Ryan Metcalf and Winslow Goins got some funny looks from neighbors when they started converting Cool Spring Plantation from cotton to forages.

“Our operation is unique for this area of the state,” says Metcalf, the plantation's general manager. “This is peanut and cotton country.”

He and Goins, who has a long-term lease on the Halifax, NC, plantation, made the conversion for several reasons.

“This was a good cotton farm — not a great one,” says Goins. “But sometimes average land can make very good grassland.”

Cotton prices are in a slump, too. “It's a highly subsidized crop right now and it's hard to predict if the U.S. government will continue to do that,” he says. “I can't help but wonder what the future holds for the cotton market.”

Raising forages is also a good way to supply high-quality feed for Goins' purebred Black Angus herd.

“By making the conversions all at once, we've been able to systematically design where to put water lines and shade shelters to best utilize rotational grazing,” he says.

Half of the farm's 1,200 acres are now seeded to grasses. About 50% of the new pastures are stands of MaxQ tall fescue, some interseeded with clover, and others are Coastal bermudagrass interseeded with winter rye.

“The conversion was relatively easy to plan and accomplish,” says Goins.

After retiring from the food processing and distribution business, Goins started assembling his Black Angus herd a few years ago. He's traveled to several farms and sales across the country to buy females with strong pedigrees and exceptional type.

“It's not unusual to spend $20,000 or more for a good female,” he says.

He flushes the best donor cows for multiple embryos and implants them in recipient cows. The current herd includes 350 cows, 120 heifers and 80 calves.

“Our goal is to assemble a premier herd of cattle. We'll market the females to other Angus breeders and the males to commercial producers,” says Goins, who already has one bull listed with a Wisconsin AI company.

Next May, he'll host a production sale at the plantation. “We'll sell 100-120 females. We hope to attract buyers from several states, including some from as far away as California, and make it an annual event.”

The first step in the cotton-to-forages conversion was soil testing and fertilizer application.

“The soils in this area are sandy, so it's difficult for them to hold nutrients in place for an extended period,” says Goins. “We've learned that applying smaller amounts of fertilizer at more frequent intervals is what works best.”

His bermudagrass requires a lot of nitrogen — up to 300 lbs/acre in four or five applications.

During summer, cattle rotationally graze the bermudagrass. It's stocked at a rate of two cow-calf pairs/acre. The fescue is rotationally grazed in spring and fall with a stocking rate of over one cow-calf pair/acre. Average daily gains for young stock are over 2 lbs.

“Our goal is to graze 10 months per year and to allow 1.5 acres of pasture per mature animal. “This is a challenging target, and we'll move herds as often as weekly to accomplish our objectives.”

To extend the fall grazing period, good-quality hay is fed free choice. “As the fall grass nears depletion, we add free-choice corn silage that's mixed with lower-quality hay,” says Goins. “The cows consume over 30 lbs of corn silage/head/day.”

Grass remaining after each grazing period is cut and put up in round bales. Other stands are used strictly for baling, with the fescue harvested twice and the bermudagrass harvested up to five times. About 140 acres are under center-pivot irrigation.