Expanding Partnerships between Southern Michigan Cash Crop Farmers and Northern Michigan Livestock Farmers

Final Report for FNC98-202

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
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 field every other year. This rotation has made 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 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 crops.

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 as varied as the agricultural commodities it produces. In the southernmost part of the state soils are sandy and vulnerable to groundwater contamination. This part of the state, especially St. Joseph’s 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 growing 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.

Last year’s project was to examine this partnership as it could be used to create a model of economic efficiency around a cover crop/grazing system. The goal of this year’s extension on the SARE grant was to expand the partnership between cash crop farmers and grazers by generating data that would be useable by other farmers wishing to set up similar partnerships. Specifically, the goals of this year’s project was to use more cover crop cash crop combinations, measure the harvestable yields of the cover crops, measure the yields of cash crops after grazing, and measure the rate of gain of cattle on the various cover crops. This is the data we believe would be most helpful in expanding partnerships between grazers and cash crop farmers.

Five fields were used for grazing in the 98-99 season. Field A was a 160 acre potato field with an oats cover crop. 60 acres were seeded in early August, and about 40 acres were seeded in mid August. 60 acres of potatoes were not harvested, so they were disked up for the cattle to eat. At the same time, rye was broadcast as a cover crop (it was too late I the growing season to provide any grazing). Fields B, C, and D were seed corn overseeded with brasiccas in early August. Field E was an early harvested seed corn field with a wheat cover crop disked in.

The grazing season started September 26, with the first semi-load of 61 cattle. A second load of 85 were added on October 10, and a trailer of 14 on November 5. Most of the cattle were stockers and heifers, but several mature beef cows were included and a few calves. The average beginning weight was 620 lbs. The number of cattle varied thru the grazing season. Six calves were born, and some cattle were removed, including 12 heifers taken back north on December 24. The weights of cattle brought in and removed were measured as accurately as possible. The yields of the fields were calculated based on a dry matter (DM) consumption of 2.5% of bodyweight.

On November 6, the cattle were sorted into two groups. About 40 of the smallest cattle were fed until March 28. The number fed and the amount of grain fed varied depending on the weather and forage conditions. A total of 46,300 lbs of grain were fed over the winter. In addition, 52 round bales of hay were fed to supplement the pasture during storms and deep snow. About 10% of the hay was assumed to have been wasted, and they hay was assumed to be 90% DM. therefore, the hay provided 21320 lbs DM.

The cattle grazed on oats and potatoes until December. The cattle were given access to the potatoes for several hours each day. The oats was strip grazed for maximum utilization. This particular field had had a turnip rape cover crop the pervious year, so a few turnips and rape plants grew volunteer. Due to grazing and early spring tillage, no plants had gone to seed in the spring, so it may be assumed that the volunteer plants were due to a few hard seeds, or seeds which did not make good soil contact to germinate the previous summer. As in pervious years, the cattle did not initially prefer the brassicas, but as the oats aged, preference shifted to brassicas. So we conclude that oats make the best early grazing.

Unfortunately, the early planted oats matured sooner than the cattle were able to graze it all. The bottoms of the plants were very fibrous and unpalatable. Because of strip grazing, the cattle were forced to top off the more edible parts of the plants and thus continue to use more of the field, but the process was labor intensive. The later planted oats did not mature, but did not yield well. This is probably due to the extra growth of the potatoes removing more nutrients, and micronutrient deficiencies. Because of need to move the cattle to the brassica fields before Christmas and possible winter storms, about 20 acres of oats were left ungrazed. Overall, the 140 acres of oats and potatoes that were grazed yielded 191,255 lbs DM (1366 lbs per acre), or approximately 106 ¼ tons hay equivalent. The average daily gain of all the cattle on the oats was 1.4 lbs.

