The Teton Soil Conservation District will be represented by local rancher Robert Piquet at the 2020 Soil Health and Farm/Ranch Profitability Conference in Idaho Falls on Feb. 4.
The all-day event will feature Christine Jones, an academic soil researcher from Australia, and Marlon Winger, the soil health specialist for Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Piquet and four other regional producers will give short presentations on their operations and then participate in a panel discussion.
As the manager of a cow and calf operation, Piquet has an understandable bias toward livestock. “In my opinion, the best version of soil health and the fastest way to improve soil is proper livestock management,” he said.
He has fully embraced the concept of soil health, but he said for someone who is new to the idea, going to the conference could be a real revelation.
“The first time I heard ‘soil health,’ to me it meant using methods that allow soil to produce with purchased inputs, fertilizers,” he said. Now he can mostly avoid using costly inputs because his herds are fertilizing their own pasturage. He added that he’s no expert, and that the marquee speakers, Jones and Winger, are the real draws for the conference.
“I hate to speak with authority because I have more to learn on cover crops and no-till drilling,” he said. “But I’m willing to experiment and to share about my successes and my failures.”
He added that sharing knowledge and advice isn’t necessarily common among agricultural producers.
“We visit with our neighbors and watch what they’re doing, but we don’t go out of our way to make suggestions to them,” Piquet said. That’s why he’s looking forward to participating in the panel discussion. “It’s good to hear what other people are doing and learn from them.”
Piquet has implemented two practices that have been “no-brainer home runs”: intensive grazing management, and moving calving season later in the spring.
He started intensive grazing management, or frequently rotating the herd through small portions of pasture, three years ago and has seen a huge, measurable increase of productivity in those pastures.
“Records prove that we’ve doubled production on most ground we’ve run,” Piquet said. “That’s huge economically.”
As for calving, he explained that most local ranchers have been “stuck in a paradigm” by scheduling calving for Teton Valley’s bad season, because it’s a time of year when they’re not occupied with farming, and because the goal is to have the biggest calves possible for market at the end of the year. Piquet took a gamble two years ago by breeding the cattle so that the calves would arrive in late April or May, after the coldest, muddiest part of spring had passed, and the calves could be delivered on grass.
“March and April here are just the worst,” he said. “And you have to have the cows and calves near the house in the mud in a confined situation. There’s something magical about being out on the grass, where in two years I haven’t assisted a single delivery. The calves are healthier, you don’t have them trashing the ground, it changes the dynamic of the cow because she can be out grazing on the other end because she’s not as far along in the gestation.”
The Piquet family has also started a successful experiment of raising chickens that travel around the pastures in a mobile coop. The flock has grown from 50 to 80 to 200-some birds in the past year.
“It’s adding another income stream without adding acres,” Piquet said of Free Birds, his wife’s egg subscription service. “And it’s also soil building. Usually when ranchers talk about ramping up production, we’re talking about taking up more ground.”
Piquet keeps in mind the Mormon hymn that says, “Improvement and progression have one eternal round.” His interpretation of that line is to try and achieve a permanent state for all his land so that it can be used for everything. He explained that in the past he segregated different uses, like calving, grazing, over-wintering, and haying, to different places on his land.
“We want to get to where every piece can be used for every purpose in rotation, when the uses are all well-managed,” he said.
Piquet is a board member of the Teton Soil Conservation District and said the organization is already planning its third annual farm tour, a popular event that happens during the Teton Valley Fair. Down the line, TSCD also hopes to host its own soil health conference here in order to draw producers and experts to the valley.
This year’s conference is on Feb. 4 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the new Bonneville County Building next to Sandy Downs. For more information on the event or to register, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (208) 552-6250 ext. 3101. Both the conference and lunch are free for those who pre-register by Jan. 27.