Toby & Kimberly Bostwick run Barnhouse Farms and Elevated Eggs near Melrose, New Mexico in Curry County. They caught the regenerative agriculture farming bug in 2020 and haven’t looked back. They had seen what drought and overgrazing was doing to their land and they wanted to try a better way on their 600 acres of dryland cropping and 600 acres of rangeland. When they received an NMDA Healthy Soils Grant they used it to experiment with no-till cover crop planting of forage sorghum and cowpeas, as well as trying some bale grazing and experimenting with higher stock density as part of their planned grazing program.
Prior to this experimentation, Toby had been in a standard production of wheat, sorghum, and corn. They had been doing a lot of tillage and they could see the water cycle was not functioning and they couldn’t keep rainfall on their fields and there was a lot of wind erosion. Their rangeland had very short grasses, with not much forage volume, lots of bare ground, and not many forbs. They knew it was time to change management practices.
COVID hit and they began to watch videos. They saw “Kiss the Ground” and thought to themselves, this is something we can do. They watched more vides and read books like Braiding Sweetgrass, Comeback Farms, For the Love of Soil, Dirt to Soil, and Humane Livestock Handling.
One study from the University of Nebraska in particular caught their attention because it focused on what percentage of a three-inch rainfall could be captured on a 10% slope. An Excellent Pasture with 95% cover had only 10% Soil Loss Runoff so 2.7” of the rain went into the soil. A Fair Pasture with 75% covered soil would have a soil loss of .5 ton/acre, with a 50% runoff so only 1.5” of rain would remain in the soil. A Poor Pasture with 50% covered soil would result in soil loss of 4.5 tons/acre at 70% runoff so that only .9” of rain went into the soil. They knew they needed to get their soils covered to capture all they rain they got since water is such a limiting factor in New Mexico agriculture.
So, in 2020 they used the soil health grant money to focus on the 5 Soil Health Principles:
- Keeping the ground covered
- Appropriate disturbance
- Keeping a living root in the soil
- Increasing plant diversity
- Integrating livestock.
To do that, they broadcast forage sorghum and cowpeas. The cowpeas came up. Then they got an old set of cows and put them on the worst possible ground and fenced them in to 10 acres a day. They eventually increased their stock density by putting them into 5 acres a day when they began experimenting with bale grazing to increase organic matter on their rangeland.
They had to experiment with portable infrastructure as part of this effort. “We used a poly water tank as our portable trough,” says Kimberly. “The big challenge is we have to empty it to move it and we also lose a lot of water to evaporation. Toby rigged up a jack to help with moving the tank. We’ve found that if we keep the trough long and narrow then we don’t lose so much water to evaporation. Water has been a struggle, so we want to make moving it quick and easy. We have a 2,500-foot hose we use and we put the water trailer on the high side of the pasture so we can run the hose from there. We just use automatic dog waterers for the chickens.”
By the end of the last grazing season the Bostwicks were using five-acre paddocks. They sold all their cattle due to the drought and now have 130 ewe lambs/1 acre a time (approximately 13,000 lbs/acre). They tried polynet for the sheep but that didn’t go well so they are using electric rope with taller pigtail fence posts with 3 insulator spots so they can run three strands. It takes about 30 minutes to set up a paddock as they have all three ropes on a roller and they connect them on side by side corner t-posts. They are trying for a full-year recovery.
They used the yellow Gallagher wire and pigtail fence posts for fencing their cattle, using two wires if they had calves. They transitioned to the ½-inch white rope and invested in a good Gallagher fence charger – Model S400. The rope works phenomenally as they found that the yellow wire tended to fray. A five-acre paddock takes them about 30 minutes to set up.
According to Kimberly, the rangeland around Melrose is historically not a cool season grass area as it was summer grazing grounds for the buffalo. The Bostwicks are working to expand their warm-season growing timeframe. They think they could have green plants year-round if the soil temperatures is warm enough and they have good soil fertility. They found where they had sorghum cover there was green plants under the residual even in cooler weather.
The results were that in the winter of 2021, even with horrendous winds, their soil was not blowing away like neighbors’ fields because they had cover holding the soil. They also saw dung beetles coming back along with a lot of pollinators like lady bugs and praying mantis as things warmed up.
On the rangeland, the ground cover is filling in and native grasses, like Sand dropseed, have been able to fully express themselves at over four feet tall. “We also had lots of wildflowers even with no rain in the spring,” says Kimberly. “We had more diversity in plants than before.”