33 grain fed calves were moved to field D on December 3. 9 more were added on December 22, where they remained until spring. All the remaining cattle were moved to field B. on February 13, that group was moved to field C. On March 27, 30 were moved to the wheat pasture. The remaining cattle were moved to field D on March 28. The cattle were removed from field D over the next 10 days. A semi-load was shipped back to Richlo Dairy on March 29. The rest were moved to field E, except for several that were sold. The brassica fields were close enough together that the cattle were moved between fields by walking. The oats and wheat fields were farther away. The cattle were moved by trailer for those moves. All loads of cattle were weighed, which allowed the calculation of the yield of the cover crop and the rate of gain of the cattle on each cover crop.

The total yield of the brassicas was 230,631 lbs DM. the field estimates were 99,959 for B (1538 lbs per acre), 99,472 (711 lbs per acre) for C, and 31,200 for D (223 lbs DM per acre). The total yield of the three fields is quite accurate, because the days grazed per field and total weight of cattle are known. The yields per filed are less accurate, as some cattle were moved between groups without being weighed. The yields for fields B and C were estimated directly based on the days and estimated weight. Field D’s yield was calculated by subtracting the yields of fields B and C from the total. Thus, the estimate of the yield of field D is less accurate. However, the yields per field certainly represent the range of yields possible when seeding brassicas in seed corn. Field B had the most open canopy, allowing the cover crop to get started, and was harvested first, giving the turnips more time to grow. Higher yields are possible, as not all the field was uniformly covered with turnip bulbs. Fields C and D were a later maturing variety, with a thicker canopy. This may have caused some of the brassica seed to be caught in the corn plants, and didn’t allow the plants to get a good start. Also, since field C was grazed after B, more deterioration of the brassicas had occurred, lowering the yield. Field D was harvested last, so had the least time to grow after harvest. This may be the lowest yield seen under normal circumstances. Later maturing, thicker canopied varieties of seed corn have lower yields of brassicas, but have more corn stover that is also available for grazing.

The brassicas were seeded at a rate of approximately 1 2/3 lbs turnips and 3 1/3 lbs forage rape per acre, but the rape produced only very minor amounts of forage for grazing. The most noticeable production from rape was at the edges of the field, as the rape seems to need more light. It also re-grew in the spring.

Because the yields of the fields were measured only as totals, the difference in yield due to planting dates could not be measured. Visual examination of the different areas within field B showed differences in turnip bulb size and density, suggesting that earlier planting dates result in higher yields. Edward Miller, Henry’s father, has a short saying regarding the planting of turnips in corn: “the 25th of July, wet or dry”. Due to a work load that has not permitted the planting of turnips on that date or earlier, the accuracy of that maxim has not yet been tested, but it does appear that as that date is approached, the turnips yield better.

The yield of the wheat cover crop was not measured. Plenty of rain and warmth made the wheat grow very well. The cattle on the pasture consumed only a portion of the feed available, so a measure of forage eaten would not estimate the forage produced.

The average daily gain of the cattle on the oats-potato pasture was 1.4 lbs per day, and 1.8 on brassicas. The grain on the oats-potato pasture was lower than desired, probably due to the maturity of the oats, which had low protein and energy content. Brassicas have a higher energy and protein content, and hold their feed value well thru most of the winter, not loosing their feed value until after several freeze-thaw cycles, usually in March. Therefore, despite colder weather, higher rates of gain were achieved during the winter.

The rate of gain was not determined on the wheat pasture because some cattle were removed without being weighted. As mentioned earlier, the abundance of wheat means that the pasture did not limit the weight gain of the cattle; the cattle were gaining at a rate limited only by their potential for growth at that time.

Winter grazing is a learning process for both people and cattle. Past experience suggests that cattle need to learn to eat turnip bulbs. Apparently due the experience of eating potatoes, the cattle are turnips very readily when given the opportunity. Also helpful are cattle that have previously eaten turnips. As this report is being written, another grazing season has started. The cattle are grazing an oats cover crop on a field that had a brassica cover crop last winter. Again a few rape and turnip plants are growing volunteer. The cattle that were grazed last winter search thru the oats and eat the turnips. The young cattle will learn to eat turnips from the older cattle.

