Chris Hoeme believes a holistic approach to pasture management allows the soil to heal itself
Chris Hoeme has always enjoyed being around cattle and spending time outdoors.
Like many other producers in the Ozarks, raising livestock and working the land is a family tradition, and it’s a tradition Chris cherishes.
The St. Clair County, Mo., man, however, is taking a different approach to cattle production than his father.
Chris has taken over the family farm and has implemented an intensive grazing program with an approach that allows the land and forages to fully recover with little or no intervention from Chris; he lets his cattle do the work at his Diamond H Grass and Cattle Ranch near Osceola, Mo.
“What I do, I call holistic management,” Chris explained. “My goal is to heal the farm from the soil up. I use the cattle to help achieve that goal.
“I try to move the cattle once or twice a day, and then give that area time to fully recover from the grazing event and just keep moving them in this fashion.”
The biggest goal Chris has for his operation, which consists of about 40 cow/calf pairs of mostly Angus cattle currently being serviced by two registered Red Angus bulls, is to see his family’s farm restored to a regenerative state of health and profitability.
“I really believe it’s been over-farmed and undermanaged,” Chris said of his 90 grazeable acres that once belonged to his parents, Dale and Carol Hoeme. “Dad had some cross fences in and rotationally grazed as much as he cared to and, of course, I was the college guy who came home with all of the wild ideas. (Dad) was OK with me making some changes, he just wasn’t willing to take it as far as I wanted to go with it.”
Pastures are made up of what Chris described as a “skeleton system” of eight or 10 permanent paddocks that are separated by a single HT smooth electric wire. Within those paddocks he uses portable electric fencing for the daily moves. The use of a portable electric fencing system allows him to move cattle to specific areas.
Other producers may think Chris is “wasting” waist-high forages, but it’s all part of his plan.
“I’m not overstocked on my pastures and it just works for me,” Chris said. “To me, leaving a bunch of residue is key to start seeing improvements on the land. Keeping the ground covered, creates cooler surface temperatures, conserves moisture, begins the process to start seeing organic matter levels increase, and by not having any bare soil, it improves the water filtration system. The way the cattle are managed helps the nutrient cycling of the system begin to function better because your cow dung piles and urine spots are closer together. We’ve had the dung beetles come back in where we’ve never seen them before, and the earthworm populations are better than before we started with this type of management. These are all signs that the land is improving towards a state of health. The cows and rotating them is what has done that.
“I don’t make my cows eat fescue 365 days a year because that plant can’t supply all that the body needs to stay healthy. Even though spinach is good for us we would be lacking certain vitamins and minerals if that was the only thing we were able to eat. I don’t see how its any different for a cow. I like to offer a diversified plate, which makes for a better environment and keeps cattle healthy. A lot of people say you can’t keep cows healthy on just grass and that cows won’t eat weeds, but they are healthy and they will eat ‘weeds.’”
The pastures have not been fertilized in at least 10 years, but lime was put down about five years ago.
“No overseeding has taken place since it was a row crop farm that we put back to grass,” Chris said. “That would have been 12, 15 years ago. We graze what we got.”
In the winter months, Chris said he feeds hay as needed, but his stockpiled forages are the primary feed source.
“For the last several years, I’ve fed one bale per head, per year,” he explained, adding that he did have to feed double the hay this winter because of the what seemed to be long winter. “There’s been several years that I’ve been able to get away with feeding less than 40 bales.”
Chris buys his hay locally, which is a mix with a heavy presence of Johnson grass.
While no grain or feed is given, cattle are offered Redman’s sea salt.
Chris likes cows with a smaller frame, which produce calves with similar structure.
“Big-framed cattle just don’t do well on grass,” he said. “Until you get the genetics right, you aren’t going to get the kind of cattle that will fatten well on just grass.”
Chris retains his heifers, culling those that are not phenotypically what he desires or those that do not breed. Heifers are typically bred at 14 to 16 months of age.
Steers for his grass-finished market are processed at about 2 years of age, or at about 1,000 pounds. Calves receive no vaccinations, but at weaning time bull calves do receive a blackleg/tetanus vaccination when banded. Because of the rotational system, Chris said he has no critical need for parasite or fly control. However, if an animal needs treatment, it will be treated and tagged differently to make it identifiable in the herd. The same practice applies to an animal that may need other treatment, such as antibiotics because of illness.
Like many other cattlemen, Chris works an off-the-farm job. He worked for the Natural Resource Conservation Service for about 13 years, but he was looking for something new. The search lead Chris and his longtime friend, Charlie Williams, to open Zoe Sozo’s Whole Life Market in El Dorado Springs, Mo., in 2016.
In addition to a variety of natural and organic products, the store provides Chris with a market for individual cuts of his grass-finished beef.
“I’m a big believer in health and treating the body as a temple and organic is good, but if you’re still tilling and spraying to get the weeds down, it hurts a lot of things in the soil,” he said.
Chris does not promote his cattle as organic, but as locally-raised, grass-finished beef.
“It’s been pretty well received and I’d say if we get to a half a dozen (beefs) a year, we’d be doing really good,” he said. “It’s really an added value for me, verses selling cattle at the sale barn. If you can find a retail market for your cattle, that’s really good.”
Steers not used for the retail market are either sold through local livestock markets or to individuals.
One of his goals is to have his own brand of grass-finished beef to market.
Zoe Sozo’s and Diamond H Grass and Cattle Ranch recently sponsored a pasture walk on the farm to allow their customers and other producers to view the holistic system.
“I hope that by coming out here and seeing me move the cattle, seeing the before and after, the light bulb goes off and they see that it is different. I want to dispel some perceptions and doing this really sets us apart. Growing up, I learned that you came out every day and fed the cows a bag of 20 percent feed, but that cost adds up,” Chris said. “I always thought there had to be a better way… I’d like to see some more diversity and develop a drought-proof system. In Africa, through holistic management, they have taken drought lands where the riverbeds were dry and converted them into amazing grazing land by using holistic management. I think if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to see some of the same benefits. We’ve been in situations where we’ve went for six, eight weeks without rain, and I still have grass because I’m actually storing water in the soil as a result of the holistic management. Several factors contribute to this such as deeper rooted plants, and because the soil is shaded.”
With a sense of pride in tradition, the females in the Hoeme herd trace back to the original registered Angus cows the Hoemes purchased, as well as three baldie cows Chris has kept to pay homage to his father, who liked Herefords and the look of the cross. Dale passed away about a year and a half ago.
“They are my way of honoring him,” Chris said. “I think he’d be pleased with what I’m doing… I know he would. He saw me building this on this property and he’d say it looked good to him, so he knows how we’re doing.”