Chris & Greg Wood | greenville

Chris and Greg Wood

Bittersweet Angus

A seedstock producer also puts his farm acres into commercial hay production

Greg Wood and his family, who farm near Greenville in Clay County, have chosen a farm management plan that is quite different from their neighbors.

By focusing on the cattle and forage production, the Wood family, which includes Greg’s wife Lola, and their son, Chris, can maximize their income without incurring unnecessary expense involved with row crop production. 

“The environmental goal of our farm is to achieve more production from the grazing operation through better weed control and timely grazing,” Greg said. “This is done by finding a balance in all that we do on the farm operation, such as our philosophy to graze 50% and leave 50%.”

The Wood family farm, called BitterSweet Acres, is built on the conservation philosophy held by both Greg and Lola’s parents. For Greg, that philosophy began in the late 1940s when his father, C.E. Wood, farmed the land and maintained a registered Angus herd of 350 brood cows. Lola, who grew up in a near-by cow-calf operation also learned stewardship practices. (Greg and Lola met through 4-H, and have been married 42 years.)

Unlike many Iowa farm families, though, Greg and Lola left Iowa shortly after they were married. They were involved in managing purebred herds in Missouri, Arkansas, New York, Alabama and Montana before they returned to Iowa in 1996.

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Those experiences not only broadened their knowledge of the cattle business, but also exposed them to unique experiences concerning stewardship. For example, in Montana, Greg installed a rotational grazing system. That system used 12 miles of fence in grazing cells, and it demonstrated to Greg that carrying capacity could be increased significantly without sacrificing the condition of the pastures. Beef production did not suffer either; in fact, it increased, he said.

So when he implemented rotational grazing with improved pasture at the farm in 1999, he established a recordkeeping system that demonstrated the benefits. The weights of the calves have increased annually without using creep feed. In all, weaning weights have increased by 10-15% since 1999.

Weed control of muskthistle in the pastures also improved. The Woods implemented a two-time approach of chemical control as well as reducing the stocking rate to encourage a healthier stand of grass. A cool season mix of grasses is used on the improved pasture because it is hardy and grows well at the latitude of the farm operation. Fertilizer and manure application on the hills add to the organic matter and allow the grasses to compete more vigorously with the thistles and other weeds.

The biggest benefit has been that carrying capacity of the pastures has increased by 25% since 1999, and that’s along with other benefits: improvement of the grass quality, improved condition scoring on the cows, improved pregnancy rate, and the length of the grazing season.

At the three farm locations the family uses in Clay County (all within five miles of each other), there are five pasture cells. Two cells are on the home farm, one pasture cell is across the road, another is a half-mile away, and the last, 5 miles away. Each cell is approximately 25-30 acres in size, and the Woods run approximately 75 females that they calve out.

“Our goal is to move the cattle into a cell when the grass is about a foot tall, and then move them off when it is grazed down to about six inches,” Greg said.

The rate of re-growth in the cells is dependent on weather and moisture, so that goal doesn’t always work perfectly. However, “the rest period between grazings does give the pasture a chance to recuperate and maintains ground cover for both wildlife and soil protection,” Greg said.

There is rural water in each of the pastures, and access to a small creek that runs through the pastures. Cattle access points are rocked to reduce erosion that could be caused by the disturbances created with repeated traffic of cattle.

Cattle are kept out of the creek in the spring and during heavy rain periods. In order to reduce their use/cost of the rural water system for the cattle, the Woods put in a continual flow pump at their home location that makes use of ground water. They installed a solar watering system with EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) dollars. The solar powered system has run every day, providing water to the cattle with no freeze-over or loss of water availability.

“The environmental goal of our farm is to achieve more production from the grazing operation through better weed control and timely grazing,” Greg said. “This is done by finding a balance in all that we do on the farm operation, such as our philosophy to graze 50% and leave 50%."

 - Greg Wood, Greenville, IA

The solar watering system saves $1500/year in rural water costs, and it allows them to keep cattle away from the creek so erosion can be controlled during the spring and other high water events. 

One issue that makes BitterSweet Acres an anomaly in northwest Iowa is that they have maintained their forage production in the face of increasing pressure statewide of converting land suitable for pasture and hay into corn and soybean fields. For instance, in Clay County, the gently rolling hills that had provided excellent pasture have diminished quickly. 

U.S. Census of Agriculture data for the county show that there has been a 60% drop in the amount of pastureland in Clay County between 1997 and 2007. (That 60% is equal to 54,383 acres.)  It’s likely the 2012 Census will show a continued precipitous drop. That’s why farm locations in Iowa that continue to put an emphasis on maintaining pasture and forage production, as BitterSweet Acres has done, increase their environmental value to the state’s natural resources every year.

Dean Gronemeyer, NRCS district conservationist for Clay and Palo Alto Counties, said “Land is under more pressure food and fiber, and I often see this trend is at the expense of the soil and water resources.” Gronemeyer noted that farmers like Greg Wood have shown that farming “can be done in a manner that protects the soil, water and plant resources.”

Clay County is on the western edge of the Prairie Pothole region, known for the shallow depressions that have formed small wetlands that support waterfowl flyways and breeding areas. A small creek runs through most of the pasture parcels that maintains a flow year-round and feeds the Little Sioux River, which is a major river in northwest Iowa that is just one mile east of the home farm location. The Little Sioux has been designated Class A1, which in Iowa means it is suitable for full body recreational contact, such as swimming and recreational canoeing.

The forage operation on the farm is primarily a mix of alfalfa/orchard grass on more than 400 acres. About 35-40 acres are rotated into corn each year, using minimum tillage. The corn provides stalk bales for bedding, and acres for spreading manure when necessary.

The forage mixture is marketed to the equine industry. “We matched the forage type with what we saw as a need,” Greg Wood said. The hay is marketed in small bales that are packaged in 21-bale bundles, 3x3 square bales, as well as round bales.

These options let the Wood family put up hay in a very efficient manner with just two people. The farm’s forage production also works well with their equipment, and their marketing efforts of the forage has provided a better net return than a corn/soybean rotation.

The commercial hay operation has also changed the soil structure, which generally is poor draining. Legumes typically tighten the soil, but the management of the alfalfa/grass hay has increased night crawler populations, which has mellowed the soil and increased its ability to absorb rainfall, rather than seeing the rainfall turn into runoff.

Greg Wood has been eager to share information about the family’s success in cow herd management. Beginning in 1998, he worked as the area CHIPS (Cow Herd Improvement Program Services) director for nine years. During that time, he oversaw 3000 cows in the program, and worked with other producers to design rotational grazing and watering systems for their farms so they could increase the carrying capacity on their land. (CHIPS was first a program of the USDA, and in its latter years was oversaw by ABS Global.)

Greg was also presented the Iowa Livestock/Forage Producer Award from the Iowa Forage and Grasslands Council in 2003.