Whether you have cattle or not, Kevin Elmy says there are many benefits to grazing cattle on your land
There has been a lot of talk about soil health. Lots of people don’t know what is meant by this, but are still trying to make the soil healthy. There are soil additives and techniques being discussed, but one of the quickest and most efficient ways to improve soil health is to get animals grazing it. The Prairies were once a natural nutrient cycle of plant growth and animal grazing that sustained itself for thousands of years. Maybe it’s time to revisit getting animals walking on our land.
“I don’t want cows”
“But I’m a grain farmer. I don’t want to have cows.”
A neighbour may have cows and be looking at extending their grazing season. Land does not have to be taken out of production to produce grazing opportunities — stubble and residue grazing works well, along with grazing of cover crops or chem-fallow, if you watch which chemicals are used. Check with the chemical companies for registration on grazing restrictions. Or produce a corn crop for grazing purposes, or produce hay with the intention of getting the hay put up custom or on shares.
On crops that produce a lot of straw, look at fall grazing. The animals will nose through the trash, looking for grain, green growth, and straw. The more that goes through the animal, the quicker the straw breaks down and decomposes, releasing its nutrients. The animals will go into grass sloughs and clean them up. If supplemented with hay, it will be importing nutrients into the field which will reduce your fertilizer bill the next year.
Cover cropping is another way to produce biomass for livestock grazing. The use of cover crops is a relatively new concept, based on mixing up a bunch of different crops, allowing them to grow, then either letting them rot in the field, or harvesting them with livestock.
Cover crops allow farmers to cover the ground, break up weeds, insects and diseases, and solve other agronomic problems like hard pan. Having animals graze off the growth accelerates microbial activity in the soil. Concerns about weed resistance, soils not responding well to fertilizer, compaction, low organic matter, high fertilizer prices, or low commodity prices could all lead farmers in this direction.
There’s an opportunity to “trade” acres with a livestock neighbour — they graze on your crop ground, you get the accumulation of nutrients. This way, nutrients on the grazed ground are utilized and not leached away, and the livestock producer can graze a piece of ground where nitrates are not going to be a concern.
Corn, hay and pasture
People who know me will be rolling their eyes to see I’m still talking about corn grazing, but it has done wonders for our soils. A corn crop producing 15 to 20 tonnes per acre being returned to the soil by livestock grazing has immensely improved my soils, without a big fertilizer bill. Corn roots are deep rooted which helps cycle deeper nutrients in the soil, it grows late into the year which keeps microbes alive longer, and the cows do well on it. This is at the other extreme of residue grazing for intensity. Corn will take a lot more grazing days per acre for the animals to eat than residue grazing.
Hay and pasture is the more traditional way of creating forage for livestock. A legume crop will fix nitrogen for the next few crops in rotation when taking the forage crop out, create some internal drainage, build some organic matter, and will help with insect and weed problems. A high grass stand will build organic matter faster, but has the baggage of not fixing nitrogen. Adding some legume to a grass stand will help the nitrogen situation and help improve the feed quality.
Harvesting a pasture is more straightforward than hay. Turn cattle into the pasture and let them do their thing.
For hay, the question arises — do you purchase equipment or get everything contracted out? The answer depends on acres, other uses for equipment, long term goals and other factors. Getting the work done by the potential hay buyer may cost more in the short run, but the work will be done the way the customer wants it done.
The goal is to find someone you can work with. Whether you agree on a ten-year hay price that averages out highs and lows, or just agree to set the price year to year, both parties have to be happy for the arrangement to work.
Some of the problems you may encounter are compaction, forage over-production, lack of livestock in the area, farm retirements or livestock liquidation, partnerships gone bad, or rising profitability of grain farming. Each has its own set of headaches. All has its own resolutions, pitfalls, and opportunities, like any other crop we grow.
Managing our soils, creating “new” opportunities like custom grazing and reducing risk on both sides of the fence will help foster local growth and better utilize our land base. †