Coley Burgess had been pondering for a while how to bring livestock grazing into the 15-acre pecan orchard he and his wife own near Loving, New Mexico. He talked to other pecan growers and they all said it couldn’t be done and he’d ruin the orchard if he tried. They purchased this conventionally-managed orchard in 2011. Coming from conventional farming backgrounds they continued with the conventional practices for a while. Then drought struck and given the significant amount of bare ground, they decided to plant a grass, clover, and alfalfa mix to get some growing plants between the trees to retain whatever moisture they got from the sky or put down in flood irrigation.
By the 2013/2014 growing season, they started with their first cow and stopped spraying for bugs and weeds. They got the milk cow because their daughter had extreme GERD and they wanted the access to raw milk to help her. Where there is one cow, others will follow and they currently run between 15-22 animal units in the orchard. In 2015 they stopped worming the livestock. In 2017-2018 they saw the dung beetles come back. 2018 was also the year that Coley took HMI’s One-on-One Distance Learning Grazing Planning Course with HMI Certified Educator Ralph Tate who helped him step through some grazing planning and implementation questions to improve stock density and increase recovery.
Now Coley and his wife, Tamsen, have started their pecan business, We’re Nuts LLC, and a grassfed beef business selling whole and half beefs mostly to friends and family. They currently sell between three to five steers or open cows. Through increasing their stock density to about 70,000 lbs/acre and providing 45-60 days of recovery, they have seen the forage produce more than they cattle can keep up with. Coley is looking at possibly buying some stockers who haven’t been wormed that they can run through their grazing season of June-November.
In addition to potential for increased livestock sales, Coley has been able to reduce his fertilizer costs dramatically as he lets the natural biology of his forage stand do the work of feeding the soil through planned grazing that provide sufficient animal impact and grazing and plant recovery for root exudates to feed the micro-organisms in the soil that can now survive when there are no pesticides, herbicides, or wormers being used. With fertilizer prices at an all-time high, the savings to reduce or eliminate fertilizers adds to the profit margin as does the elimination of the pesticides, herbicides, and wormers.
With a healthy forage mix of Bermuda grass, clover, perennial rye, and other forages now covering the soil, the water infiltration and storage capacity of the soils in the pecan orchard has increased dramatically. Now when Coley puts four inches of irrigation water on the orchard, it will be absorbed in 12 hours and he can walk in the orchard after one to two days (compared to the seven days it took before they switched to regenerative practices). And with more plants and plant litter knocked to the ground by the tightly bunched herd, Coley can still feel moisture in the soil under the litter even after four weeks has passed from the last flood irrigation event. With more moisture and soil cover, the micro-organisms are so active that cow pies break down in a couple of days making for an effective mineral cycle that continues to feed the soil That kind of resilience can bring a lot of peace of mind to an operation that relies on rain and irrigation water, both of which tend to be scarce during a drought while reducing dependence on expensive off-farm inputs.
The Regenerative Agriculture Journey
Coley runs the cattle in the orchard from June-November and then feeds his cows hay in the winter from December to April. He hadn’t been feeding the hay in the orchard because he didn’t have a non-freezing water source to water them with. He started with grazing each “bench” of his orchard as a pasture (usually 1.5-3 acres each).
But after talking to Ralph Tate, he began to bunch the cattle into as small as ¼ of an acre. Currently with his 17-18 Animal Units (AU), that equates to 70,000 lbs/acre of stock density. Tightening the herd like that has meant more of the forage gets grazed evenly and there is more trampling to create the plant litter that is covering the soil. The forage and plant litter (creating 99% cover in the orchard) also mean that he doesn’t have to disc or spray or do that kind of standard orchard maintenance mechanically, allowing the biology to create another source of income besides the pecans.
With the improved water cycle, he didn’t have to wait a week after every irrigation (as many as 13 irrigation events during the growing season) or heavy rain event, which means he didn’t have to feed as much hay while waiting for the land to dry out. With his fencing the cattle into one bench, he can irrigate the other pastures and then can move the cattle on to those benches once they are dry. With the tight bunching of animals he’s been able to keep down the weeds that used to sprout up and grow more quality forage that can be grazed down by the cattle during the last graze before the pecan harvester is brought in at the end of the growing season. With these practices, Coley has cut his fertilizer needs by 80% and is thinking he might be able to not use it at all this year given the biology in his soil (and the high price of fertilizer).
He uses one wire internal fencing with Gallagher polywire and has beefed up the charge switching from solar chargers to a 120v to kick up the volts to keep the calves in. He says it now takes him about five minutes to set up fence using the one wire and the Gallagher one ring posts. They were running water hoses to water the livestock, but he recently buried a one-inch polyline so he can water them in the winter. He has valves where he can connect his hoses and run them to a garden dump cart that he has outfitted with a float. It’s easy to dump the water when he has to move the cart to the next paddock. He runs the fencing over the berms that separate the benches which mostly protects the berms from being stepped on by the cattle. Likewise, the grass on the berms also stabilizes them.
While Coley could use 10 more animal units to handle all the grass he has, he wants to make sure any yearling stockers he brings in doesn’t come with wormers of any kind as he doesn’t want to set back the soil biology. They don’t do any of the vaccines, tetanus, or even vitamin shots. He has what he calls a “genetic mishmash” of Jersey, Angus, Brangus and Hereford. He now is introducing a South Poll bull as he wants to get to a smaller frame and more gentle disposition in his herd. Ideally he’d like his cows down to 1,000 pounds as he has some of them currently weighing in at 1,600 pounds. Even with those larger animals, Coley has not seen soil compaction issues from a water infiltration or forage growth standpoint because all the grass roots help stabilize the soil even when it is damp.
One of the big challenges for him with the heavier animal is that they will leave hoof prints in the wet soil where six pecans will fall and the harvesting machine won’t pick them up below the surface. That’s a lot of unharvested nuts that he would like to be selling.
Another challenge he is noticing is the mesquite encroachment as much of the land around the orchard has mesquite. Because he is getting such quick regrowth due to his biologically active soils, that means the forages are pretty tall by the time the cattle come back to area after the 45-60-day recovery, which means the mesquite seedlings are pretty tall and he spends 100 hours a season keeping the mesquite under control. So Coley wants to introduce hair sheep (possibly Katahdin) to keep the mesquite in check and he will keep them with the cattle which means he’ll need to tweak his fencing and go to second wire. However, the additional profits from increased carrying capacity will make the additional labor worth it.
The pecan trees go through cycles of production both in terms of quantity and quality, but with these new practices, the nut quality and consistency have remained high while the size has increased. The Burgesses sell mostly wholesale, but they are now dipping their toes into direct marketing and were able to direct market 5% of their crop last year. Given the price fluctuation for pecans this gives them the opportunity to hold on to some of the pecans and see what they can direct market in a given year or hold on to them to get better prices later. Luckily they have a great local sheller that takes care of shelling. Tamsen then is in charge of the value add of flavoring (and selling in tins), and turning the pecans into pies, breads, and candies for all occasions. They sell these products online and at the local market.
In these challenging times of high input prices and droughts, the Burgesses’ story offers hope through innovation and successful implementation of regenerative agricultural practices. By providing the right mix of appropriate disturbance and adequate recovery, this pecan orchard went from a monoculture that required high inputs to a polyculture that improved the water cycle and mineral cycle to continue to feed the soil biology. By increasing the stock density, more plant matter was grazed and plant litter was trampled to improve the water cycle further. By increasing forage production and income streams from the same piece of land, the Burgesses have decreased their risk and input costs while increasing gross revenue per acre, with more potential for increased profit in the future as they increase their direct marketing opportunities.