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DIAMOND ‘S’ IN THE ROUGH: Morgan County Farm Becomes Model Of Stewardship

DIAMOND ‘S’ IN THE ROUGH: Morgan County Farm Becomes Model Of Stewardship
November 18, 2008 |

When the guy from the government came to help, Thornton Stanley had his doubts.Not anymore.Today, a big sign emblazoned with “ADEM” and a handful of other governmental agencies, serves to welcome — not warn — all who enter the Diamond ‘S’ Demonstration Farm in Morgan County.That’s because Stanley’s picturesque, 715-acre cattle farm now serves as a model of what can be done when farmers and government agencies such as the Alabama Department of Environmental Management voluntarily work together for clean water.”Ten years ago — I don’t know how far I would’ve gotten if I’d asked Mr. Stanley to put a sign out front with ‘ADEM’ on it,” Jay Grantland said with a laugh while noting that the watchdog agency is often considered a “bad word” by farmers.But Grantland, projects manager for the USDA’s Alabama Mountains, Rivers and Valleys Resource Conservation Development Council and the Alabama Clean Water Partnership Tennessee Basin facilitator, said it was funding from ADEM — and a host of other governmental agencies — that helped make Stanley’s Diamond ‘S’ Farm “a true success story.”It’s a story that began more than a decade ago with an unlikely cast of characters coordinating an assortment of government programs and cost-share funding.The goal? Clean up a dirty stream on Stanley’s farm by using innovative “best management practices.”That stream, where cattle often congregated and annually deposited tons of manure, emptied into Cotaco Creek, earning it the Environmental Protection Agency’s designation as “unsuitable for fish and wildlife.” What’s more, Cotaco Creek flows into the Tennessee River, a source of drinking water for millions.”Early on, we realized that this was a farm we could do a lot of stuff on and really make a difference,” said Grantland.”A lot of stuff” was actually an array of best management practices that drew on cost-share funding from such programs as Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Conservation Security Program (CSP), Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) and the Clean Water Act’s “Section 319” grant money from ADEM.First on the list was a pasture renovation. “We went out and killed all the existing grasses and resowed the pasture in grasses that were best suited for the type soils he had here — fescues, Bermudas and native grasses,” said Grantland.Next, they fenced out the stream, creating a buffer — from the headwaters to Cotaco Creek — and planted the bottomland in hardwood and fruit-bearing trees to encourage wildlife.But it was another program — an intensive rotational grazing program Stanley himself suggested after seeing it in operation out West — that drew more than 80 members of the Morgan County Cattlemen’s Association, state legislators, Morgan County Farmers Federation members and others to a pond-side press conference at his farm Oct. 8.Officials from ADEM, the Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Cotaco Creek Watershed, Morgan County Commission, Farm Service Agency and the Morgan County Soil & Water Conservation District were also on hand to tell how the intensive grazing rotation made Stanley’s farm not only more eco-friendly but also more efficient.Taking 40 acres of Stanley’s pastures, they divided the grazing area into nine paddocks, each containing roughly four acres of forage. Every three days, 60 head of cattle are rotated from one paddock to another to allow the grass to grow back to an optimal height for recovery.”We’re still in the infancy stage right now, but we’re pleased with where we are now,” said Stanley, noting that the rotational grazing has allowed him to cut his commercial fertilizer and hay costs.”We know this works out West — they go 8 out of 10 years without having to feed any hay. That’s phenomenal!” said Brian Brown, project coordinator of the Cotaco Creek Watershed Project, adding that the stocking rates and type of grass are likely to change as the project progresses. “The reason we’re doing it here is for clean water. When you can leave so much grass on the land when you pull your cows off to go to the next pasture, it’s very evident that it will filter all sediment and all nutrients. So again, our goal is to achieve clean water and that’s good. But if we can save the farmer money and make his management style more effective, it’s very good.”In addition to the paddocks, anywhere the cattle congregated, such as watering troughs or feedlot areas, the ground was cleared, and a geo-textile cloth was put down and covered with crusher run gravel and pea gravel. “So, now you don’t have any erosion problems or these mucky, muddy spots where the cattle stand, and that made a big difference,” said Grantland.To further control runoff and distribute manure more evenly, the paddocks were constructed in a fashion to prevent the cattle from walking more than 600 feet to any water source. “Manure spread more evenly will hopefully reduce the need for commercial fertilizer,” said Grantland. “Again, more savings.”Plus, every drop of rain that falls on the farm goes through some type of treatment before it gets into the stream that runs into Cotaco Creek.Although all the official data isn’t in, Grantland and Brown expect to see pollution counts 90-95 percent lower than a decade ago.
“It’s been a long process,” said Grantland. “If you look at the different components — all the ponds fenced out, a heavy-use area ramp that’s fenced out down to the water so the cattle can walk down and get a drink without downgrading the integrity of the structure itself, the watering system, this intensive grazing system, the pasture renovation — it makes a complete, eco-friendly farm.”It’s the kind of place that Hal Lee, north area vice president of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said more farms could emulate. Already, 50 farms in the Cotaco Creek project have implemented many of the programs Stanley utilized.”It is all voluntary,” Lee stressed. “There are no regulations that require any farmers to do any of this. A lot of these projects can be implemented on other farms. Not only will it conserve the soil and conserve the water, but it will also help make their livestock production a whole lot better.”At Diamond ‘S’ Demonstration Farm, there’s also a gravel access road — thanks to Stanley’s suggestion — that winds its way through the paddock areas so that visitors and tours can more easily see the improvements. After all, the farm is not only a stop for interested cattle ranchers, but also serves area church groups who use its picnic, playground and catfish pond as a retreat area for boating, fishing and horseback riding.”We’re proud of this place,” said Stanley, who was recognized by President George W. Bush in 2001 as one of the nation’s top small business owners. “It was all woods and holes and hollows when I bought it. There wasn’t a clean place on it. But I believe in giving some things back to the community, and this is my way of giving back.”That’s the kind of thing Grantland likes to hear.
“When I first talked to Mr. Stanley, he wasn’t too sure about it,” said Grantland, “but after awhile he realized that what we were doing was a benefit to the community, a benefit to the farmers, and it was doing things the way they should be done in the first place. He saw that we weren’t asking him to give up control of anything, that we weren’t asking him to do something that was outrageous just for clean water. The things that we’re doing actually made his operation more efficient, more cost effective, and better for his bottom line. But 10 years ago, he probably would have laughed me off the place.”For more information about Diamond ‘S’ Demonstration Farm or any of the programs utilized, contact Steve Musser at the Alabama NRCS State Office (334) 887-4503 or steve.musser@al.usda.gov.

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