As he walks in his fields amongst his cattle, Dr. Rob Kalmbacher of Grace Farm in Lincolnton perhaps thinks about the soil beneath his feet more so than most people. The soil is something that most farmers think about but given Kalmbacher is a retired University of Florida professor of agronomy, range management, and forage crops, it’s likely in the forefront of his mind. At Grace Farm, Kalmbacher applies leading-edge principles in range management allowing him to quite uniquely graze his animals off the land 11 months of the year and only feeds hay in February.
Kalmbacher and his wife, Lisa purchased the farm, which consists of 107 acres, after looking at the soil of course and realizing the potential of the property, in 2006. It was the combination of good soil and access to water that Kalmbacher was looking for in property.
“We were fortunate enough to get it which is why we called it ‘Grace Farm,’” he said. “It’s something we didn’t deserve. Just like God’s grace, we didn’t deserve it. We don’t really deserve anything as mankind, and this was such a blessing. It’s such a beautiful farm.”
Agronomy is the art and science of crops and soils. It’s a very diverse science focusing on everything from soil physics to chemistry to turf grasses, corn and small grain production. Kalmbacher’s specialty was forage crops, grasses and legumes for livestock production.
The Kalmbachers were at one time going to build a new house on the property but ended up rehabilitating the old house that was already there.
“We were working out of the house, getting the property ready, putting up fence and such and we fell in love with it,” he said. “We had the property for more than two years before we put cattle on it.”
The original herd of 25 “black baldy” (Hereford/Angus cross) cattle came from Lincoln County.
Kalmbacher limits the number of cows he can keep on the property without harming it. During the spring and summer months, the property could carry more, but during the colder and drier seasons, he can’t keep that more than 20-30 without overgrazing. He feeds hay in the winter and virtually no grain. He’ll feed his replacement heifers (young female cows) grain to get them to weight prior to breeding them and to help acclimate them to human contact.
“The amount of hay I feed depends on the amount of rainfall I get in the fall of the year,” he said. “If I get a fall with good rainfall and a lot of grass going into September and October, I’ll feed less hay because I stockpile my grass.”
During the winter, Kalmbacher “strip-grazes” which means he uses electric fence on one side of the pasture, moving the fence several feet per day. That way, he has some grazing for his cattle up until the middle of February each year.
“It’s a quarter mile long and six to eight feet wide and that gives them fresh, clean grass every day,” he said. “The amount of protein that they get from that is more than ample for a lactating cow. The hay that I feed is good quality as well.”
Instead setting aside portions of his land for growing and harvesting hay and having to purchase and maintain haying equipment, Kalmbacher buys all his hay from a local farmer. He plants different types of forages and uses the pastures based on the needs of his cattle and the time of the year.
The farm was previously owned for the Rhodes family. Kalmbacher is the first person to own it who wasn’t a Rhodes. Kalmbacher put the entire 107 acres into the Catawba Land Conservancy so it’ll have to always remain in agriculture.
“It was important to Lisa and me to see that this property was protected,” he said. “I’d like to see both farms, north and south, go into conservation easement.”
The Lincoln County Extension Service recently had a farm tour which visited Grace Farm. While they were there, Kalmbacher told them how undependable agriculture is.
“Weather is a big variable,” he said. “Last winter was really difficult with all the rain we had. It’s a lot of investment in infrastructure and land. There’s a lot of investment with very little return. The cattle market for calves was quite good in 2014 and 2015 but it’s declined quite a bit. You’re really at the mercy of the buyer. It’s a crazy system. Anybody else that produces a product and you take that product to market and you say, ‘I’ve got this much in it and I need this much out of it to make a profit.’ In agriculture, we go to the buyer and say, ‘what will you give me for the product?’ Isn’t that a crazy model? That’s the way it is.”
Unlike with other products, Kalmbacher can’t put his calves on the shelf until the prices get better. He has to sell them when they’re ready to make room for the next crop of calves.
“Every farmer tailors their production to their property,” he said. “With my cattle, I put the bull with the cows on the first day of winter and get a calf the first day of fall. That works well for me because I’m bringing the cattle off the warm season grass in the fall into the cool season grass. In terms of marketing cattle, you’d probably do better to have cattle for sale earlier. It all goes back to the soils and forages that I’m able to grow. You want to provide according to the needs of the cattle.”