Conservation… Family Style

Kevin and Lydia Yon have gone from being students Clemson University to managing a farm together and then to running, with the help of their three teen-age children, their own Angus purebred operation. And together, they won the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s National Environmental Stewardship Award for 2009. The Yons were all on hand for the awards ceremony during February’s Cattle Industry Annual Convention in Phoenix. Lydia says the kids, Sally, Drake and Corbin, “have been a part of what we’ve done from day one, and we shared the award with them. They’ve been part of everything that’s gone on, on this farm.” A lot has gone on at Yon Family Farms in Ridge Spring, S.C. in the twelve years since Kevin and Lydia started out on their own. After getting their degrees in Animal Science from Clemson, they co-managed another farm and ranch for eight years. Kevin says, “We tried to always treat that farm as if it was ours, and we made conservation improvements such as no-till planting, rotation grazing, cross-fencing, putting in water troughs and heavy use areas.” Clemson, he says, taught him the importance of conservation. “It’s just like with any of the skills or the know-how that we need to know on the farm. It teaches you how to learn and how to network and find out the right answers, and who to get in touch with to do a better job.” Among the “partners” Kevin and Lydia say have contributed to their conservation efforts is USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service; the agency’s technical help, engineering and cost sharing, says Kevin, “have allowed us to do so many of the practices that we wanted to do—and would have loved to have done anyway—but it’s just made it a little easier to get those done.” There’s also USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service and extension services at other land grant colleges, and the private sector…not to mention other farmers. As seed stock producers, the Yons spend a lot of time on other producers’ operations, and Lydia says they’ve learned a lot as a result. “Cattle people in general try to do a good job of taking care of the land,” she says, “and we try to always learn from other folks, too, that have been in it longer than we have.” Kevin says conservation practices have helped them through two problems common to cattle ranching in South Carolina—drought, and bad markets. Far from being a drain on resources, he says none of the conservation practices they’ve installed have cost them money. “I think they have made us more economically sound,” he says, “but at the same time they’ve been good for the environment as well, so it’s been a win-win.” The Yons have also struggled with dryness through most of the last ten years, including the last two. “We just culled and made our herd better,” Kevin says, “and we’ve also had to be really innovative, trying to grow grass with less water and making better use of what we have.” For instance, they’re using neighbors’ crop residues as feedstuffs; they’ve also benefited from the water supplies they’ve installed, from wells to pipelines and water tanks. “At the same time,” Kevin says, “we’ve been able to fence out the streams and the ponds to help protect those stream banks and pond banks, to cut down on erosion and to keep the cattle from standing in water.” The Yons irrigate crops with pond-water using an efficient, low pressure watering system; they’ve installed 28 water troughs and 55,352 feet of fencing to facilitate rotational grazing on pasture land, and manage their ponds to encourage healthy wildlife habitat. Lydia says when they moved to Ridge Spring, the farm had only two small fenced pastures; most of the acreage had been a peach orchard, and the only facility was a small tenant house, so they had to start from the ground up. “The first summer we were here,” she says, “we actually had to haul water in a tank to the calves that we weaned.” The plus side, she says, was they didn’t have to redo anything that wasn’t to their liking—“We were able to do it right to start with!” That meant establishing pasture with permanent grasses, and planting summer and winter annuals every year. And it’s all sown with minimum tillage or no-till; Kevin says they also converted some marginal cropland into permanent pasture. He says they’ve found no-till “to be very effective from a conservation standpoint of not just conserving soil from wind and rain, but also from conservation of oil, of petroleum. We use less fuel; we make fewer trips across the field. We can use smaller equipment, so it’s allowed us to own less equipment and hopefully burn less diesel fuel, but yet be just as effective in growing grass.” The Yons also started small; they had the opportunity to buy 100 cows, half the herd, from the farm they had managed. Then they bought their first 100 acres, and leased some more, from a bull customer of that farm; Lydia says from delivering bulls to farms in Ridge Spring, they had witnessed the area’s strong agricultural infrastructure. “We’ve just been real thrilled at being in a community that is agriculturally based, because they understand agriculture,” she says. “And I guess that’s one thing—we don’t face quite as many environmental challenges, per se, as some of our neighbors that have more urban communities. But we are right outside the town limits, so we have to be cognizant of the fact that everybody that’s our neighbor is not an agriculturalist, and we try to do the right thing for them as well.” The farm is now up to 1,500 acres of crop, hay and pastureland, and more than 800 brood cows, most of which are part of the family’s seedstock operation. Kevin says, “All our cattle are preferably always outside, on something green and grazable. Of course, that’s a goal of ours is to have something green and grazable every day of the year; we fall short of that sometimes in the dead of winter, but the cattle are still always out on pasture.” Lydia adds, “And when he says they’re always out on pasture, they’re not continuously grazing the same area; we have implemented intensive rotational grazing pretty much on all of our annuals that we plant. So the cattle are moved on and off grass every day that it’s not too wet or that the grass isn’t quite ready for them to graze.” With the use of temporary electric fencing, the Yons divide bigger pastures into smaller units; Kevin says, “It allows the cattle to harvest that grass in a systematic or methodical way. They just aren’t there grazing where they want to graze; if you do that, some areas get undergrazed, and some areas get overgrazed.” Once all the forages have been grazed evenly, the cattle are moved to a new paddock and the grass is allowed to rest for up to 21 days. Not only is that healthier for the grass, Lydia says it’s also good for the cattle: “It gives us an opportunity to see them up close, check for health or any type of problems that they might be having, and just from a management standpoint it makes the cattle easier to handle, to move them frequently like that.” Although they use fertilizer, the Yons conduct soil tests so they can limit applications to what’s needed. And Kevin says the rotational grazing helps to distribute the manure more evenly. When cattle do have to be fed, the areas around barns, water troughs and feed bunks have been reinforced to prevent erosion and protect water quality. The Yons have installed geotextile fabrics covered with gravel on more than 34,000 square feet of heavy use areas; the feeding areas are well-drained and distant from bodies of water. Yon Family Farms was chosen from among seven regional winners for the Environmental Stewardship award, which is in its 18th year; they were nominated by the Saluda, S.C. Soil & Water Conservation District and the South Carolina NRCS. Lydia says the bronze sculpture they received is nice, “but I guess the biggest deal is just that we, as the national winner, have the opportunity to tell the story of conservation, and that cattlemen are doing their part for the environment…The general public is not well aware of what we do in agriculture, so we’re looking forward to the opportunity to tell the story of what we do every day, and we feel really blessed to get up and do every day.” And asked what advice he’d give to another young rancher just starting out, Kevin says, “I think we have to understand that, all of us that are involved in agriculture, we’re just stewards. We’re just caretakers of the land. It might be our name on the deed; we might be the ones that are making the payments on the farm or the land, but we’re all just stewards. So I think that we have to look at it in the big picture, that we’re here for a very short while, and that we want to take the land and make it better when we leave it for future generations than we found it.”