Improving Soil Health by Rotationally Grazing Cattle on Full Season Cover Crop Cocktails on a No-till Farm in the Red River Valley of North Dakota

Final report for FNC17-1098

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2019
Grant Recipient: From the Ground Up farm
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Clint Severance
From The Ground Up Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Nick has been no-till farming the land that we used since 2012.



The problem we are trying to solve is to prove that grazing cattle on productive Red River Valley farmland can be an economically viable piece of the crop system.

Since starting the conversion to no-till farming practices in 2012 the Vinje Farms has wanted to take the step of adding livestock to the system to help increase soil health. Cattle come with a large upfront cost for the animals and the infrastructure, so we would like to prove that the benefits to soil health and the value of pounds of beef produced outweigh these startup costs.

From the Ground Up farm would like to add grass fed beef to its pastured pork and pastured poultry offerings, but does not have the land base to add this enterprise. We would like to prove to area land owners that it would be beneficial to partner with us to grass finish cattle.

The overall benefit to the region (where use of cover crops is just starting to take off and integration of livestock is a possibility if farmers can partner with livestock operations) is to show how these approaches can be used together with the goal of improving soil health, especially on recently converted no-till soils. Soils in the Red River Valley of North Dakota are challenging – often staying wet and cold in the spring as a result of our climate and high clay content. In addition, fertility is declining as conventional tillage practices and corn-soybean rotations are used. Having full season cover crops along with livestock to improve challenging soil conditions, while staying economically sound, is an important approach to test in this region.


We will use two 7 acre fields at the Vinje farm each year of this project. We will buy 15 cows each year for this project; we plan to acquire these cows from 3 or 4 different ranches to get a mix of ages and genetic diversity. The cattle will start the first year on field A that has been seeded to winter rye. Field B will be seeded to a cool season cover crop cocktail. The cattle will be moved to field B when the field is ready to be grazed. Field A will then be seeded to a warm season cover crop cocktail. The cattle will be moved back to field A when it is ready to be grazed. Field B will then be seeded to winter rye for grazing in year 2. When the growing season is done the cattle will be sold, hopefully some as grass-fed beef. In year 2 we will repeat the study, but use fields B and C. Field A will grow a corn crop to see if there is a yield boost after 1 year of grazing cover crops beyond what we can see in soil samples. Each year we will do soil and forage tests on each field, both grazed and ungrazed portions to determine how many nutrients are being added from full season cover crops, and grazing full season cover crops. We will also weigh each cow between moves from one field to the other to find out how much beef each cover crop produced. We think there will be a yield boost and input cost reduction in the cash crops grown after grazing the cover crops, this is something we would like to look into in the future.

Project Objectives:
  1. Analyze the benefits to soil health of rotationally grazing cattle on season-long cover crops for both one year and two consecutive years and simultaneously measuring the weight gain of cattle per acre grazed.
  2. Benefit the environment by growing cover crops to increase the nutrients and organic matter of the soil and increase the water infiltration rate, and by grass feeding to reduce the amount of crop inputs and fuel used in the production of beef.
  3. Help farmers maximize profitability by testing which cover crops produce the most beef per acre.
  4. Produce healthy, locally grown grass fed beef for the community to consume.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Nick Vinje


Materials and methods:

Our plan was to start grazing when the rye was ready to be grazed, which would have been around May 20.  Due to some logistical issues, we did not get the cattle until June 3, at this point the rye was too mature to provide the nutrition for the cattle gains that we were hoping.  Another issue was that the steers were banded right before they were delivered, so they were fairly stressed. When they were done grazing the rye, we weighed six of the steers and they had an ADG (average daily gain) of 0.36 pounds.

