Va. family takes council’s Forager Producer of Year
GREENVILLE, Va. — The Swortzel family’s search for a better way to do things on their Suffangus Farm here has earned it the honor of being the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council’s 2023 Forager Producer of the Year.
The family farm dates to 1904 and is moving forward to new ways of doing things as Isaac and his wife Stephanie follow his dad Carroll “Mac” and mom Karen in working to improve the land and the operation. Mac, an ag lending retiree, is involved with the farming while Stephanie, an accountant, and Karen, a teacher, pursue their careers.
The diversified livestock and poultry farm was pretty much a conventional operation transitioning from dairy to beef and sheep. Then in 2018, Isaac and Stephanie added two broiler houses. The differences in the income from those houses and beef cattle sowed the seeds for change in Isaac’s mind. He began gathering knowledge, searching the internet reading and talking with those who could help him learn.
Change began in forage management 2020 when family members decided they needed to find a better way. Mac credits Isaac with the changes and the farm’s award.
Extension agent Matt Booher, who nominated the farm for the annual award, outlined the progression of the past the past three years.
Booher reported that the farm is managed for year-round grazing. The operation includes a registered Black Angus herd and a flock of sheep as well as a two poultry houses.
“Prior to 2020, the farm was managed more conventionally” he wrote, “although they had long used a low-management rotation. Historically, cattle were in three to four separate herds, and a lot of hay, haylage, and sileage was mechanically harvested and fed back out—over 150 days each year.”
In a telephone interview, Mac cited the cost of haymaking equipment as a driving factor in making changes.
“There’s no way to justify the haying cost,” he declared. “We’ve got to use intensive grazing.”
In a separate phone conversation, Isaac echoed that statement. He said he could not envision how to replace aging equipment in a few years, even with used machines.
“He enjoys continually learning about grazing management strategies and innovating where he can to improve farm efficiencies and the land as a whole, Booher said of Issac. “He enjoys working on the land every day and bringing up his young family on the farm. Isaac prefers to avoid buzzwords like organic, sustainable, regenerative, etc. Instead, he simply tries to incorporate fundamental agronomic and grazing management concepts when where they apply to their operation.”
Isaac said while he grew up working on the farm, he has had to learn a new way to farm. For him, It is a continuing process. He is always learning something new.
“Daily moves allow for greater recovery periods, which allows for more growth and production,” Issac told Matt. “The cattle stay in great condition without the extra cost of supplemental feed, and even in the dead of winter stockpiled grasses can provide more nutritional value than they need. All this allows for far less hay production-which is expensive! So, less financial inputs, happier healthier cows, and you are improving your soil with better root development and more evenly spread manure! If you can’t tell by now…we really love grazing!”
They have combined the cattle in one herd of 100 fall-calving cow/calf pairs and 95 yearlings. The cows round out at about 1,300 pounds.
“Yearling calves are backgrounded with the cow herd—solely on pasture—until they reach about 700 pounds,” he explained.
They move to an on-farm feedlot for finishing with a combination of corn grain and a commercial energy supplement, and are eventually sold through a combination of conventional markets and direct-marketed freezer beef.
A flock of 70 Suffolk ewes is grazed separately from the cattle outside of the lambing season. Purebred rams and ewe lambs are sold starting in June each year.
“Tall fescue, the predominant forage on the farm, enables most of the farm to be stockpiled for winter grazing following the spring and summer grazing seasons,” Booher said. “Roughly 25 acres have a strong orchardgrass and/or alfalfa component, and are mowed once in spring to provide for the limited hay needs of the farm. These acres are then brought into the grazing rotation.”
The Swortzels devote approximately 50 acres on well drained locations to a mixture of tall fescue, orchardgrass, bluegrass, and white clover to serve as sacrifice pastures and staging areas during AI breeding.
“Through intensive rotational grazing we were able to minimize hay production and better utilize the forage our land produced” Isaac told his sponsors. “We already had infrastructure in place to make this work fairly well. Through stream exclusion and fencing projects, we had water troughs all around the farm as well as electric fencing. The benefits to this system are numerous.”
Mac emphasized, while discussing his heritage, that the farmland was in good shape when they switched to intensive grazing.
“My father taught me how to take care of the land,” he said of his father Carroll Swortzel who died last year at 95.
“Cattle now limit (strip) graze year-round within permanent paddocks, using electric poly-braid and step-in posts to create forward-and back-fencing,” Booher said in outlining how the system works. “They are moved every 1-3 days, depending on the grazing intensity called for by the pasture’s stage of growth, the season, and forage availability on the farm. This results in an overall farm stocking rate of approximately 1.5 acres/1,000 lb. animal unit, and a point-in-time stock density of varying from 60,000 to 200,000 lbs. liveweight/acre. Most of the time, Isaac prefers to manage for low grazing intensity, grazing the top few inches and leaving a minimum of 6-8” of plant residual to promote optimum regrowth and canopy cover. When grass is more mature, he prefers to move a bit slower and shape his temporary paddocks in such a way (longer and narrower) that cattle graze and trample more of the fibrous stems as they walk back and forth to water. This, Isaac says, encourages vegetative regrowth in the grasses. A back fence is utilized to maintain a minimum 3-4” residual—even when strip-grazing winter-dormant grasses—because he feels this encourages earlier green up in spring.”
The Suffangus cow herd now grazes 330+ days/year, compared with less than 215 before switching to intensive rotational grazing. Whereas they used to make and feed 500-800, 5 x 6 round bales, they now make and feed less than 200 bales per year. This has dramatically cut costs for labor, as well as operation and maintenance of machinery,
Fertilizer costs have gone down too with poultry litter replacing annual applications of nitrogen., and relying more on natural nutrient cycling facilitated by rotational grazing.
The headwaters of South River flow through the farm, the entirety of which is preserved in a successful CREP area that was installed 15 years ago to create wildlife habitat and an intact riparian zone. In the pasture fields Isaac applies poultry litter based on a nutrient management plan in order to keep his naturally fertile Frederick and Jefferson loam soils at optimum nutrient levels to push grass growth. Typically, litter is used during fall stockpiling in order to boost the stockpile yield and encourage root growth.
His intensively managed grazing rotation recycles and distributes nutrients well across the pasture, and he is using this as a tool to generally improve forage growth and fertility across the farm, and especially on several steep, eroded fields that historically had been plowed and row cropped.
Thanks to intensive rotational grazing resulting in dense stands of forage, Isaac says he has seen an improvement in water retention, which is important because the farm lies in a strip of Augusta County that consistently receives less rain than its surroundings.