During the two decades Tom and Mary Cory have been farming together near the rural community of Elkhart, Iowa, the couple has explored many diverse agricultural adventures. When they began farming in 1992, theirs was a row-crop and livestock operation; corn, soybeans, a few cattle and some sheep. At the time, commodity prices were dismal so the couple began to experiment and diversify, focusing initially on niche lamb and sheep products.
“I had an ag teacher who told me that for farmers to be successful in future years would require diversification and specialty crops,” Tom says. “We are now in the process of moving away from the traditional approach to agriculture. Everybody around us is still growing corn and soybeans; we’re growing grass. We want this to become the alternative in a niche market that we can make sustainable for our children.”
Straight to the customer
In the early 1990s the Corys discovered there was a growing Bosnian population in Des Moines and Waterloo, Iowa — refugees displaced by the Bosnian war — a culture where lamb is a traditional meat staple. The Corys began selling cuts of lamb direct to several Bosnian families, and later expanded into custom butchering. Demand for Cory lamb cuts remained brisk for several years until a growing acceptance of American processed foods among the Bosnian communities began to hinder demand.
In 1996 the Corys became the first to offer lamb cuts at the popular Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers Market, held every Saturday from May through October. The Corys gave away thousands of free samples — 22,000 the first year alone — and built a faithful following of market goers. Feedback at the Farmers Market was a catalyst for transitioning the Cory’s fertile cropland into sustainable, greener pastures. The majority of customers said they would prefer all-natural, grass-fed lamb products. The Corys made the call to begin a gradual conversion from corn and soybeans to grassland.
“When we decided to move to a grass-based system, we eased into the transition gradually,” Tom says. “The first time we set up the pasture, we started with 10 acres. That went pretty well and we liked the results so the next year we put in an additional 20 acres. We kept adding increments of 20 acres in subsequent years, using oats as a nurse crop.” The Corys harvest the oats for livestock feed (it’s a non-GMO product) and use the clippings bedding in the winter during lambing season. “We’ve gotten to the place where we are pretty much sustainable,” says Tom.
The pasture is divided into a series of paddocks measuring 164 feet by 164 feet — approximately 0.6 acre — perimeter dimensions that were selected based on the length of a standard roll of electric netting used to partition the total acreage. Paddock dimensions were determined based on the standard length of the fence netting the Corys use, making it as easy as possible to rotate the pastures.
“This year we will have 40 acres under the paddock rotation system, with each area able to accommodate in excess of 300,000 pounds of animal weight,” Tom says. “We’ve done calculations of how many head each paddock will support on a two-day rotation cycle. By the time we go from the first clear around the paddock loop to No. 30, we should be at about 60 days, which should be plenty of time for regrowth.”
The pasture is composed of 11 different species of plants — five kinds of legumes and six grass species — a combination Tom somewhat jokingly refers to as their salad bar mixture. The result is a protein-rich mix that has contributed to appreciable weight gains during the long winter months when his sheep are fed hay harvested from the pasture the previous summer.
The Corys have also been examining the effects of multi-species (mob) grazing. In an experiment this past year, commingling sheep with cows and calves proved promising. This year they plan to introduce a combination of sheep with baby lambs, a few goats and dry ewes with the grass calves.
“I ran more than 339,000 pounds of animal weight on a per-acre basis for one night this past year, “Tom says. “The rest of the season, that grass was probably 6 to 8 inches taller than the other paddocks. It was also a much deeper green and had a robust growth to it. We’re hoping that this multi-species system will work well with various combinations of species. We also plan to add pasture-poultry as we’ve had a lot of requests for range chickens. Our hope is to become a one-stop shop for meat products. It’s what we see as our niche.”
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