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  • Writer's pictureZack Koscielny

Not Without Some Cows!





It has been a while since my last blog post – not sure where the time goes!  As we settle into our winter schedule at the Green Beach, I hope to find time for more entries.  Thank you to those who have taken the time to check out my previous ramblings – I hope they have provided some food for thought!

           

Recently I have had discussions with a number of grain producers, none of which have any livestock on their operations.  All of these producers have been experimenting with cover crops, sowing perennial crops into marginal acres, or some combination of the two.  Eventually, all of these discussions led to a question: Zack, would you be interested in grazing your cattle on our land?  This immediately reminded me of a paper I wrote while attending university that discussed soil health challenges in the Westman region, and concluded with a recommendation of ‘regional crop-livestock’ integration.  At the time, although I did believe soil health of cropland could be improved through livestock integration, I also saw it as a bit of a pipe dream.  This would involve two very complex businesses carving out a schedule & plan to achieve something that both parties might initially view as more trouble than it is worth.  In other words, some or many of the benefits are not very tangible or easy to see.  It is my experience and observation that it has become rare for mixed livestock-grain operations to have the livestock on their crop acres, never mind getting two businesses to mix crops & livestock.  In light of my recent discussions with grain producers showing interest in getting livestock onto their land, I am perhaps a little more optimistic about regional crop-livestock integration becoming more prevalent.  It is certainly something I would be interested in pursuing with our livestock and our grain-producing neighbours.  Here are some of my thoughts on why farmers, of grain or livestock, should consider integrating livestock onto crop land.

 

Back to the Soil Health Principles!

 

As a livestock producer, I am sure my point of view is skewed, but I feel strongly that having livestock, or having access to grazing animals, is a major facilitating factor in enabling a farm to implement the 6 principles of soil health.  I know I have reviewed the 6 principles of soil health in previous posts, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, lets go through them once more:

1.    Context – Consider your land & labour restrictions, where do you farm?  What was there pre-agriculture?

2.    Reduce soil disturbance – mechanical (tillage) & chemical

3.    Maintain soil coverage – mulch layer or living plants

4.    Maintain living roots – As long as possible! Feeding the soil microbes, adding carbon to the soil

5.    Embrace Diversity – Above & below ground

6.    Integrate Livestock – Grazing built our prairie soils

 

In regards to getting livestock back onto cropland acres, obviously we are discussing Principle 6, but we are likely also heavily incorporating Principles 3, 4 & 5.  Let’s discuss them in order.

Principles 3 & 4 (Soil Coverage & Living Roots): There are a couple of ways that we could improve the coverage of our soils in the current crop production system – incorporating perennial crops into the rotation & utilizing cover crops at the shoulder ends of the growing season.  Both of these strategies will increase soil coverage through the living plants or remaining residues.  They also achieve the goal of a living root for as long as possible – which is crucial for building soil aggregates, the soil microbial community & sequestering carbon.  Perennials and or cover crops may not provide direct cashflow for crop producers.  However, if a crop producer can bring a neighbouring cattle producer’s livestock onto their land to graze perennial crops or cover crop growth, the crop producer can recoup at least some of the costs of these crops.  In some cases, such as marginal cropland acres, the re-integration of livestock may be more profitable than trying to raise a grain crop, not to mention the soil health benefits of grazing animals returning to the land.

Principle 5 (Diversity!): Currently, much of our agricultural crops are grown independently.  This contradicts how the prairie evolved, with dozens to hundreds of plant species growing on an individual acre.  We can achieve some diversity through intercropping our grain crops (growing 2 or 3 grain crops simultaneously), although this does present the challenge of seed separation.  Another way to achieve diversity on cropland would be to grow a cover crop.  Whether that is planted post harvest, or undersowed into the cash crop, this immediately doubles the diversity in our fields in that year.  Taking it a step further, crop producers may want to incorporate full-season cover crops, which allows the opportunity to grow plants that may never be considered as a cash crop, or growing many different plants in the same year to really enhance diversity. Cover crops, no matter how they are integrated into a cropping system, present an excellent opportunity to bring livestock onto grainland to enhance soil health.

 

 

Practical Considerations

 

As I touched on earlier, having two complex businesses such as a cattle operation & grain farm work together is no small undertaking.  Both are facing constraints due to weather and may have conflicting goals when it comes to getting livestock onto cropland.  However, in my personal experience and from what I have seen on other farms, the benefits of livestock integration are worth working through a few challenges to get a system worked out that can benefit all parties. 

The first practical consideration I see is that not every grain producer is dying to go out & buy cows or sheep, even if they are convinced it would be beneficial to re-integrate livestock onto their cropland.  This is why I advocated for regional crop-livestock integration in my university paper.  If two farming operations are considering working together to get livestock onto cropland, it is important that both parties are clear about what their goals & expectations are for the grazing.  Here are some examples that both parties should consider:

·       When will livestock be turned in?  For how long?

·       How much residue should remain post-grazing?

·       How might grazing affect next years crop? Added fertility, volunteers or weed problems, seeding challenges with residue

·       If cover cropping, who is responsible for seed costs?

·       Who is responsible for fence & water requirements?

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  Regular communication and a little bit of trust in both directions will both be key in successfully implementing regional crop-livestock integration.

 

Concluding thoughts

 

As I see it, there are 3 fairly obvious potential opportunities for getting livestock onto grain land

1.    Crop-residue grazing – this is a fairly old practice that is not uncommon.  This is low cost to implement, perhaps only requiring a perimeter fence & a water source.  On the fancier end of things, chaff could be bunched for winter grazing, or the field could be divided into smaller chunks to more evenly distribute manure and urine. 

2.    Cover Crops (shoulder season) – this seems to be more challenging in Manitoba with our short growing season, but some folks have had success undersowing cash crops with a cover crop and grazing regrowth after grain harvest.  In the right fall conditions, this can be very successful.

3.    Cover Crops (full season) – I see this as the holy grail of regional crop-livestock integration.  Obviously, it is a tougher sell to grain producers as they are ‘sacrificing’ a crop year.  However, as we begin to better understand the benefits of diversity, cover crops & livestock impact on soil health, it is important to at least run the numbers on a full season cover crop.  This is particularly true if you can charge a livestock producer to come onto your land and graze this cover crop.  I believe the economics would surprise many grain producers.

 

I believe implementing any of these 3 practices would contribute significantly to improving soil health on crop-land while providing additional, affordable & high-quality grazing to livestock producers.  Additionally, in some cases, I have seen introducing grazing animals onto marginal grain land be more profitable than growing a grain crop.  As with any partnership, successful regional crop-livestock integration will take communication and compromise, but stands to significantly benefit both crop & livestock operations.  We plan to continue pursuing opportunities that will allow us to get cattle onto nearby cropland and hope that other farmers in the area will consider partnering with us or another producer to improve soil health.

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