Some experts on winter grazing talk about the need to teach cattle to graze thru snow. This was not a problem last winter, despite the much heavier snowfall than in previous winters. The winter was severe for a short period with colder than normal temperatures in late December and a 2 day blizzard that first weekend in January. Snow fell every day for the next 2 weeks, with a total snowfall of about 2 feet. In the field the snow settled to a depth of 12 to 18 inches. Nevertheless, the cattle grazed some turnips every day except the 2 days of the blizzard, even though hay was available. The probable reason was the abundant turnips under the snow. Also the previous experience of some of the cattle with winter grazing probably helped. Unwarranted concern for the hunger of the cattle resulted in more hay being fed than the cattle wanted (the hay was not wasted as the cattle were forced to eat it before being moved to a new patch of turnips). The snow melted in late January, so normal grazing continued, until March, when there was another storm. Again, more hay was fed than necessary, as feeding extra is a good precaution when a storm is in progress. After the storm is over, the hay that had actually been needed is more easily determined. As this report is being written, the cattle are grazing thru another winter with considerable less hay and grain being fed.

In an attempt to evaluate the affects of grazing on subsequent crops in the rotation we set up test plots in field C, which would be planted to potatoes following grazing and another comparison in seed corn in field A. in each case we fenced off check strips which remained ungrazed and compared the yields to the yields of plots which had been grazed in the course of the normal grazing.

In the potato trials, ten feet of a potato row was hand dug, graded, and weighed for each plot. We successfully harvested four comparisons but as in our attempts last year in seed corn we found the differences to not be significant.

Potato Plots
Plot 1 grazed, 23.5 lbs, plot 1 ungrazed, 23 lbs
Plot 2 grazed, 17.5 lbs, plot 2 ungrazed, 22 lbs
Plot 3 grazed, 27.0 lbs, plot 3 ungrazed, 23 lbs
Plot 4 grazed, 23.0 lbs, plot 4 ungrazed, 21 lbs
Grazed average, 22.75 lbs, ungrazed average 22.25 lbs

Our seed corn comparisons were also inconclusive in that we had large variations in yield from plot to plot and were a only able to harvest three of the five plots originally set up due to isolation requirements for the seed corn. The numbers did seem to favor the grazed plots but due to the relative small difference in the means and having only three plots, we could not be sure the results were not due to random variation.

Seed Corn Plots
Plot 1 grazed, 892.5 lbs, plot 1 ungrazed, 845 lbs
Plot 2 grazed, 700 lbs, plot 2 ungrazed, 650 lbs
Plot 3 grazed, 860 lbs, plot 3 ungrazed, 877.5 lbs
Grazed average, 817.5 lbs, ungrazed average, 790.8 lbs

Field E was planted to soybeans after grazing. The field was harvested with a combine equipped with a yield monitor. A ¼ mile strip along one edge of the field was left ungrazed. No difference in soybean yield was measured.

Overall, of the seven plots with yield measurements, the grazed strips out yielded the ungrazed strips by 2.8%. Combining this years results with last years results, the grazed areas out yielded the ungrazed areas by 1.0%, but all differences are probably not statistically significant, s differences between plots were larger than differences within comparisons, the grazed showed a yield advantage; in six, the ungrazed did.

A strip of field C was not planted to cover crops in an attempt to compared grazed cover crops with no cover crop. However, that strip of the field was harvested at a later date than the area which had cove crops. Therefore, no comparison was possible.

