For new landowners, learning the ins and outs of farming is a huge undertaking. When new farmers make the decision to be stewards of the land, they are faced with a steep learning curve that can take years to overcome. David Sturman, of St. Ignatius, Mont., is one farmer whose inexperience helped him think beyond conventional agricultural practices and achieve great results.
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New to farming, Sturman and his wife, Tracy Mumma, purchased their land in 2003. “It took us a quite a while to figure things out,” he said. “And slowly, but surely, we started to figure things out.”
Before the Sturmans bought the farm, the land had been in continuous small grain production. “When we moved, we did an evaluation of assets, and the asset of the farm was weeds,” he said.
David and Tracy began researching how to improve their land and control the weeds. “I’d say three to four nights a week before I go to bed, I turn on the iPad computer, and read about it,” he said. After reading and studying, he decided to use rotational grazing methods to transform their weed-infested farm into a productive sheep operation. “It has made such a difference,” he said. “It’s mind boggling.”
They have also expanded their grazing methods to include high-stock-density grazing.
Since starting the grazing practices, Sturman said they have “shaved” a month off of their haying operation, and they are now slowly building their soil organic matter and increasing microbial activity to improve their soil quality. They are seeing results.
“After the sheep have been in a paddock, the manure seems like it breaks down in one to two weeks,” he said. “And so that, from what I’ve read, it means that we have a very active microbiology…in the soil.”
But the soil microbes are doing more than breaking down manure. They are also improving the forage. What was once only a small amount of smooth brome and thistle, is now a diverse stand of grasses and legumes.
To begin with, the Sturman’s only tried this type of grazing on some of their smaller fields. After seeing such impressive results there, they have recently started high-stock-density grazing in their large field, which is about 25 acres.
While the soil and the sheep are working hard to improve the land, Sturman says he and his wife have been able to cut back on their inputs.
“When we started doing this rotational grazing, especially out in the big field, it would take about three quarts of powdered mineral per day for the flock of sheep we have now,” he explained. “Now, just one year later, it takes about 50 percent less.”
However, getting to this point was not without challenges. “In the beginning we stumbled a bit,” Sturman said. “20/20 hindsight, we should have bought better [fencing] equipment to begin with, but we didn’t know.” He also added that hearing comments from some of the other farmers in the area was sometimes discouraging. “Through the grapevine [we heard] ‘Sturman’s crazy,’” he said. “Now people say, ‘maybe he’s not so crazy after all.’”
“We’re hitting a sweet zone here, and it’s exciting every day to come out and see it,” he said.
For those farmers who are looking to try something new, Sturman has some advice, “Jump in,” he said. “There’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain.”
David says in hindsight, he wishes they would have bought better fencing in the beginning. “If I were to do this all over again, I would just forget about buying equipment that will just barely make it,” he said.
Sheep graze one of the fields on David and Tracy’s farm.