Developing Partnerships between Southern Michigan Cash Crop Farmers and Northern Michigan Livestock Producers

Final Report for FNC97-168

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The Villa-Miller Farms, operated by Henry E Miller, is located in St. Joseph County MI. Because of its sandy soils and available water for irrigation this southwest Michigan area has become a prime area for growing specialty crops. Villa-Miller Farms dedicates approximately one half of its 1200 acres to the contract production of seed corn, one fourth to the production of processing snap beans, and the remaining one fourth is rented to other producers for the production of potatoes, cucumbers, and/or carrots. For many years it has been standard practice to incorporate cover crops, minimum till, no till, integrated pest management and reduced rates of herbicides in an effort to make the operation more sustainable. In 1995 the operation moved from roughly 90% of its acreage in seed corn production to the above described crop mix, rotating crops each year so potatoes and snap beans return to a field only every fourth year and seed corn is planted in a filed every other year. This rotation has made our weed control much better as well as spreading out the work load. Early harvested vegetable crops are followed with oats as a cover crop which winter kills and provides an excellent seed bed for planting the following seed corn crop. Later harvested crops (harvested after September 1) are followed with a cereal rye cover crop which is either burned down for no tilling seed corn or tilled to destroy the rye for planting the potato or snap bean crop.

Richlo Dairy Farms:
This 1100 acre hay and grazing operation includes 60 ewes, a 200 cow dairy and a 20 cow beef herd. Bull calves are raised and sold as feeders, and all stock are rotationally grazed for the five month grazing season. All grain is purchased. The farm is a partnership between brothers Jonathan, Roderick and Wendell Miller. Conservation and sustainability is emphasized through grazing, sod seeding and a manure management system that has eliminated all fertilizer purchases.

Michigan’s soils and climatic conditions are a varied as the agricultural commodities it produces. In the southernmost part of the state soils are sandy and vulnerable to ground water contamination. This part of the state, especially St. Joseph County is heavily irrigated for producing high value specialty crops. These short season crops, especially early harvest potatoes or single crop snap beans, offer a window of opportunity for establishing cover crops, which can provide a ground cover that limits wind and soil erosion while recycling nutrients.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has a grown livestock industry, but a short growing season, which limits the grazing season and the species that can be grown. Livestock farmers who graze their animals often do not have the right cropping sequence for introducing cover crops, yet need new avenues for lengthening their grazing season. This situation offers a unique opportunity for a farmer partnership that could be created between a St. Joseph County cash crop farmer and an Upper Peninsula dairy farmer. This partnership would be used to create a model of economic efficiency around a cover crop/grazing system.

This project addressed the questions: 1) which cover crops are best suited for fall/winter grazing, 2) does grazing influence seed corn production, and 3) what are the economics of renting grazing ground in lower Michigan? There were three primary goals for the project.
1) To evaluate several cover crop cultivars for fall/winter grazing following early potato harvest
2) To determine weight gain and economics of fall/winter grazing systems for livestock
3) To measure the influence of rotational grazing on seed corn yield

On August 10, a 140 acre potato field was seeded with cereal rye and 120 acres of this field was also seeded with oats by broadcasting each with a fertilizer spreader. About tow thirds of the field was disked to incorporate the seed before we received heavy rains which caused the remaining seed to germinate on the surface before being incorporated. The rye was seeded to provide on going ground cover after the fall/winter grazing while the oats was intended to provide the bulk of the forage production. A 5 acres area of a single crop snap bean field was used to evaluate cover crops which according to Dr. Richard Leep, forage specialist, and Dr. Dale Mutch, cover crop specialist, both at Kellogg Biological Station with MSU Extension, showed the most grazing potential. On August 27th strips of crimson clover, forage turnips, rape, triticale, wheat and oats were seeded. Another 75 acre field of single crop snap beans was seeded on August 22nd: twenty acres to cereal rye, forty five acres to oats, and ten acres to an oats forage rape mix. These seedings were intended primarily to provide fall and early winter grazing as the oats would winter kill and lose its palatability by early January. The cereal rye would not provide significant fall forage but would provide good ground cover and excellent spring forage.

For winter grazing we decided to try seeding brassicas in seed corn. A mix of brassicas (2 forage rape: 1 forage turnips) was broadcast into the seed corn at the rate of five pounds per acre when the male rows were destroyed on August 14, 15 and 24. A total of 210 acres were seeded with this mixture and another 45 acres were over seeded with cereal rye. The mixture was seeded using two spinner seeders mounted on the high boy used to destroy the male rows. This system although functional was less than ideal as an extra person was required to assure the operation of the seeders.

As it turned out, the early seeded oats did not grow very well. We eventually concluded that this was due to inadequate nutrients, especially nitrogen which apparently has almost completely been depleted by the potato crop or leached by the heavy August rains we experienced in 1997. We attempted to rectify the problem by applying nitrogen by chemigation but had lost valuable growing days so the oats forage production was not up to our expectations. To insure adequate forage supplies, as well as to supplement the grazing should the snow get too deep to permit adequate grazing, 467 tons of shucklage (corn husks and other waste from the nearby seed corn plant) were purchased and ensiled.