Trial plots of several cover crops were conducted in field D by Kellogg Biological Station: ryegrass, oilseed radish, winter peas, and oats with turnips/rape for a comparison. Only a few oat plants germinated, and only grew a little. The ryegrass germinated very well, and provided a good ground cover, but did not grow sufficiently in the fall to provide significant pasture. In the spring, it grew very well, so would be a good source of spring pasture. The oilseed radish and winter peas grew very well after seed corn harvest. The yields were not measured. However, due to obvious differences in size and number of bulbs, we can state that the oilseed radish out yielded all other species in the trail. Oilseed radish deteriorated early in the winter, and winter killed completely, so would only provided fall and early winter grazing.

When the plots were grazed, the cattle were observed to see if they had preferences as to which forage was better for grazing. These results are very subjective, and based on limited amounts of forage. The cattle seemed to prefer (most palatable to least preferred) ryegrass, winter peas, turnips/rape, and oilseed radish. The oats was insufficient to be grazed.

An environmental consideration is the manure produced. The cattle produced an estimated 8825 lbs nitrogen, 3590 lbs phosphorus, and 7002 lbs potash during the grazing season. This manure was distributed on over 600 acres of cropland that normally receive no manure. Had the cattle not been grazing cover crops, the manure would have ended up on fields already receiving manure.

Another environmental benefit is that grazing that cattle is that less fuel was used to harvest feed and haul manure.

In order to do the over seeding of the turnips and rape seed into the seed corn in late July it is necessary to either fly it on by airplane or to use a high clearance applicator. Since we have a Walker 44 high clearance sprayer which we also use to cut tassels as part of the detasseling process which needs to be done to produce hi-red seed, we decided to equip the machine with seeders which could be used to over seed the cover crops into the seed corn canopy. We mounted two Herd spinner seeders on a tool bar mounted to the rear of the machine, which allowed us to cover approximately 40 feet per pass. In order to control the opening and closing of the gates on the seeders we picked up several power window controls and actuators from a local junk yard and adapted the mechanisms to control the gates from inside the cab thus saving seed and the need for a second person to ride along to control the gates. It also made the seeding a much safer process. The two seeders cost $950, the tubing and brackets for the toolbar cost $65 and we spent $45 on the power window control and actuators and wire. I estimate that the installation of the seeders and controls required about 12 hours of labor to install and calibrate. Our experience has showed us that it is extremely important to be very careful to have clean seed and to be sure not to introduce any foreign material into the seeders as it can very easily plug up the seeders causing uneven seeding. The seeders must be kept covered at all times while seeding. It is also imperative to keep them dry as the seed will cake up very quickly if it becomes wet. With this setup we can easily seed 50 acres per hour, making this a very cost effective method of seeding cover crops. Since we also use irrigation we attempt to do the seeing just prior to irrigating which helps to assure quick germination. Our best results have generally been in early varieties of seed corn which are not as tall and do not shade the ground as completely as later maturing varieties. These varieties also are harvested earlier so they do not compete with the cover as long.

Acknowledgement is given to the following people who helped with the project:
- Maury Kaercher, MSU Extension Regional Livestock Agent – calculation of forage consumption and manure produced
- Dale Mutch, MSU Extension District IPM Agent, and Todd Martin – seeding and evaluation of trial cover crops
- Dr. Richard Leep and Dr. Richard Chase, MSU – design of plots for yield comparisons in potatoes
- Pioneer Seed Co. Constantine Plant – weighing of semi-loads of cattle without charge
- Prairie Crop – weighing of trailer loads of cattle without charge
- Michiana Agra – weighing of trailer loads of cattle
- Richard Miller – assistance in hand digging potatoes for yield comparisons
- Alan Snyder – assistance in care, moving, and weighing cattle
- Crooks Farm – sorting and weighing of potatoes from the yield check plots

- Develop a slide show and presented it twice. Once at St. Joseph Conservation District to 8 people and once to Michigan State University Sustainable Agriculture Network Symposium to about 40 people
- Article in St, Joseph Co. Extension newsletter
- SARE summary reports have been posted on the internet
- Informal outreach: as the project is continued, local farmers realize that the project is feasible and ask about cover crops and grazing.


Participation Summary

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.