A Panola County cattleman is using native grasses in a 200-acre intensive grazing operation that is both efficient and environmentally friendly.
Durwood Gordon owns Gordon Farms, a pasture and cattle farm near Batesville. He is experiencing the kind of success that is the goal of the Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat, or REACH, initiative coordinated by Mississippi State University.
"I have quite a bit of native grasses that I put in because it was good for agriculture and good for business," Gordon said. "Native grasses require very little fertilization, and since their root systems grow very deep, they are drought tolerant.
"These native forages don't show as high food protein when you send them off for a nutrient analysis, but the cattle just thrive on it," he said.
Each of these factors is important in an intensive grazing operation. Gordon fenced off 23 paddocks of about five acres each through which he rotates his cattle every one to three days, depending on the condition of the forage.
Because he moves his cattle frequently, he can check on their health as he handles them. The cows are accustomed to his presence and know what to expect when he arrives.
"Lots of days, I just open the gap and the cows walk right through into the next paddock," Gordon said. "When you have contented cows handled in a low-stress situation, you're going to have fewer health problems."
Another benefit of his setup is the fresh drinking water sources available in the paddocks.
"I put a water fountain under the cross fences so I have one water fountain for two paddocks," Gordon said. "Since the cows don't have to go very far for water, it's not a social event to go get a drink."
Gordon said this benefits the whole pasture because the cows do not congregate in a limited area, leaving a high buildup of manure and therefore nutrients in one spot. When cows congregate at a water hole, they also tear up the ground, which can lead to erosion.
"In this system, the cow's manure and urine is spaced out uniformly over the paddock, and that cuts down on the amount of fertilizer I need to apply to that pasture," Gordon said.
Judd Gentry, MSU Extension Service Panola County agent with ag and natural resources responsibilities, said another benefit of Gordon's intensive grazing system is it forces the cattle to graze edible material they would normally avoid.
"In open pasture, the cattle pick and choose what they want to graze, and they leave or graze around some of the taller, tougher grasses or weeds," Gentry said. "In an intensive system, you end up with a better pasture that has less weed pressure."
Gentry said the REACH program provides Gordon another platform on which to showcase his success as a cattle producer and environmental steward.
"Durwood has had a lot of people come in and look at his setup and design," Gentry said.
Robbie Kroger, assistant professor of aquatic sciences in the MSU Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture, leads the REACH initiative, which is a collaboration of the MSU Extension Service, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, and Forest and Wildlife Research Center.
He said producers benefit from sharing information with each other, and the REACH initiative allows them an opportunity to meet and learn from each other.
"Through the REACH program, we'll have success stories scattered throughout the state," Kroger said. "This will give participating farmers access to MSU research and expertise, and accountability in their conservation efforts."
Kroger said about 30 farmers have 96,000 acres enrolled in the stakeholder-driven program currently, and more are signing up.
"We are approaching the farmer and asking, ‘What do you need help with?’" Kroger said. "We are trying to help them with agriculture and conservation, then showcase how good a job they are doing with land stewardship."