Due to an extremely dry summer in Engadine, the cattle were moved south earlier than originally planned. One semi load was hauled on September 11, a second on September 17 and a third on October 13 brining a total of 200 head of cattle ranging in size from nursing calves to 1600 pound beef cows. In addition, 6 calves were born, one in November, one in February, and four in April. The removal of these cattle extended the grazing season for those cattle left in Engadine.

The cattle were split into two groups. The forty seven smallest cattle (excluding nursing calves) were fed grain to achieve the desired growth rates. In January the number getting grain was reduced to thirty eight. In March all the cattle were brought together and grain feeding was discontinued. The cattle were grazed on the earliest seeded oats first, and then moved to the later seeded oats. Starting in November, the larger cattle were moved to the corn stalks under seeded with brassicas or cereal rye. By January 4th all the oats had been grazed.

Due to an unusually warm February, the cereal rye and brassicas began to grow. By the end of March, the cattle were able to graze, and get sufficient pasture to reduce the need for supplementation. By April 9, cereal rye growth was sufficient to provide all the feed needed.

The cattle’s observed preference for different forages varied with the season. The oats was the preferred feed in the fall. After several frosts, the cattle’s preference shifted from oats to rape. The late seeded oats, however, remained palatable until January. When grazing the brassicas, the cattle’s preference was rape, then turnip greens, and bulbs last. The brassicas deteriorated through the winter, with the turnip greens going the fastest. By the first winter thaw, the turnip greens had deteriorated completely. The bulbs, however, remained edible until spring, even though some turned mushy. The cereal re was very palatable throughout the fall/winter grazing season, but the growth was not significant until spring. Forage tests showed that the nutrient values were typical for the species.

In the trial plots, crimson clove did not produce significant forage for grazing. Triticale was similar to try in growth and palatability. Wheat was similar to cereal rye except it produced somewhat less forage. A strip of oats was left ungrazed all winter to measure quality. A forage sample taken December 18 measured 14.7% protein and 70% TDN. A sample taken in late March showed that quality had declined to 10% protein. The oats was grazed at that time, but was not preferred feed. This suggests that a basic grazing program could be oats in the fall, brassicas and corn stalks in the winter, and cereal rye in the spring.

Another trial done this year was the broadcasting of the brassica mix into second crop snap beans on August 27th. The beans were harvested in early October and a cereal rye cover crop was seeded in the rest of the field. Neither the brassicas nor the cereal rye grew sufficiently for fall or winter grazing. Grazing would have been possible in the spring. The decision was made not to graze this and risk compaction which would have made tillage necessary to prepare an adequate seed bed for the seed corn crop. Instead roundup was used to burn down the cereal rye and the seed corn was no tilled into the cover.

In an attempt to determine what if any affect grazing of cover crops would have on the subsequent crop, we set up five ungrazed plots from which yield checks were taken of the subsequent seed corn crop. These yields were compared to the yields of the seed corn on the adjacent grazed area. The results, although suggestive of a slight depression on the grazed area seems to be inconclusive. See the chart below.

Plots harvested on September 27, 1998
6 rows 440 feet long were harvested for each trial
Corn moisture was 33%

Comparison number, grazed, ungrazed, grazed/ungrazed
1, 2140 lbs, 2055 lbs, 1.041
2, 1550 lbs, 1600 lbs, 0.969
3, 1890 lbs, 1950 lbs, 0.969
4, 1730 lbs, 1740 lbs, 0.994
5, 1410 lbs, 1480 lbs, 0.953

It seems we need further testing to confirm or discard the slight trend of yield depression. We plan to again do replications of these plots in the 1999 seed corn field which is being grazed this fall.

In the following table the expense and income of the grazing program are compared to the expense which would have been incurred in the cover crop program in the absence of the grazing program.

1997 crop, 1998 crop, non-grazing program, grazing program, extra cost of grazing program
- Potatoes, Seed corn, oats cover crop fall disking no till seed corn cover burn down, oats and rye cover fall disking spring chisel plow field cultivate 2X, $24.00/A
- Snap bean, Seed corn, oats cover crop fall disking no till seed corn cover burn down, oats cover crop fall disking spring chisel field cultivate 2X, $17.50/A
- Seed corn, Potatoes, cereal rye cover fall disking, rape and turnips, $-7.00
- Seed corn, Snap beans, cereal rye cover fall chisel spring field cult 2X, cereal rye by plane spring chisel field cultivate 2X, $1.50

Based on the acres of each category the extra cost incurred in the grazing program for 1997-1998 was $3892. With the grazing revenues being $9000 this left on income of $5108 or approximately $11.60 per acre. We do not have good information on how much of this income should be attributed to each cover crop. Looking at the table it certainly suggests that this information is needed to fine tune the program for maximum efficiency and returns.

