Ringgold Farmer Named 2015 Sunbelt Expo Farmer of the Year

| August 2, 2015

“Prayer, hard work, dedication, perseverance and ongoing evaluation have helped us achieve our farming goals”

farming

RINGGOLD — On his northwest Georgia farm, James Lyles of Ringgold is building new chicken houses, moving beef cattle daily and harvesting and selling top quality hay. He has been a farmer for 19 years. His Dry Creek Farm includes 627 acres with 90 rented acres and 537 acres of owned land.

“If I can’t make money with chickens, cattle or hay,” he said. “I’m doing something wrong.”

James Lyles

James Lyles

As a result of his success as a beef, poultry and forage producer, Lyles was selected as the state winner of the 2015 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Lyles joins nine other state winners as finalists for the award.

The overall winner will be announced Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie.

Lyles grows 110 acres of hay, with 30 acres of hay on rented land. His Tifton 44 and Russell bermudagrass hay yields 5.6 to 7.25 tons per acre. He produces both small rectangular and large round bales. He sells the small bales to horse owners, and expects to produce 20,000 small bales this year. His hay customers are repeat buyers and he sells out each year. He regularly tests hay quality and sells the best to his customers while feeding the rest to his cattle.

Broilers are an important income source. He’s a contract poultry grower for Pilgrims of Chattanooga. From four older chicken houses, he grows out more than six flocks per year with 120,000 birds per flock.

Lyles receives chicks the day they hatch. The chickens are processed when they reach 4.25 to 4.40 pounds each. His production efficiency is ranked against fellow growers, and Lyles often comes out at or near the top.

This year, he’s doubling his broiler capacity by building three new chicken houses. He’s also upgrading the lighting, brooders, insulation and ventilation in his older houses.

His cattle herd includes about 140 cows and five bulls. He produces at least 125 calves each year. Most of his pastures are located on river bottomland.

Lyles overseeds fescue pastures with ryegrass, and has planted white clover into some of his fescue. He also stockpiles fescue by removing cattle during early August, allowing the grass to recover for 90 days and then turning the cattle back in during the winter.

His cattle consist of an original Braford herd bred over the years to Angus bulls. The herd today has a high percentage of Angus blood. The cattle graze 10- to 15-acre paddocks. Lyles moves his cattle daily to fully utilize available forage.

“We also have two 30- to 40-acre paddocks that we may divide into smaller, more manageable pastures,” he said.

He uses a 60-day breeding and calving season. Over three years, Lyles shortened his breeding season from five months to the current two months.

“The shorter the breeding season, the more uniform the calf crop,” he said. “As a result, we are able to sell our calves in trailer load lots.”

Lyles weans calves at seven months of age. He markets his cattle in large uniform groups through either the video sales of Superior Livestock Auction, the Red Carpet Cattle Sale in Calhoun, or the Athens Stockyard Preconditioned Feeder Calf Sale in Tennessee. He also sells a few head each year as freezer beef, mainly to friends at his church.

The poultry, hay and beef enterprises complement each other because he applies litter from his chicken houses as fertilizer to his pasture and hay land. In 2006, he planted 70 acres of pine trees as a long-term investment.

To protect the land, Lyles takes part in several USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service programs. He follows a comprehensive nutrient management plan when applying litter. He fenced off creeks and planted buffer strips between the fences and creeks. He also built a stackhouse to hold the litter.

In the future, he would like to expand his hay production and his freezer beef business. He continues to look for nearby land to buy. He anticipates building two more barns, one for cattle working facilities and the other for hay. He plans to thin his pines within a few years and convert 20 acres in tree stumps to cattle pastures.

Lyles also plans to create a succession plan to pass his farm to his children.

“I want our children to continue our farming legacy if they so choose without having to sell part of the farm to pay inheritance taxes,” he said.

He grew up in a single-parent household and spent much of his youth on his grandparents’ dairy farm. He remembers scraping manure from dairy lots and driving a tractor when he was about eight years old.

Lyles said he owes a lot to his grandparents. His grandfather James Ramey died in 2009, but his grandmother Joyce Ramey still helps out on the farm. His grandfather closed the dairy and offered Lyles a partnership as the farm started emphasizing broilers.

“I was smart enough to jump on that offer,” he said. “Then, when 407 acres of adjoining land became available to purchase, my grandparents helped me buy it by putting up their 90-acre farm as part of the collateral.”

Serving the community is important for Lyles. He’s a supervisor for the Catoosa Soil and Water Conservation District, and serves on an extension advisory committee. In 2011, a tornado hit his community and Lyles used his bulldozer to help with the cleanup.

Lyles has completed classes in the Master Cattlemen’s Program and is certified for Georgia Beef Quality Assurance. He’s a member of the Red Carpet Cattlemen’s Association and the Tri-State Cattlemen’s Association. He has also hosted the Northwest Georgia Forage Field Day.

His wife Tara is a former elementary school teacher who now teaches their two home-schooled children. Tara also works on the farm, pays the bills and makes sure the farm’s paperwork is in order.

Their children Chloe and Ethan help out on the farm and have raised their own dairy calves as farm projects. Chloe has joined 4-H where Tara volunteers.

The Lyles attend Grace Baptist Church in Chattanooga where James is a deacon. Tara works in the church AWANA office and teaches in vacation Bible school.

The farm has one full-time employee. During hay season, Tara’s dad and another retired friend help out. David Addis, a neighboring dairy producer, is a reliable source of information and help for James.

“Prayer, hard work, dedication, perseverance and ongoing evaluation have helped us achieve our farming goals,” he said.

Laura Perry Johnson, Georgia Extension director, coordinates the Farmer of the Year award in the state. Lyles was nominated for the award by Charles Lancaster, Catoosa County extension agent.

“James is expanding his operation and is one of very few full-time farmers in Catoosa County,” Lancaster said.

As the Georgia state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Lyles will now receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from the Southern States cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

He is now eligible for the $15,000 cash award that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include the use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative, the choice of another $1,000 in cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from PhytoGen, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 26th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed more than $1 million in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.

A distinguished panel of judges will visit the Lyles farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 10-14. The judges this year include John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years; Clark Garland, longtime University of Tennessee Extension ag economist from Maryville, Tenn.; and farmer Thomas Porter, Jr., of Concord, N.C., the overall winner in 2011.

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