Starting From Scratch
After a 16-year career in the U.S. Army, Josh Morris and his wife Chiara had a plan – a plan to become farmers, but they weren’t sure where they wanted to put down roots.
After considering their options, which included starting a farm in Chiara’s native Italy, the couple chose to start their operation from scratch on 40 acres in Phelps County, Mo., that had been idle for decades. That was in 2009, and today the family still owns the original property, now dubbed Cold Spring Farm, and has access to an adjoining 120 acres Josh’s parents, Alan and Susan Morris, purchased in 2011, as well as 60 leased acres.
“While I was in the military, I visited like 25 countries and I felt like it would be nice to come back home, and this is pretty close,” Josh, a native of southern Illinois, said. “We strongly considered Italy, but there aren’t the farming opportunities there like there are here. There are so many farming opportunities for small farms and entry-level farmers here.”
“In Italy, if you don’t get it from the family, it’s really impossible to farm,” Chiara said.
Cold Water Farm is home a grass-fed cattle operation comprised of registered White Park, commercial black Angus and a handful of Belted Galloways, as well as 60 registered and commercial Boer goats. The Morrises have about 40 head of cattle, with the majority consisting of the commercial Angus herd.
After his years in the military, Josh said he, like many other veterans, still wanted to contribute in some way.
“If you can do sustainable farming, that’s what the world needs; people who are actually going to be stewards of the land and give to future generations,” Josh said.
Chiara added being able to provide the food they raised for their family has been her greatest reward.
“I really enjoy being able to share a table and say that everything came from the farm,” she said.
Because they were new to agriculture, Josh and Chiara reached out to agencies such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation for advice, and took advantage of cost-share programs for fencing, and the installation of waterers and hydrants.
“We learned a tremendous amount in grazing school,” Josh said. “Not having that background, we learned what the mechanics are of management intensive grazing and how you really can get more out of your land, and even increase your stocking rates and improve your fertility once it’s established.”
Despite the rugged terrain, the family implement a multi-paddock, rotational system for their livestock. Cattle are rotated every day or two, depending on pasture conditions, and goats are rotated weekly.
“The girls are able to move them,” Josh said of his daughters, Isabel and Nicole. “We really like the intensive management and have really bought into that whole practice, but it’s not like what you see in the videos. We have a lot of funny shaped fields and things; it can be a challenge.”
Because goats and cattle typically graze on different types of plants and grasses, they complement one another.
“The land really dictated what we could do,” Josh said. “When we first got here, we tried everything; chickens and bees, which we still have on a small scale, and we even had bison for three years. We just felt that on a larger scale, this type of environment is really made for these types of animals. You can’t really put a till into the ground on this property, but you can grow some great grass.”
Pastures are primarily native grasses, but the Morris family overseeds with clover and sericea lespedeza.
“I don’t think pastures should look like lawns,” Josh said. “We really thought we would be able to get by with smaller areas for the cattle, but we learned they eat a lot and that’s where the leases have helped. On our property, they really help us take care of the land by eating the grass and depositing the manure, but keeping the leases has been critical in allowing us to keep our cattle.”
Thanks to the rotational system and the incorporation of diatomaceous earth and lobelia into cattle mineral, Josh said they have been able to eliminate the need for chemical worming.
“In the winter, it would be really easy to get lazy and not rotate them, but we move them and keep them up on the ridge, where it is a little dryer,” Josh said.
On the goat side of the operation, the family has opted to closely monitor each individual goat and treat individually, if a problem observed is with parasites.
“We are with out animals everyday,” Josh said. “The cattle have been so easy, but with the goats, it seems like if you don’t catch a problem right away, you will lose it.”
Because there are both registered and commercial herds, Josh said Cold Spring Farm is able to cater to a variety of needs for their customers.
“Breeding management is really something we focus on because we want to provide breeding stock for people who want a grass-fed cattle operation,” Josh explained. “It was really hard for us starting out to get that type of cattle. It’s really easy to get bulls that are being fed out and that look great, but they are dependent on that feed. Around here, we have so much grass, we want to utilize that.”
Josh said they selected the White Park and Belted Galloway breeds because of their ability to convert grass into pounds, and the incorporation of Angus into the mix has brought heavier muscled cattle.
“Most of our calves are straight Angus, but we’ve got a little Brangus in there with some of our cows,” Josh explained. “We’ve really had some tremendous hybrid vigor with our Angus and Galloway cross calves. The White Park are almost as big as the Angus, but they are great for people who are wanting a small herd and want to be close to that herd. We’ve also sold some grass-fed White Park steers and can get them up to about 900 pounds in about two years or 26 months. For a grass-fed heritage breed, that isn’t bad. We keep them purebred because it’s really a totally different customer base than for the black cattle.”
Josh added that any crossbreeding in the commercial herds produces a calf with a tremendous amount of growth and hybrid vigor that is needed for a grass operation.
“We want to help other people get started with grass-fed cattle, and with our cattle, their rumen is already adjusted to that forage only diet,” Josh said. “We want to develop our own grass-based breed, sort of.”
As for the goats, some of they family’s best customers are youth livestock show exhibitors.
“We mainly market our goats for breeding stock, but not everything is going to be suitable for breeding stock, so those will go into the meat market. I really think the quality is about the same, but that registered animal is going to have a higher price tag. We also want people to know that goats from here are ready to go to work for them. They aren’t just sitting at a feed trough all day, waiting for feed.”
While the cattle are grass fed, the goats do receive a mixed non-GMO ration, which is obtained from a neighbor who buys feed in bulk.
The goal of the family is to obtain an organic certification for their farm. They are currently following organic practices, but because there is no hayable acreage they have to purchase hay for the winter months.
While the farm continues to develop, the family’s knowledge of agriculture continues to evolve. Josh and Chiara said they have learned many valuable lessons since starting Cold Spring Farm.
“It was like drinking from a fire hose; it all came at once,” Josh said.
While it’s the 21st Century, the Morris family feels as if they are pioneers.
“I think the hardest part was bringing the farm back to life, plus building a house and being off grid,” Chiara said. “There’s lots of long days.”
Friends and family are very supportive of their farming operation, and love to come visit Cold Spring Farm. Chiara’s father has a sort of connection with the farm.
“When he was little, he had goats and remembers rising all of their own food,” Chiara said. “He likes the kids having the same experiences when they are little, just like he did. We like what we do and when you wake up in the morning it’s nice to know that we are going to make this place better. It might not ever be finished, but we know we are working on it everyday.”