Fighting his way to better hay
The author was Hay and Forage Grower’s 2021 Summer Editorial Intern. She is currently attending Iowa State University where she is majoring in agricultural communications and agronomy.
In the heart of Smith Valley, Nevada lies the small, aptly named community of Smith. Blink, and you’d miss it. What you would open your eyes to see, however, are hayfields that stretch far beyond the outskirts of town. Many of these fields are operated by RN Fulstone Company, a commercial operation with high quality hay and a reputation for high quality.
The Fulstone family traces its history to Nevada in 1856. From leather workers to farmers, they have resided in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains ever since. Today, the family farms over 4,000 acres, producing small and large square bales of hay for customers in central California. While haymaking in this part of the country is not uncommon, the Fulstones’ approach to regenerative agriculture is.
Emily Fulstone is the seventh generation to work on the farm. She majored in environmental science and biology at the University of Oregon, gaining new knowledge and a passion for change. With the implementation of its management practices, RN Fulstone Company has seen an increase in the nutritional values of its hay. They have also witnessed drastic improvements in their growing environment.
After studying ecosystems in college, Emily returned home to apply what she learned to the family farm. She scanned their fields and realized that they had become dependent on high fertilizer rates. Then she conducted her own research to find out why.
“Plants put 40% of the sugars they create through photosynthesis into exudates, which are sugars that plants inject into the soil to feed bacteria,” Emily explained. “In turn, the bacteria will break down the nutrients and make them available to plants as needed. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Emily wanted to reduce her family’s reliance on fertilizers and pesticides and create populations of beneficial bacteria in the soil. To do this, she had to get her hands dirty.
“One of the best ways to breed bacteria is by using worms,” she said. “Red wriggler worms have a specific intestinal system that kills bad bacteria that cause disease in plants and spreads good bacteria that carry nutrients to them.”
Emily started raising worms in 2016, using a flow-through compost table and feeding them wood chips, shredded newspapers and table scraps. There are about 1,000 worms per pound of compost, and she’s increased the population to about 120-150 pounds of worms. Sounds of wriggling through the material can be heard right next to the compost, and a mass of crawling creatures are quickly revealed by lifting a banana or potato peel from the top of the pile.
Worm droppings are collected so that bacteria can be extracted from them. These casts are brewed in a large tank with an aerator. In the space of 24 hours, the number of bacteria from excreta drops from 10,000 to 5 million colony forming units (cfu) per milliliter of water.
The liquid produced in the aerator is called “worm tea” and is sprayed on the Fulstones’ crops. “The biggest benefit of putting this on the ground is that it harnesses the symbiotic relationship in which plants work with bacteria,” Emily concluded. “Agriculture can be really great for the environment if we do it in a way that uses ecosystems as a whole.”
To further improve the environment, the Fulstones began using fertilizers that were bioavailable and carried by soil bacteria. This allows nutrients to be more accessible to plants and reduces the amount of purchased fertilizer needed. Plus, they haven’t had to spray pesticides for the past five years.
“With the lack of pesticides, predatory species such as ladybugs and green lacewings have been in abundance,” Emily said. “What little pest pressure we have is now controlled by these predatory insects instead of relying on pesticides.”
These efforts have also improved the quality of the Fulstones’ hay. “Using worm tea and bioavailable fertilizers, we’ve found that our total digestible nutrients (TDN) and relative dietary value (RFV) are a bit higher,” Emily said. “Our hay’s TDN has been tested about four points higher on average over the past few years, which is huge.”
Emily noted that her father, Steven Fulstone, president of RN Fulstone Company, is a big supporter of her regenerative agriculture approach. “I’m so grateful to have a dad who’s more than willing to try something if I can show it will work,” she said.
Wait for the dew
About 60% of the land in the Fulstones is used to grow alfalfa, which is typically seeded in the fall at a robust rate of 28 pounds per acre. The Fulstones cut hay four times a year with 35 to 40 days between cuts. They will leave hay in windrows for four days, and on the fifth morning it is baled between 4 and 9 a.m. to take advantage of the early hours dew.