The bale grazing was done on the rangeland in the winter of 2022. Instead of putting out round bales they put out square alfalfa bales, but they didn’t have them tight enough so the response has been patchy. In 2022 they didn’t get any rain until mid-July. Then through the end of August they got 11 inches which didn’t really help them because the growing season was pretty much over. They had about 40-50% cover before their bale grazing/planned grazing experiment. Now they have about 60% cover. There has been an increase in forbs which the sheep are eating but the rangeland remains dominated by warm season, blue grama, with some bluestem.
The Bostwicks are already seeing a financial return on these new management practices. They have lower input costs (including no longer paying for plowing/tilling and herbicide spraying), and because they are no longer haying, they have no hay contract to pay. They had been selling the forage sorghum for hay but now they are thinking about putting it through the sheep, and at knee high they have some good forage for the sheep to graze.
The Bostwicks are also trying to add diversity of grazing species to feed the soil. They are raising chickens in the pasture and moving them every week onto new grass. “They are the best eggs, and we’ve been getting great response at the farmer’s market,” says Kimberly.
The Bostwicks have converted old stock trailers into mobile chicken coops with automatic doors so the chickens can put themselves in at night. “It’s making farming fun again,” says Kimberly. “There has been a lot of depression on the High Plains so we want to make life fun again.”
They also run 800-900 laying hens on .6 acres and move them every 3-5 days. The laying hens are on a separate rotation and they use polynetting for them. They recently got a Great Pyrenees/Anatolian cross puppy to see if she can help with protecting the chickens. As the weather has gotten colder the dog waterers with floats they use for the chickens are starting to freeze so they are using the standup chicken waterers and bringing them into the barn at night to keep them from freezing. With the sheep storage tank, they are using a 1,000-gallon water tank on a trailer that is hooked up to a float in a 150-gallon portable trough. To address freezing concerns, they close the valve and clear the hose out and pull the float for the night.
In regards to their cover crop strategy they are looking at what they can grow and graze in the same season. They are strictly dryland so they have to be flexible to adjust to weather conditions. They have found that grazing covers crops can make them much as raising a cash crop. They are looking for something with volume that can grow fast and and then they can knock it down. They want roots in the soil that will serve as a water channel and help them keep water in the soil.
Toby admits that direct marketing has been a big learning curve. “We’ve definitely changed our marketing strategy. I went to business school to learn marketing. I’ve found a lot of help and the market is there for selling our products. We are leaving the commodity side so we can focus on our agriculture being more effective and being paid for good management.
“Marketing our eggs has been a challenge. Our daughter has been helping us with social media and we are learning about what we can or can’t put on social media. We’ve been marketing them locally. We have had no problem selling them now with what we have, but we can saturate the market in Clovis. The chickens are doing so much benefit on the ground that we count that as a benefit and there is also a food bank we can donate excess product to. We are slowly trying to create the market but we have to educate people about the value of pastured eggs to get people to buy them. Our goal is to market our meat through a USDA-inspected processor. But we have to develop those markets and we need more local processing plants. I love the direct marketing. We sold out of our eggs and we have them in a local grocery store. It’s been a lot of fun. We sell them for $5/dozen or a 30-egg flat for $12. We buy an organic chicken feed blend with corn from Pink Rose Organix in Texas.
Continuing Education & Building Community
One of the ways they are bringing more enjoyment to their work is through continuing education like their field day with Dale Strickler. “We learned so much,” says Kimberly. “It was great to collaborate with other producers. Agriculture can be such a siloed profession. We don’t talk about what we do and we need to trade ideas and solutions and get new ideas.”
The farmer’s market is another new enjoyable experience for the Bostwicks. They go there with their kids and grandsons and make it a family event. “We are building community, which is not something we were doing before,” says Kimberly. “We can’t rely on other people bringing our food to us or just growing a commodity. We were relying on Walmart for our food. We need to change this and bring good food to New Mexico.
“We want to continue to improve our soil. It is such a blessing to have this land and we want more legumes and fungi, and to utilize every drop of rainfall that we get. Alejandro Carrillo said that we need to quit praying for rain if we don’t know how to use it. We are learning how people are doing this work with less rainfall. We want to grow nutrition food and pastured protein. We are really passionate about learning. We had an 85-year-old couple who came to our field day and still want to learn. We are also passionate about sharing what we know to both producers and consumers.
“Farmers are very sensitive,” says Toby. “We don’t like people telling us what to do. I just want us all to improve our profitability and grow good wholesome food. At the end of the day, our work is research and business.
“Farmers around us do question what we are doing. They say, ‘Hey, I noticed all the weeds in your fields. I’d be happy to spray your field.’ We had to say, ‘I’m trying something different.’ Everyone thinks we are crazy. But, we listened to Joel Salatin who said if they don’t think you are a lunatic, you are not trying hard enough.”
Learn more about Barnhouse Farms at Elevated Eggs.