Published Oct 9, 2014

Field Day Recap: Stewardship at Seven W Farm

By Meghan Filbert

Nestled in a vast sea of corn and soybeans is an oasis of animals on grass. On September 26, the Wilson family hosted nearly 50 visitors at Seven W Farm in Paullina, IA. The field day showcased the integration of diverse agriculture enterprises and the dedication it takes from each generation of a large family.

To kick off the day, visitors loaded hayracks and headed to the fields for a glimpse of the Wilson’s grazing system, a series of two to three acre paddocks rotationally grazed by a group of grass-fed and grass-finished cattle and sheep. When grazing animals together, “beef act as a sickle bar mower and sheep like a weed eater, reaching the areas the beef missed” explained Torray Wilson. He showed off the tools that help him move animals to new pasture on a daily basis, including a fence lifter and what he calls a fence ‘rhino’, an implement attached to the front of the ATV that allows him to drive over polywire.

In an adjacent paddock, Erin Wilson demonstrated Holistic Management Biological Monitoring for assessing pasture health and productivity. Erin chose a transect of pasture to examine and had participants fill out a data sheet describing the soil surface, animals signs, litter cover, plant species and condition. By monitoring six different sites every year, the Wilson’s are better able to assess improvements in soil health and plant diversity.

After an amazing pot luck lunch featuring the Wilson’s pulled pork, it was time to see where that meat came from! Dan Wilson started pasture farrowing piglets in 1963. Using A-frame huts, pigs always have access to sunshine and fresh air. Allowing pigs access to pasture cuts down on animal density, which the Wilson’s have observed helps to keep animals healthy and content. Dan recommends putting pigs on pasture that you want tilled because they naturally do the job for you. Corn is then planted on these ‘tilled’ fields as part of an extended crop rotation. Feed costs are lowered by supplementing the organic corn and soy swine ration with home-grown small grains. Throughout the history of the farm, oats, barley, triticale and cereal rye have always been incorporated into the corn, bean and hay rotation.

Lastly, we headed to another pasture to check out the chickens and dairy cows which had the farm kids next to me bouncing with excitement. Stopping alongside a shady stand of willow trees, the Wilson’s discussed using another A-frame structure for raising boilers. The birds have access to the willow trees which minimize heat stress and the area is protected with poultry netting which keeps predator problems to a minimum. All broiler processing is done on the farm. Also, 120 laying hens follow the dairy herd, picking though fresh manure to find all the fly larvae. Inside a portable hen house are nesting boxes and a conveyor belt to catch eggs and carry them to a collection point near the door.

The 47 Jersey-cross dairy cows were grazing a mix of sorghum-sudangrass and turnips before walking back to the barn for their evening milking. The herd is managed organically but their milk is currently sold to the conventional market because there are too few organic dairies in the area for an organic cooperative to pick up their milk. Hopefully they will be able to combine the dairy herd with a neighbor’s herd to supply to the organic market in the future. The Wilson’s farm was an inspiring example of how family members work together to conserve the land, raise healthy livestock and make a living!