Livestock offer many benefits to cash crop operations
By Kelli Boylen, Freelance Writer
Integrating livestock into a cropping system improves soil health, reduces risk for a farm, and creates opportunity for efficiencies. It’s a winning strategy embraced by the two most recent MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year.
“Where you have livestock, you have options,” explained Dave Bishop of PrairiErth Farm in central Illinois. Dave and his son, Hans, and daughter-in-law, Katie, were the 2017 Organic Farmers of the Year. Their 480-acre farm produces corn, soybeans, small grains, vegetables, fruit, beef, pork, eggs, and honey. The farm has been in operation since 1979.
It was during the drought of 1988 that Bishop fully realized the value of having livestock as part of the operation. He started raising livestock for the additional income and increased fertility in the soil, but noticed the biggest impact in years when moisture was lacking.
“In another drought year, 2012, corn in some of our sandy-bottom fields failed to even form an ear. Because we had livestock, we were able to use that failed grain crop as a forage crop, so it wasn’t a loss,” Bishop explained. “The cattle give us a way to stabilize our business. They help protect us from the shocks of weather and the markets.”
The Bishops now graze livestock on their row crop acres as part of an extended crop rotation as a means of building organic matter in the soil, providing balanced fertility for their crops, and increasing the income-producing capability of each acre.
Integrating livestock with crops not only increases income potential, it’s also a great way to keep production costs down.
“Animals harvesting their own feed and spreading their own manure can reduce the cost of retaining those animals by $0.70 – 1.60/cow/day,” said Kent Solberg, Livestock and Grazing Specialist with the Sustainable Farming Association. “In regions that historically use stored feeds more than 200 days a year, the savings can quickly add up.”
Solberg is a strong advocate for including livestock in farming, especially in organic systems. “In the organic production world, if we intend to farm in the image of natural systems, animals must be part of that production model,” he explained. Farms with a mix of livestock and crops have an advantage when it comes to soil health.
“Recent data suggests that integrating managed livestock grazing along with complex cover crop blends is the quickest way to increase soil microbial populations,” Solberg said. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of soil function is mediated by soil microbial activity. We need healthy and active soil microbial populations to move our farm soils toward the full array of agronomic, economic, and environmental services they could provide. It is far more difficult to accomplish this without livestock.”
After 35 years of organic farming, soil quality is exceptional on Rosmann Family Farms near Harlan, Iowa. The Rosmanns were just named the 2018 Organic Farmers of the Year at the recent MOSES Conference. In addition to cattle and hogs, their crops include corn, soy, oats, popcorn, hay, pasture, cover crops, and succotash which is a mixture of oats, wheat, barley and field peas.
Cattle have an important role in contributing to the overall soil quality and fertility on their farm, which has been certified organic since 1994.
“I always knew the importance of having ruminant livestock on the farm, especially cattle,” said Ron Rosmann. The farm relies on composted animal manure and legumes for soil quality and fertility. “This past year, we averaged 180 bushels corn/acre on 180 acres. This is with no added nutrients of any kind other than the crop rotation and composted hog and cattle manure. Our soybeans typically average 55-65 bushels/acre. This past year, we hit 140 bushels/acre on our oats with a 41-pound test weight.”
About every 10 years, the Rosmanns rotate their pastures into crop production for a few years. “We have done this with certain pastures to get better control of thistle species,” Rosmann said. They say they do not have any “rough ground” on the farm that would lend itself to permanent pasture, he added.
“We have diverse grasses, legumes, and other plants. Some are endophyte-free tall fescue, orchard grass, brome grass, rye grass, blue grass, creeping alfalfa, red clover, white clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and chicory,” he said. They have 100 Red Angus beef cows on about 125 acres of pasture.
“We have four groups of cattle in five sets of pasture,” Rosmann explained. “As the spring herd is the biggest with 60 cow-calf pairs, we split them up into two sets of pastures so that we do not have more than 30 pair in any given set. We are also adding 17 more acres of pasture this year because of our increased numbers of cows, and thus also beef for finishing.”
The Rosmanns maintain around 20 paddocks of six acres each, rotating cattle every three to five days depending on the time of the year, numbers in the paddock, and other factors. But, they do not move fence.
“We have a lot of other work during the grazing season that includes crop production, hog production, egg-layers, etc., so try to make it as easy and streamlined as we can,” Rosmann said.
Bishops currently run about 50 head of Belted Galloways, rotating between permanent pasture areas, then grazing cover crops after wheat harvest, July through September. They then move to corn stubble, which also has also been seeded with a cover crop.
Bishop grew up on a diversified dairy farm during a time when most farms were quite diversified. “I was already familiar with grazing cattle,” he said. “Modern innovations, such as easily moveable electric fencing, have made the process much easier.”
Even though he recalls growing up when livestock were naturally part of the farm, he doesn’t see this approach as a step backwards. “Organic agriculture isn’t about going backwards in some way, or rejecting technology,” he explained. “It’s about honoring the wisdom of those who came before us, and selecting those modern technologies that help us move forward into a sustainable future.”
In a regenerative farming system, livestock are “a necessary part of providing the ecosystem services required to grow food,” Bishop claimed. “Without plant/animal diversity, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are needed to provide the fertility, weed and pest control, etc., to grow crops. Without dependence on expensive purchased inputs, a farm with livestock can become more profitable.”
There is a higher level of management required, as well as additional workload for animal care, but Bishop believes it is worth it.
Solberg agrees. He could not think of when livestock integration would not be a good idea other than when the health and well-being of the livestock or people is put in jeopardy.
“There are places and times when the producer would need to be more creative,” Solberg said. For example, producers could enter into custom-grazing leases if it isn’t feasible to purchase livestock. Producers with small acreages could graze small livestock, such as goats, rabbits or ducks.
“It comes down to management,” Solberg explained. “If a producer is not willing to do the management, then it may not be a viable idea. Unfortunately, they will also not reap the benefits.”
As a grazing specialist, Solberg encourages farmers to figure out how to make livestock integration work. “Too many producers are quick to say ‘It’s just not possible here because (insert long list of excuses).’ Many base their decision on preconceived notions built on old assumptions,” he added.
Solberg tells farmers to answer two questions before making the decision to integrate cattle into a crop rotation: what are the specific goals (increase soil organic matter, increase water infiltration rates, reduce erosion, reduce fertilizer inputs, etc.) for a particular field?; and, what resources (fencing, water sources, labor, forages, livestock type, time of year, etc.) are available?
“Answering these questions will help producers select the most feasible options for their operation,” he explained.
Bishop recommended that producers find mentors nearby who are willing to visit the farm and discuss options. “Get educated. Attend conferences like MOSES and go to workshops and field days nearby,” he suggested.
Rosmann advised others who want to organically graze beef as part of crop operation to find the kind of cattle that are “gentle, not too big, but not too small either. You have to have both good pounds of gain and fairly easy finishing.”
Solberg, too, recommended getting support from other farmers, especially those who have experience with the type of livestock you are considering. “Avoid the naysayers,” he warned. “Thoughtfully approach integrating livestock, and avoid being controlled by fear.”
Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer who lives on a homestead in Iowa.
From the March | April 2018 Issue