A windy but beautiful spring day greeted the 25 farmers who traveled from across Northeast Iowa to network and learn about livestock grazing systems at Jóia Food Farm near Charles City. Wendy Johnson and Johnny Rafkin, who own and operate Jóia along with their daughter Vivienne, hosted the collaborative event with Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Northeast Iowa Grazing Group and the Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network.
The event started with the attendees introducing themselves and sharing more about their farms, which included row crops, livestock, and produce enterprises. Then Wendy Johnson led the group on a farm tour that showcased tillable acres turned to pasture, rotational grazing systems, and sheep care and marketing.
Wendy explained how they had transitioned the field from row-crop to pasture by seeding an organic pasture mix from Albert Lea Seed that included perennial ryegrass, annual ryegrass, meadow fescue, bluegrass, birdsfoot trefoil, white clover, bromegrass, festulolium, chicory, and alfalfa at 21 lbs per acre in spring of 2018. The diversity of the many grasses and legumes was evident as the group walked across the field and out to the sheep and cow/calf pair.
Wendy described how she and Johnny use temporary electric fencing of electronet to subdivide the pasture into 164’x 164’ paddocks and move the sheep to a new paddock each day. The flock, which includes 45 Polypay/Il de France ewes and 70 lambs, won’t return to any given paddock for at least 30 days with the goal of 60 days. A solar-powered fencer electrifies the netting and is light and portable for easy moves.
The flock went out to pasture on May 22, however, with legumes flourishing in the lush pasture, Wendy and Johnny have been timing their paddock moves in the afternoon to reduce the risk of bloat on legumes damp with morning dew. As an additional precaution, they’ve added baking soda to the sheep’s free-choice mineral tub to help neutralize rumen pH. When Wendy and Johnny move the sheep, the free choice mineral tub is moved to each new pasture, along with two light shade-structures on skids to keep the wool sheep cool on hot days. Wendy noted that she and their local welder came up with a design for a mobile shade structure which will be up later in June and replace the hog shade structures currently in use.
Wendy and Johnny also use a portable water tank with an above-ground waterline system for sheep and cows to access water in each paddock. The system was designed with help from Greg Koether, a grazier from McGregor. A main waterline runs along the permanent fence, piping water from the well out to the field. Shorter stretches of line run from the main line into the pasture, with quick couplers spliced into them at intervals. A garden hose fitted with a compatible end can be quickly and easily plugged into any coupler and run to the water tank, where a Gallagher float keeps the water at a desired depth.
Wendy and Johnny’s methods have helped Jóia Food Farm become Animal Welfare Approved, which has also opened up new marketing opportunities for them. While they’ve been selling their lamb and other farm-raised meat and eggs directly to customers, this year they were approached by a wholesale buyer who was specifically looking for Animal Welfare Approved lamb and found Jóia through the Animal Welfare Approved network. Selling into this wholesale market will help Jóia increase their flock, diversify their market channels, and manage the time and money required to develop direct-to-consumer sales.
Attendees weathered the wind and enjoyed the tour, asking many questions about Jóia Food Farm’s production systems and marketing plans. The group also had a chance to learn from each other and network with farmers of different backgrounds and experience levels. The tour ended in a hearty meal with Jóia’s own pork burgers and bratwursts cooked by Johnny, alongside a spread of delicious potluck dishes, providing a perfect chance for folks to unwind with fellow farmers and friends.
In addition to raising sheep, Jóia Food Farm grows certified organic grains and raises heritage pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens on lush pastures using regenerative methods. Jóia Food Farm is located at 2038 March Ave, Charles City, IA. If you’d like to learn more about Jóia Food Farm and find their products, check out www.joiafoodfarm.com or find them on Facebook and Instagram.
The Northeast Iowa Food and Farm Network (NIFF) is a casual gathering of local food, beginning, and transitioning farmers making connections and learning together. The next gathering will take place near Decorah at Luna Valley Farm on Sunday, July 14 at 4:30 pm. Contact Kayla Koether (firstname.lastname@example.org, 563-568-6345) for more information or to RSVP.
Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) connects farmers in peer-to-peer learning opportunities across the state, with a mission of equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. You can learn more about PFI and see upcoming field days at www.practicalfarmers.org.