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The Rancher in the Rye

Posted by Spencer Miller, NRCS in Conservation
Jan 11, 2018
Jeff Baxter (left) and David Chain reviewing the conservation plan
Jeff Baxter (left) and David Chain review the conservation plan that transformed Baxter Ranch.

Buying more land isn’t always an option. But often, you can make your existing land go much further. By removing invasive weeds, seeding rye grass and adopting rotational grazing, Oregon rancher Jeff Baxter was able to produce a whole lot more on the same number of acres.

Jeff and Penny run a 1,500 acres cow/calf operation on the outskirts of Oakland, Oregon. He’s the fourth generation Baxter to manage Baxter Ranch. “Farming is in my blood,” said Jeff. “My father never had an off-farm job. My grandfather never had an off-farm job. I’ve been working here for 47 years.”

Despite this remarkable continuity, there’s been a lot of change under Jeff’s management. Just a few years ago, hundreds of acres of Baxter Ranch were inaccessible, overgrown with invasive weeds and thick brush. It looked like this:

An example of poor grazing land
This isn’t good grazing land.

The usable pasture was confined within a single, 900 acres paddock. This arrangement caused overgrazing in some areas and water unavailability in many areas.

When Jeff was ready to tackle these issues, he reached out to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. His district conservationist, David Chain, helped him come up with a plan.

A charred pile of the invasive brush
“This area used to be too thick to walk through.” Now a charred pile is all that remains of the invasive brush.

“A lot of Jeff’s land was covered in invasive brush species,” said David. “We needed to get that under control. After that, we could install fencing and develop water.” They agreed to a conservation plan:

Year 1: remove invasive plants;

Year 2: seed reclaimed land with perennial rye grass, install cross-fencing, and develop watering sites;

Year 3: adopt rotational grazing.

Bulldozers rolled in, uprooting and piling a thick mix of oak, hawthorne, scotch broom and blackberries. The piles of invasives were burned several times, until they were reduced to ash.

Jeff Baxter standing on rye grass
Perennial rye grass and sub clover grows especially well in this area. Rye is a herd-fattening forage, much preferable to silage.

Jeff then seeded his cleared land with perennial rye grass, fescue and sub clover. Within two years, dense brush had given way to pristine pasture. The next step was to add fencing and water, so he could rotate his herd and conserve his reclaimed fields.

David helped Jeff plan and install cross-fencing, dividing his pasture into numerous paddocks, and developing watering sites for each.

With paddocks in place, Jeff is able to rotate his herd throughout his pasture all year long. “The feed quality has improved,” said Jeff. “Now I have healthier, heavier animals.”

Everything went so well, David thought Jeff might be a good candidate for NRCS’ Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP is a program for conservation-minded farmers who are ready to take their practice to the next level. To qualify, farmers must take on several advanced conservation practices. Jeff signed up.

“CSP offered me a smorgasbord of enhancements to choose from,” said Jeff. “I picked the ones that were right for my land and my goals.” Jeff ended up adopting more efficient spray applicator nozzles; raising all of the forage needed on the ranch, instead of bringing bales to feed onto the ranch; and unrolling hay bales down the hills in his pasture on poorer soils.

“Seeds fall out when you roll the bale down a hill,” Jeff explained. “As the cows eat the hay, their hooves work the seeds into the ground. Next thing you know, those seeds are germinating on the hillsides.”

Going forward, Jeff plans to maintain what he has and gradually increase his number of paddocks. “Conservation is about the land, maintaining and improving the land,” said Jeff. “When I do these projects, I do the best I possibly can, because I’ve got to live with the outcome.”

If you’re interested in how conservation can improve your land, NRCS is here to help. Getting started is easy. We’ll work with you to develop a customized plan that fits your land and your production goals.

Jeff Baxter's pasture
A buffet for cows. Cross-fencing lets Jeff rotate his herd through multiple paddocks, preventing overgrazing and conserving the pasture.
Category/Topic: Conservation

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