First and fourth cuts tend to have higher levels of TDN and Crude Protein (CP) and are primarily sold to dairy producers. This hay is processed into large square bales. Between these harvests, the Fulstones make small square bales with second and third cut hay for horse owners and retail stores.
Hay equipment at the farm consists of a John Deere 500R rotary rake with V-roll conditioner, two Kuhn rakes, two large Massey Ferguson 2270 square balers and five small Hesston square balers 18445. They also have two New Holland bale wagons.
Carl Weatherford is the farm manager and has worked for the Fulstones since he was young. There are five other full-time employees and 10-12 seasonal workers are hired each year during the hay season.
Besides alfalfa, the Fulstones pasture orchardgrass and a mixture of high alpine meadow grasses, which they also cut for hay. Although grass hay is popular among the company’s customers, Weatherford said it doesn’t perform as well as alfalfa. “We have quite a bit of grass hay — and it’s expensive — but grass takes more water and fertilizer,” Weatherford said. “We sell it for a higher price, but when you calculate it, our dollar yield per acre is lower.”
Since the majority of the company’s customers are from central California, Weatherford analyzes hay test results and prices the product based on the Golden State market. When buyers make a purchase, they are responsible for their own trucking and transportation.
Water is a concern with any type of crop, and all Fulstone acres are irrigated. Nearly 80% of their fields use flood irrigation, but they also use pivots and wheel lines. The operation has water rights that allow it to access water from the West Walker River. This river flows from Lake Topaz, which is a reservoir of water from the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada. The Fulstones are also entitled to supplemental well water, which is used in drought years like 2021.
Not only do the Fulstones make hay in their fields, but they also custom-harvest 1,500 acres of their neighbors’ fields. The company manages the irrigation for all of its customers, and some of them also choose to have their hay marketed by the Fulstones. Emily is also working with a few of these farmers to develop environmentally friendly production plans.
“In the spring, I will get soil samples, look at the health of the plants and do an overview of each field,” she explained. “Then I give growers a recommendation on how best to treat their field for the growing season.”
Promoting regenerative agriculture has set other farms on the path to success. Two farmers Emily consulted for adopted practices similar to the Fulstones. They have reported significantly higher yields and reduced pest pressure, and Emily hopes more farmers in their valley will follow suit.
The cows come home
Another business Emily oversees is the farm’s certified all-natural cattle herd of Angus-Hereford crossbred cows. It consists of nearly 1,000 mother cows and 200 replacement heifers. These animals are fed poor quality hay and rotational grain silage when they return to the Fulstone feedlots in the fall. For most of the year, however, cattle reside on the rangelands.
The calving season begins in February and lasts until April when branding begins. Then, at the beginning of May, these animals are shipped to the Bodie Hills of California to graze the authorized lands belonging to the Fulstones.
Livestock graze higher areas as vegetation grows. Emily and other cowboys will lead the animals that end up behind the herd on horseback, though most of them ride on their own. “The permit starts at 7,200 feet and the top is around 10,500 feet,” Emily said. “When the grass grows up high, we make sure those cattle go uphill.”
In October, the calves are weaned and returned to the farm. They will remain there until December or January when they are sold. Many of these calves are purchased by farms in California, but the Fulstones also have buyers in Colorado and Nebraska.
In the meantime, the cows are relocated to different permits closer to Smith, which open in early November. They begin to graze at the northernmost distance from town and are slowly driven south. Eventually, the herd returns to the Fulstone farm in mid-February, and the cycle begins again.
Despite the illusion of repetition, Emily said one of her favorite parts of farming is that she never quite knows what to expect from one day to the next. She is currently the only Fulstone of her generation interested in farming and has already begun her succession as President of the RN Fulstone Company. Under Emily’s leadership, the farm will continue its efforts toward regenerative production, and she feels fortunate to have the opportunity to put her ideas into action.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Hay and forage producer on pages 6 to 8.
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