Iowa farm family converting from crops to pasture based enterprises

By Allan Nation

SHELBURNE, Iowa: The 2006 drought in the Midwest speeded up the Wilson family’s planned conversion of their farm from a corn and hogs orientation to one of pasture and ruminant animals.

In a family meeting, the Wilsons decided this transition would be an orderly one which would entail first becoming organically certified and then gradually switching to grazing animals.

At the time of the meeting the only ruminant animals on the farm were a small flock of sheep.

“We are now in the grass finishing beef business,” Torray said.

He said the speedup came about when he attended a Holistic Management meeting at custom grass fed beef finisher Tom German’s house in mid-July.

German told Wilson that due to the drought he needed a place to send some of his steers.

“After about five minutes of discussing what could be done, I realized we had the solution at our place.

“Now 49 head of grass fed steers are gaining fabulously on some of our weedy, organically raised corn.”

The second day the steers were on the farm, a neighbor came to the farm house in an absolute panic because he thought his cattle had gotten into the Wilson’s corn.

“Dad asked me if I knew CPR because I might need it to resuscitate our neighbors.”

Dan Wilson, Torray’s Dad, said he had farmed conventionally for 28 years raising corn, soybeans, oats, barley, flax, alfalfa and hogs.

He promised Torray that if he came back to the farm to live after college he would convert the farm to Certified Organic production and they have started doing so with 240 acres currently in transition.

Torray had already added a small sheep flock while he was in high school on ten acres of flood-prone land.

After returning from college, the sheep pasture was expanded to 75 acres.


The Wilsons were early converts to pastured sows and were the fourth farmer to sign up with Niman Ranch Meats in 1998.

(Niman Ranch requires that all of its feeder pigs come from pastured sows but they are finished conventionally.)

“A neighbor asked me why I run my sows on pasture. I told him it was because I wanted to be able to breathe,” Dan said.

The Wilson farm also has pastured poultry, both eggs and broilers, and bees.

“Our neighbors can’t wait to see how much more weirder we are this year than last year,” Dan Wilson said with a laugh.

All of the farm’s lambs, eggs, chicken, honey and some pork are sold through the Shelburne Farmers’ Market.

Lorna, Torray’s mother, grinds her own wheat and makes bakery products to sell as well.

“There’s just so much more opportunity with direct marketed foods than there is in commodity farming,” Lorna said.

“Dan and I have five children and we’d like all of them to be able to come back to the farm.

“We think with our current direction, they can.”

Lorna said she had always been interested in the concept of food as medicine and so has been very encouraging of the farm’s conversion to pasture based enterprises.

“I see a pretty landscape as one of our most important products,” she said.

“When you seed down 80 acres of corn ground to pasture, it makes a big difference in how pretty the farm looks,” she said.


Reflecting the high fertility and productivity of the farm’s soil, the current plan is to manage it in an Argentine style pasture/crop rotation.

The land will be in leguminous permanent pasture for five to seven years and then plowed down and planted to organic corn, soybeans, and a small grain nurse crop to return to permanent pasture.

They are currently converting 80 acres to permanent pasture each year.

Prior to getting the custom steers, Torray had broadcast planted some bin run corn following annual ryegrass and was planning to graze it with the farm’s sheep but that corn and the sheep pasture went to another set of custom-grazed cattle.

The sheep are currently living what Torray calls a “nomadic lifestyle” and are being used to clean up weedy areas around the farm.

One of these is a new native prairie seeding and the other is an abandoned farmstead about a mile from the farm’s main house.

Dan said the farm is completely self contained in that all the feed used on the farm is grown on the farm.

“The only things we buy are vitamins, minerals and soybean meal.”

Also, all of the soil nitrogen needed for the crops is produced from plowed down legume rich hog pasture.

“Our hog pastures are a mixture of alfalfa and orchard with Ladino clover,” Dan said.

“But, there’s only so much you can do with hogs on pasture.

“We want to put ruminants as our centerpiece enterprise.”

Torray said his dream is to have a pasture-based, seasonal dairy as this centerpiece.

“The thing I really like about grazing is that one guy can do so much,” Dan said.

“We now invest in animals instead of equipment.”

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