BEEF MONTH FEATURE
By LARRY KERSHNER
ELDORADO – Perhaps there should be an award for conservation patience.
Dave Petty, an Eldora-area, award winning, cow-calf operator, said it takes years to see the benefits of conservation management on pastures and row-crop acres, but the benefits do come and they do pay.
“We’re making improvements to the environment while enhancing the profitability and viability of the farm,” he said. “At the end of the day, the environmental benefits, lead to economic benefits. It just takes a while.”
In early February, Petty was honored for his work with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Environmental Stewardship Awards Program, which is celebrating its 25th year.
According to NCBA, “Petty has played an important role in the program for many years, serving on the selection committee, engaging partners, and working to improve this program, which honors cattlemen who show exemplary environmental stewardship on their farms and ranches.”
Philip Ellis, NCBA’s immediate past president said, “The Environmental Stewardship Award Program has been one of NCBA’s most successful programs for more than two decades.
“We are proud to have had the opportunity to honor Dave Petty for his leadership and the important role he has played to recognize and promote some of America’s best ranchers and their outstanding management practices.”
Petty also serves as NCBA Region III vice president and is a member of the NCBA executive committee.
Petty is a 2001 recipient of the ESAP for his conservation of land that includes close management of grazing several Angus cow-calf herds, with pastures interseeded with brome grasses, and legumes – a 30 percent mixture of red clover and birdsfoot trefoil.
The legumes convert nitrogen from the air using some for themselves and storing an estimated 30 pounds of N per acre in the soil, which is then available to the grass.
Petty said he works a little bit each year on several of his pastures to improve the soil profile, stands of grass and manage the small areas of woods that dot his “couple thousand acres.”
This includes fencing, clearing brush, sloping waterways and doing other capitol improvements.
“You can’t do it all at once,” Petty said, “you can’t afford that.
“But we try to do some each year.”
He said his acres are divided half with pasture and half with row crops.”And both are half rented and half I own.”
The vast majority of his pasture on rolling hills were corn and soybean fields when he purchased them a few decades ago.
In one field he pointed to a depression in the ground and said when he bought the land there was a gully there large enough to hold a semi truck.
“They couldn’t farm that part, couldn’t get the machines over it.”
Most of his land lies several miles along the Iowa River, hence the farm’s name – Iowa River Ranch.
Stopping in one pasture, where the land slopes upward from the Iowa River basin, one can see nothing but grass in all directions – no row crops. He guesses he might have the largest continuous stretch of pasture land in Iowa.
Petty employed waterways and terraces to slow chronic eroding in fields.
“I have some that are bigger than I really need,” Petty said, “but then I can make hay off of them.”
He said cattle and conservation go hand-in-hand.
“Grass stops more than 80 percent of erosion,” he said, “but with cattle you need sound grazing practices to make it work.”Right now row crops are a losing proposition, but right now grazing cattle is profitable.”
When grass is chewed to a few inches long, Petty said he moves his cattle is a new paddock and that field gets a long chance to rest and recover.
“Rain and sun are the only free things we get,” Petty said. “We need leaves on the grass for photosynthesis.
“But we also don’t let the grass head-out,” or go to seed.
To keep cattle moving uniformly over the field, Petty installed a series of watering that means his cows and calves are never far from a watering source where they happen to be in a field. That prevents them, he said, from over-grazing one end of a pasture because it has just one watering site.
Seventy percent of the cost of a cow is feed,” Petty said. “It’s the hardest part to be efficient.
“The cow will overeat, so you don’t want her eating the profits up.”
Although grid soil sampling is common on row-cropped land, Petty will periodically sample his pasture soil on a grid pattern.
The soil tests show him if there are nutrient deficiencies and where those deficiencies are. This way, the exact treatment can be applied inn the right place.
It lowers the costs of pasture production inputs , Petty said, and makes for a more uniform stand of forage.
His pastures, Petty said, “are as valuable as row-crop fields.
“We get so much production (grass biomass) because the soil is balanced.”
He said healthy soil is good environmentalism, which leads to healthier forage as feed for his Angus cattle.
“The goal is not just to grow good grass,” Petty said. “The goal is to extend the longevity of the cows.
“If you have a cow that produced seven calves and a cow that produced 14 calves, which is more cost effective?”
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