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Steve Savage

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Allison Van Eedenenaam

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Dr. Bill Field, farm safety

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Grazing in Coal Country

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Eastern Kentucky livestock operators
make good use of reclaimed land
by Ray Bowman
(Originally published September 18, The Farmer’s Pride)

Sassafras, KY – As you pull off highway 15 in Knott County, roll bales flank either side of Resort Road, leading up to the Red Oak Land and Cattle Company. Red Oak owner Jeremy Goodson explains that the bales were there because the truck couldn’t make it up the road. You see, the 1,200 acre cattle operation sits at about 1,900 feet above sea level on land that has been reclaimed after the coal has been removed.

Grazing cattle on reclaimed land is not new to eastern Kentucky. The practice goes back at least to the 1970’s. There has recently been a renewed interest in the practice, however, prompting the Young Producers’ Council of the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association to schedule stops at Red Oak and the D and D Ranch in adjacent Perry County for their fall outing.

Last February, Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, James Comer, announced the Appalachia Proud project which will shine a spotlight on agricultural activities in 37 eastern Kentucky counties. Regional products run the gamut from grapes to Christmas trees, with an emphasis of the utilization of land previously considered unfit for farming.

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Jeremy Goodson sits on the back of a flat-bed pickup as he surveys the land around him. Some of it shows the signs of an active mining operation, yet most has been reclaimed after the coal has been removed. Goodson notes that, prior to coal exploration and extraction, the land was primarily unusable due to it’s extremely rugged terrain and inaccessibility. While the contoured banks may not be as attractive to some observers as the rugged wildness of their previous face, Goodson is grateful for the changes that have allowed him to remain in the area while pursuing his dream of raising cattle and horses.

Red Oak is a cow-calf operation, currently home to some 200 mother cows of primarily Angus genetics. Charolais and Simmental bulls are used to provide genetic diversity and quick-growing calves. The cattle are allowed free range over the ranch, given that fences are difficult to build in the still-rocky soil that has been replaced after the coal has been mined. Natural boundaries serve to keep the animals is place where fences are absent.

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Much of the forage available to the livestock is what was used in the reclamation effort. Sericea lespedeza, a perennial legume was mixed with fescue to hold the replaced soil together and protect from erosion. Native grasses are making a comeback on the land and Goodson says orchard grass and clover has been established in some areas. Hay is harvested from some areas of the property, however stored forage is also purchased. Goodson says transportation to his location has an impact on prices of material he has to purchase, since “we’re about 100 miles from anywhere.”

Water is a concern for Goodson but he has managed to provide sufficient access to a number of small ponds scattered all over the property. The region gets good rainfall, which also means the livestock have access to wet-weather springs. Frequent rains are also needed to keep the forage green and growing, since the soil doesn’t hold moisture well.

Gathering the cattle on Red Oak takes on an old west character, as the greater part of it is done on horseback. The horses are allowed to roam with the cattle in order to become accustomed to the terrain and to allow the cows to become comfortable with the presence of horses.

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Genetic Improvement

Just across the Perry county line, a few dozen miles from the Red Oak Land and Cattle Company is the 1,000 acre D and D Ranch, a custom weaning and backgrounding operation. Slightly older and more established than Red Oak, D and D is still surrounded by active coal mining.

The ranch also includes a parcel of unmined bottom land along the Kentucky River which is used for corn production. The corn makes up a portion of the ration fed to D and D stock.

Another claim to fame is that D and D is home to the East Kentucky Beef Cattle Council Heifer Development Program. The program has been maintaining consigned heifers from Kentucky, as well as a number of other states, in order to identify outstanding breeding stock characteristics in animals that are then sold for herd improvement. Perry County extension agent Charles May has been working with the program since its inception in 1998 and credits it with “a constant upgrade in the Eastern Kentucky herds.”

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This year, 281 heifers from 43 consignors in four states are involved in the program. A special bred heifer sale will be held later in the fall to make 101 of the cows available to producers. To date, 5,163 head have been enrolled in the program from 215 consignors. Return on the animals to the consignors is estimated at slightly under $1 million.

May says this particular project is unique. “We’re not aware of anything else like it anywhere,” he told the Young Producers Council members touring the facility.

Commissioner Comer and his Appalachia Proud program see real agricultural possibilities for eastern Kentucky, but he’s certainly not the first to recognize the potential. Around 1990, then Governor Wallace Wilkinson was touring a grazing project on reclaimed land in Martin County. The local cattlemen’s association was serving ribeyes, and as Wilkinson went through the line to get a steak the wind shifted, wafting an aroma familiar to the former purveyor of livestock feed. He turned to a companion and mused “Do you smell that? It smells like money.”

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