in the plant matter.

“I’m not doing anything radical or any big game-changing principles; I’m just studying the components of the overall system.”

It’s apparent that Anderson isn’t just a student of history; he’s also looking toward his future. He has four professional goals – secure a longterm land base; renovate his pasture; improve his cropping system and increase conservation methods.

One of his longterm goals is to carry on the tradition of a farm family.

“I’m blessed to have a fiancee who has the courage to dive head first into a family farm setting. This past fall she drove the combine some. My family members have always taken important roles in operating our farm.

“I’m looking forward to having her as part of the farm family.”

Reflective of his grandfather’s affinity for history, Anderson emphasizes this point by quoting a founding father: “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.’ It may sound like I’m biased, but I won’t argue with Thomas Jefferson.”

Contact Doug Clough at douglasclough@gmail.com.

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