We seeded the cool season mix (oats, peas, turnips, fava beans, flax, and sunflowers) on May 12.  The plan was for this to be ready to graze when we were done grazing the rye. It was not ready to be grazed until June 28.  The yield at that point was not what we had hoped for. The reasons for the low yield probably were lack of rain and seeding it into rye that was terminated a week before seeding.  Due to the low yield, we decided to set up a new paddock for them each day. We probably got 80% or more utilization out of the forage. On July 19 we ran all of the steers through the scale since we had to treat one that had a bad foot.  This also allowed us to pour some fly control on them. At this point the 6 steers that we had weighed on June 28 had an ADG of 0.71 pounds. On August 6, the steers finished grazing all 7 acres of the cool season mix, so we moved them back to the first paddock.  The regrowth yielded less than the initial growth, so we fed a hay bale to extend the time that they could graze the cool season mix. On August 20 we pulled them off of the cool season mix. From the July 19 weighing through August 20 the steers had an ADG of 2.79 pounds.  They were finally healthy and getting nutritious forage. This put their ADG while on the cool season pasture at 1.98 pounds. This also put our gain of beef per acre at 138 pounds.

Right after we moved the steers off of the rye, we terminated the rye.  On July 7, we seeded a warm season mix (cowpeas, sun hemp, sorghum sudangrass, teff annual grass, rapeseed, buckwheat, sunflowers, and turnips) into the rye stubble.  This also did not yield as much as we had hoped. Possible reasons would be lack of rain, not waiting long enough after the rye, and the rye stubble tying up the nitrogen.  Another possible is the salinity of this part of the field. The teff annual grass did not germinate, probably from seeding too deep or allelopathy from the rye. There was one sudan grass plant that germinated outside of where the rye was and it was a much bigger plant than the rest of the sudan grass.  To make the warm season mix last as long as possible, we gave the steers a new paddock each day. On September 10, they grazed the last paddock and were returned to their owner. During the 21 days on the warm season mix the steers had an ADG of 5.13 pounds. This high rate of gain was probably partly compensatory gain, and there was more than normal shrink reported by the owner as he sold them right off of the pasture.  Using the data from our scale, the gain of beef per acre on the warm season mix was 154 pounds.

Overall on the 14 acres we used, we gained 155 pounds per acre.  We were hoping for a number over 200, preferably over 300 to make this idea pencil out.

The weather at the start of year 2 did not allow us to plant the cool season mix any sooner than we did in year 1.  We did start grazing the rye on May 19, and that made for a big improvement.  51 pounds per acre were gained on the rye in year 2 versus 14 pounds per acre in year 1.

After figuring out an efficient way to give a new paddock to graze each day in year 1, we decided to do the same again in year 2 once we got to the cool season pasture.  With the steers healthier when starting the cool season pasture than they were in year 1, they gained 161 pounds per acre instead of the 138 that they gain in year 1.

Since we did not get the cool season mix planted earlier, we were not able to pull the steers off of the rye any earlier, so we did not get the warm season mix planted earlier.  If we were doing this on a larger scale we would split the warm season pasture in half and seed half of the pasture around June 20 to hopefully get a better yield and to lengthen the amount of time that we could graze the pasture that the steers gained the best on both years.  We did not get much rain from when the warm season pasture was planted until August 13.  The pasture was not ready to be grazed and we were out of forage on the cool season pasture, so we decided to remove half of the steers by sending them back to their owner.  The other half we moved to the 3 acres of perennials in Nick's back yard to buy us a couple of weeks to see if the rain in the forecast would be enough to get the warm season pasture to grow.  On August 25 we decided that there was enough growth to start grazing the warm season pasture.  The gain from the 6 steers on the warm season pasture was 134 lbs/acre.  This is less than the 168 lbs/acre that we got in year 1, but we also did not have the steers from the original source that were gaining more per day than the ones that we kept. 

This table shows gain per acre by pasture and year.  Total is the sum of all 3 divided by 2 since the rye and the warm season were on the same acres.

Pasture Year 1 Year 2
Rye 14 51
Cool Season 142 161
Warm Season 154 134
Total 155 173

This table shows gain per day for each pasture by source of steers.  "Original source" and "New source" are both for year 2.

