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White Oak Pastures—

A Holistic Approach to Healthy Food & Thriving Rural Communities BY ANN ADAMS


ill Harris is the fourth generation of Harrises owning and managing White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia. This 1,500-acre farm has been in the family for 150 years and Will is passionate about the farm and what he, his family, and his 130 employees are working to create now through a holistic approach to raising and hand butchering 10 species of animals and then direct marketing that product throughout the South and the Atlantic seaboard. With his daughters, Jenni and Jodi, involved as the fifth generation of Harrises, White Oak Pastures is working hard to show that sustainable farming can improve the land and create healthy food and healthy profits that feed not only the farm but the surrounding community.

A Farm Committed to Sustainability

Will earned an Animal Science degree from the University of Georgia and returned to the farm in 1976 to work with his father on raising cattle conventionally, using herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers and feeding the cattle soybeans and corn. He noted that they were able to make a good profit under this system, but he saw the land deteriorating, and he didn’t like the excesses of that system. So in 1995, he decided to begin creating a farming system more similar to the one his greatgrandfather practiced. Today, Will is working to create a closed loop system on the 2,500 acres they manage (1,500 acres are owned and 1,000 leased) that is regenerative by grazing and foraging with 10 species (cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, chickens, duck, geese, turkeys, guineas, and rabbits). He uses liquid waste from other enterprises along with waste from abattoirs, compost, and using holistic planned grazing on his pastures to feed the soil. In turn, the soil feeds the animals which are turned into meat, eggs, hides, and fat which is sold to finance the farm. Certainly there is a very clear focus on creating a profit to sustain the farm, but the number one focus over the last 20 years is to improve land health and develop farming systems that will reduce inputs and recycle products on the farm. For example, Will used to have a bunch of different cattle herds as he wanted to offer each class of stock different types of nutrition based on their nutritional needs. But, he quickly realized this production method cut down on recovery for other pastures, so he started consolidating herds and using weaning rings on his calves so he could run

them with his cows. He still has two calving herds (spring and fall) in order to keep a steady supply of meat to his abbatoir. But, he keeps the cows and sheep together as one unit grazing pastures and the goats and pigs together (except during kidding) as another unit. His paddocks range from 4–40 acres as he always makes sure that shade and water are available. Each paddock is grazed three to four times a year. Using a grazing plan he has been able to overgraze less and has grown more soil (increasing organic matter from the .5% he originally measured to 5% in some fields now). He also has seen an increase in the number of species he has growing on his farm. Will also leases a 300-acre field where he grows hay and uses a liquid manure spray as a fertilizer. Other than that hay, they are working to graze pasture year round unless they are working to regenerate a pasture with haylage. He has a 90-day breeding period for both the spring and fall herds and he works to harvest his cattle at 20–24 months. White Oaks averages a 30-day recovery period for pasture, working to get grasses at least a foot tall before moving the cows in. Their main forage species are Bermuda Bahai, Clover, and Rye. The animal performance goal for the beef cattle is a two pound/day weight gain. They found that using the Grazing Chart helps them plan the grazing for all species. It also helps them adapt to the drought. They have chosen to do some supplemental feeding to be able to slow movement through the pasture and keep to the recovery goals. Besides his own herd of 750 mama cows, Will also has a producer group that provides a steady supply of cattle for his abattoir. He uses his own herd as the buffer to take up slack if the supply from his producers does not fill the abattoir. He has an Angus-based herd that is a descendent of the Cracker cattle and has decided to close the herd to work on his line breeding. When Will brings a new piece of land into the system, he puts cows on it with haylage for eight weeks to regenerate it. He notes that the cows aren’t too happy and would rather be back on the White Oak Pastures’ land, but he tells them that if they feed the land now, it will feed them later. “It takes about two to three years before you can see the benefit of that treatment,” says Will. “But, then you can really begin to build soil from there.” In 2016, Peter Byck, Professor of Practice at the School of

Many homes and buildings are falling into disrepair in Bluffton, Georgia and throughout rural America. White Oak Pastures is buying older buildings in Bluffton and renovating them, like their new general store and employee housing that is then offered at affordable rents. CONTINUED ON PAGE 14

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Land & Livestock 13

Profile for HMI - Holistic Management International

#173, In Practice, May/June 2017  

#173, In Practice, May/June 2017