The question of weight gain and economic returns to fall grazing was not clearly answered by this project. The scales used for weighing the cattle overestimated the weights of the cattle by varying amounts, as was shown when a group of steers were sold in December. Since no weights can be verified, we are not reporting any weight gains.

The benchmark used for economic analysis is that the average cost for custom raising replacement dairy heifers is about $1.50 per day in Michigan. The total number of grazing days was 31,680 broken down as follows:
Nursing calves 1816
Grain fed calves 6441
Others 23423 (heifers, steers, and beef cows)

The cost of a nursing calf would generally be covered by the charge for its mother, so the total estimated value of the grazing season was $44,796.

The expenses break down as follows:
Cattle hauling - $4,448.40
6 semi loads - $4,298.40 (3 south and 3 north)
Local hauling - $150.00

Fences - $1163.51
Wendell built approximately 2 ¼ miles of hi tensile fencing, about 1/3 3 strand, the rest 1 and 2 strand. Also available for the grazing projects were 4 ¾ miles of fencing, enclosing 224 acres, built the previous year. Included in this expense are about 2 ½ miles of portable fencing and a couple of miles of portable fencing were brought from Richlo Dairy.

Water - $1294.14
Wendell paid Henry $1000 for the use of his truck to haul water. Two garden hoses, approximately 400 feet of ½ inch tubing, one water tank, hose fittings, etc. were purchased.

Cattle hauling equipment - $3273.85
A sweep tub and gates to catch the cattle for weighing, breeding, etc., plus a trailer to move the tub and gates, were purchased.

Supplemental feed - $10,603
2802 – 467 tons of shucklage
810 – bulldozer hire to pile and pack the shucklage for ensiling
3935 – equipment hire to haul the shucklage to the cattle, and clean up the left over feed.
1100 – purchase of a self unloading wagon to haul the feed to the cattle
1956 – 16.1 tons of grain (corn and soybean meal; the ration varied according to the quality of the pasture)

Other expenses - $12,800
Grazing fee – 9000
Wintering – 1000
Henry’s labor – 1000
Irrigation – 500
Irrigation repairs – 300
Other hired labor – 1000

The total expenditures, excluding all capital expenditures, is $28,100, leaving $16, 696 to cover animal care, breeding, depreciation, and returns to labor and management. Wendell spent 8 months away from home caring for the cattle and incurred slightly higher living expenses; therefore the project was probably not profitable to the grazer this year.

Examining the expenses individually shows the potential for profit. The value of grazing was based on $40 per ton, or $.40 per day for a 1000 lb heifer. This is higher than normal grazing fees, but considering that the alternative at that time of the year is stored feed, the price is not high. The cost of hauling a heifer (round trip) is about $.11 per day, if spread over a 200 day grazing season. Water costs vary, but would be minimal if a well were available.

The cost of fencing is minor if the fences are used for several years. The materials to build 3 strand hi tensile fences cost about $.13 per foot, considerably less if existing post can be used. The major cost is labor, but in this case Wendell needed to stay with cattle anyway. All portable fences can be reused.

Thus, the costs of grazing could be kept to $.50 - $.60 per day. The system needs to be refined to minimize all the other expenses that caused the profit to disappear.

The supplemental feed was a major expense, particularly the equipment hire. It does not appear to be profitable to invest capital and management in two feeding systems, so the goal for next year will be to minimize the need for supplemental feed; that is, to match the number of cattle with the feed supply. Thus the learning process continues for another year.

Credit needs to be given to a number of individuals who assisted in the design and implementation of this project:
- Maury Kaercher, MSU Extension Regional Livestock Agent for advice on the focus of the project and making a scale available and assistance in weighing the cattle.
- Rod King, St Joseph County MSU Extension Director for encouragement and assistance in weighing cattle.
- Lyndon Kelley, MSU Extension Ag Agent for assistance in weighing cattle.
- Dr. Dale Mutch, MSU Extension District IPM Agent for assistance in the design of the project and advice on writing the grant application as well as his assistance in weighing the cattle.
- Dr. Richard Leep MSU Extension Forage Specialist for his help in evaluating and choosing forage species as well as the information gathered from this research on soil compaction and forage production and evaluation.
- Alan Snyder and Dan Bainbridge, employees of Villa-Miller Farms, for their help in moving, handling and weighing cattle.

1) Hosted a pasture walk for the Kalamazoo area group on November 13, 1997. About 30 people attended.
2) Featured in the cover story in Michigan Farm and Country Journal (Vol. 2, Issue 3, pg. 78) along with MASA’s research results.
3) Poster presented at the 4 state SARE conference, “Profitable Farming in a Changing Environment”, February 11-12, 1998 at Byron, OH
4) Henry and Wendell were speakers at the “Farmer to Farmer” cover crops program at Kellogg Biological Station
5) Henry Miller participated in a panel discussion on sustainable at MSU on March 12, 1998


Participation Summary
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.