Pasture Year 1 Original source New source
Rye 0.37 1.40 0.55
Cool season 1.81 2.35 1.54
Warm season 5.13 N/A 3.10
Total 2.20 1.98 1.70


Research results and discussion:

Success of this project will be measured by the amount of weight added to the cattle per acre of land used to see if the value of the gain will exceed the costs.  The 155 pounds of gain per acre in year 1 did not cover the expenses.  The 173 pounds of gain per acre in year 2 was an improvement.  If we had just used steers from our original source, we project that our gain per acre would have been about 240 pounds per acre.  This number would cover the cost of the cover crops, but the land rent would need to be covered by the gain in the following crops due to improved soil health.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
1 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: We hosted a table talk at the Conservation Tillage Conference in Fargo on December 18. There were approximately 20 farmers there.

Participation Summary:

85 Farmers participated
15 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:


Abbey Wick used her twitter account to notify people of our field day and created the flyer that is linked above.  About 50 people attended our field day.




Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

We learned a lot of things during year 1 of this grant.  Timing of grazing for optimal nutrition is important, as are favorable weather conditions.  We are going to make it a priority this year to get the cattle on the rye when it is ready to be grazed.  We mixed winter wheat and hairy vetch with the rye, the thought is that this diversity will expand our optimum grazing window.  If this rye mix does start to get away from us, we will mechanically mow it to keep it from getting too mature and unpalatable. The cool season mix will be following soybeans instead of rye this year, so we are hoping that will eliminate any possible allelopathic issues we might have had.  We will make it a priority to get this cool season mix seeded earlier so that we can terminate the rye mix earlier. We would like to wait 10 days after termination of the rye before seeding the warm season mix to lessen the possibility of allelopathy from the rye. Even though the cows avoided eating the sunflowers, we will keep them in the mix for the soil health benefits.  We are going to use 2 sources of cows this year to see if different genetics perform differently.

Having another feed source, whether it be hay bales like we had, or a perennial pasture that they could be moved to is an important insurance to have if the yield or palatability are not enough to get to the next grazing window.

Year 2 was also a year of learning for us.  The weather did not allow us to seed the cool season mix earlier like we had hoped.  We did start grazing the rye earlier and that did seem to help with getting the cattle used to grazing again.  We got half of this year's steers from a different source.  These steers from the second source were a few months older and in better condition than the half that came from our original source.  During the 79 days that we had both halves, the one from the original source outgained the ones from the new source 1.98 lbs/day to 1.15 lbs/day.  This shows that the genetics, condition, and/or age are important factors in determining the viability of this project.

Since we did not get the cool season mix seeded sooner, we were not able to terminated the rye earlier, and thus seeded the warm season mix around the 4th of July again this year.  We did not receive much rain after this seeding until the 13th of August, so it was not ready to be when the cool season pasture was used up.  We made the decision to have the half owned by the original source to be taken back, and then moved the half from the second source to a perennial pasture for a couple of weeks to see if we could catch some rain.  Once the warm season pasture got some rain and started growing we put the remain steers on it and they did very well, gaining 3.10 lbs/day.  This reiterated the fact that having a backup plan is important.  With half of the steers, we did not get all of this pasture grazed before we sold the steers on September 25.  We decided to sell at that point as the weather forecast was calling for a freeze and we were worried about the sedan grass freezing a becoming toxic to the steers.

If we were to do this on a larger scale we would probably split the warm season pasture in half and get half of it seeded around the 20th of June to increase the yield, and the amount of time we would be grazing the warm season mix as both years the steers gained the most on that mix.

We took soil samples in the fall of 2016, 2017, and 2018.  The results of these tests were kind of random, and did not show a consistent improvement from year to year as we expected.  It would probably take more time than a two year study to show improvements on a soil test report.

Nick grew soybeans in year 2, on the paddock that was used for the rye and warm season mix in year 1.  The soybeans looked and seemed to be better than normal for that field, but without historical data, we cannot quantify how much better.  We hope to learn more by observing how well the crops on this land performs over the next few years.

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.