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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Help farmers maximize profitability by testing which cover crops produce the most beef per acre.
- Produce healthy, locally grown grass fed beef for the community to consume.
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, faba 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, sunn 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.
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. In year 1 they did not. We plan to change some things for year 2, so hopefully our results are better.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Abbey Wick used her twitter account to notify people of our field day. About 50 people attended our field day.
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.