By Debra Davis
Driving by Sims Brothers Inc. in rural Bullock County, a valuable crop could be overlooked as a field of weeds, except by the experienced eye.
Sericea lespedeza, considered by some to be an invasive species of weeds, has been cultivated by Sims Brothers for almost 80 years. The family seed business near the Fitzpatrick community grows a selection of sericea lespedeza developed by Auburn University (AU) with help from Sims Brothers. The AU Grazer variety is gaining popularity among small ruminant breeders who value the plant for its ability to reduce parasite loads in sheep and goats.
“My father and his brothers used sericea here in the ‘40s, but I think the (USDA) Soil Conservation Service originally planted it to help control soil erosion and reclaim areas that had been strip-mined,” said Tom Sims, who operates the business 10 miles west of Union Springs with his sister, Cynthia Smithart, and brother, Robbins Sims. “It’s a legume, and it actually helps build the soil. Some people used to call it the poor man’s alfalfa.”
Sims Brothers has about 800 acres of AU Grazer sericea lespedeza. Plants grow to about 3 feet tall, but optimum harvest is 12-18 inches, Sims said.
AU owns the patent for AU Grazer, and Sims Brothers is the licensed dealer under that patent.
A silage chopper is used to harvest the plant to help retain its leaves, which are considered the most palatable part. Through trial and error, Tom developed a milling process that creates a hard pellet made with sericea lespedeza and molasses. He sells the supplement in bulk to companies that repackage the pellets and sell them under retail brand names of Faithway Feeds and New Country Organics. The pellets retail from $25-35 for a 50-pound bag, Tom said.
The biggest problem for Sims? Keeping up with demand.
“Right now, we can sell all the pellets we make,” Tom said. “It’s hard to mill the pellets when humidity is high, and if you cut sericea and it gets rained on, you can’t use it for pellets.”
Tom is optimistic about other uses for the AU Grazer variety. He said he’s fed it to his cows, and they flourished and had virtually no internal parasite issues.
States like Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri consider some varieties of sericea lespedeza grown there to be a noxious weed because it interferes with natural rangeland grasses.
The same tannins that make sericea valuable as a natural antiparasitic can give the plant a bitter taste that becomes unpalatable if it grows too large. The plants do well in poor soil, but cattle only graze it in spring when they are young and tender. As it grows and gets stemmy, the tannins become stronger, and cattle won’t eat it, Tom said.
“The AU Grazer variety has tannins, but it is more palatable and tender,” he added. “It is still best to cut it or graze it while it’s tender.”
AU Grazer seed typically sells for $5 a pound with a seeding rate of 20-25 pounds per acre. A stand usually lasts 10 years, Tom said.
Sims Brothers Inc. is still primarily a seed business, growing Bahia grass, partridge peas and switch grass for customers around the country. But Tom believes the natural anti-parasitic properties of the AU Grazer variety hold unlocked potential.
Farmers like Phillip Wilborn of Langston agree. He grazes sericea lespedeza and feeds it for hay to his 200 head of Kiko goats in Jackson County. He purchased his AU Grazer seed from Sims Brothers.
“Parasite control tests show that sericea lespedeza greatly reduces the fecal egg count in goats,” said Wilborn, who serves on the Jackson County Farmers Federation board. “The AU Grazer sericea is the only variety I have because it’s hardy. Some of the old varieties died out if you grazed them too much.”
Langford Farms of Autaugaville planted 300 acres of AU Grazer with seed they bought from Sims Brothers in 2013. In addition to providing grazing for the Langford’s beef cattle herd, they also cut and bale the legume for hay and grind it for custom feed blends that are in high demand among goat producers. The bales usually sell for $8 in the field or $10 stored in the barn.
“Sericea lespedeza is another way we could diversify our farm, and it helped allow me to come back to the farm,” said 24-year-old Jessica Langford, who farms with her dad, Trey. “People seem to really like the AU Grazer hay we sell — especially goat producers. We have customers who drive several hours to buy our hay, and I have one customer who lives on the Tennessee line I’ll be delivering a load of hay to soon.”