Progress report for LNC20-440
Although Wisconsin cover crop acreage has been increasing, with a 10% jump in planted acres between 2012 to 2017 (USDA-NASS, 2019a), grazing cover crops is not yet common practice. Therefore, it presents an opportunity to introduce these combined management options onto livestock farms that currently use little or no rotational grazing or cover crops. Onto Greener Pastures with Rotational Grazing and Cover Crops is an education outreach project that will focus on demonstrating the value of cover crop grazing for soil health improvement, increased economic benefits, and nutrient runoff reduction.
Over the last 50 years, nitrate and phosphorus concentrations increased in many Midwest water bodies, specifically those in agricultural watersheds (EPA, 2017; WiDNR, 2017). Though Wisconsin’s short growing season does not provide an ideal window of opportunity to incorporate cover crops, there are cropping systems where it is conducive and critical to improving soil health and water quality. This collaboration will use the voice of champions to share feedback on grazing cover crops, to build confidence among other graziers. Our goal is to expand acreage in Wisconsin planted to cover crops and rotational grazing by providing conservation guidance and motivation to graziers on the combined use of these practices, resulting in a more resilient agricultural system.
Experienced graziers from Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group (SSWIG) will partner with Sand County Foundation (SCF) and the University of Wisconsin (UW) to share their knowledge during field days and a webinar, document economic and environmental outcomes in two-page case-study publications, and provide a video interview. These resources will reach local (and national) graziers who have been interested in grazing cover crops but hesitant due to uncertainties about their efficacy in improving soil health, return on investment, and ability to establish cover crops. Our efforts will increase awareness, opportunity, and confidence in implementing cover crops with alternative grazing management using local demonstrations. Demonstrations will focus on documenting the benefit that livestock grazing has on the establishment and growth of cover crops, which is critical to overall system efficacy. Soil and environmental data will serve as critical calibration data for cover crops modules in agroecosystem simulation models in our USDA Sustainable Agricultural Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP) project, Grassland 2.0-An agroecological transformation plan for perennial grassland agriculture. Outcomes will include full agronomic accounting to capture improvements in farm finance stability, soil properties and environmental benefits generated with alternative grazing management systems.
Document full agronomic benefits of livestock grazing on growth and establishment of cover crops: We will demonstrate the value of cover crop grazing for soil health improvement, increased cost efficiency, and nutrient runoff reduction.
Overarching Learning Outcome: Through personal stories and modeled outputs, graziers understand benefits of rotational grazing cover crops on farm finances, agronomics, and ecosystem health.
Overarching Action Outcome: Farmers employ more cover crops and graziers incorporate alternative grazing management systems that include rotational grazing cover crops.
Over the last 50 years, nitrate and phosphorus concentrations have increased in many Wisconsin water bodies, and other Corn Belt states, specifically those in agricultural watersheds (Lathrop et al., 1998; EPA, 2017; WiDNR, 2017; Motew et al., 2019). Cover crops decrease the time that fields are left bare, potentially decreasing soil erosion and particulate nutrient loss in surface runoff and nitrate leaching losses (Snapp et al., 2005; Tonitto et al., 2006; Kaspar et al. 2007; Acuña et al., 2014). Though Wisconsin’s short growing season does not provide an ideal window of opportunity to incorporate cover crops, there are cropping systems where it is conducive and critical to improving soil health and water quality (Krueger et al., 2011; Wilson et al., 2014; Blanco-Canqui et al., 2015; Poeplau and Don, 2015; Cates and Jackson, 2018). For example, fields harvested earlier than conventional row crops such as those planted as winter wheat, hay, corn silage, or older alfalfa are optimal for cover crops – especially if they have been or are being used for livestock grazing. Although corn silage harvest date varies, once harvested all residue is removed from the field leaving several months of bare soil conditions, often with a manure application (Pratt et al., 2014). When well established, cover crops can armor the soil to reduce winter and spring erosion and nutrient loss, while improving soil health by maintaining living roots longer throughout the year (Martínez-García et al., 2018).
Overall soil health can also be enhanced through the adoption of improved grazing management practices, such as rotational grazing (Byrnes et al., 2018; Dahal et al., 2020). Water quality improves as the pasture vegetation becomes denser and the soil conditions improve (Vadas et al., 2015). Cover crop grazing can extend the grazing season by providing high quality forage in early spring and through late fall, reducing supplemental feed expenses for graziers. This financial piece is timely, as an increasing number of small dairy operations across the North Central Region have been struggling to survive. This year, for example, Michigan had one of the largest percentage drops in dairy farms (13%), while Wisconsin lost over 700 (6.5%) (USDA-NASS, 2019b). When properly established, grazing the forage can offset costs while improving the longer-term soil health to improve the system resiliency and increase future yield. Although cover crop acres in Wisconsin have been increasing, with a 10% jump in planted acres between 2012 to 2017 (USDA-NASS, 2019a), grazing cover crops is not yet common practice (Singer et al., 2007).
This presents an opportunity to introduce these combined management options onto livestock farms that currently use little or no rotational grazing and limited or no cover crops. Over the past several years, Sand County Foundation has engaged in conversation with graziers across Wisconsin who have inquired about grazing management and grazing cover crops. To address some of the current questions and needs of regional graziers, the project team will collaborate with graziers and grazing specialists to demonstrate the economic and environmental benefit of managed grazing systems that focus on building soil health.
Soil health principles include 1) Minimize Soil Disturbance, 2) Maximize Soil Cover, 3) Maximize Plant Diversity, 4) Maximize Presence of Living Plants/Roots and 5) Integrate Livestock. Often soil health projects neglect the principle of integrating livestock, so sample collection from the four demonstration farms will focus on documenting the benefit that livestock grazing has on both soil properties and growth and establishment of the cover crops. Additionally, this project will examine improving the economic and environmental viability of small livestock farms, both dairy and beef.
The 2019 growing season was noted as one of the most challenging planting seasons on record due to spring flooding and persistent rainfall across the North Central Region; with historic delays in corn and soybean plantings (Farm Bureau, 2019). Under current climate prediction models, soils within the region are expected to be exposed to drier conditions longer, as well as subjected to periods of more intense wetting and flooding (Melillo et al., 2014). Resilience is a measure of the soil’s ability to recover its structural form through natural processes following stresses such as raindrop impact, wetting/drying, or freezing/thawing. Soil structure, which is highly sensitive to human disturbance and management practices, is fundamental to controlling the soil health, productivity, and environmental quality of agricultural land (Singh et al., 2011).
Cover crop residues not only protect the soil surface from erosion during rainfall events, but the additional organic matter increases the soil’s water-holding capacity, improves infiltration, and reduces compaction. Increased organic matter stimulates macrofaunal activity, increasing soil aggregation and porosity (Blanco- Canqui and Jasa, 2019). Improved soil structure and porosity supports proper root growth and development, which is critical for nutrient uptake (Unger and Kaspar, 1994). Improved soil health can potentially reduce nutrient input costs, increase yield, and improve plant resilience. As the organic matter and residues are decomposed by soil microbial activity, natural organic chelate production increases. Chelates can tightly bind with cations to form an organic complex that can increase the plant availability of macro- and micro- nutrients (Clemens et al., 1990; Havlin et al., 1999).
Rotational grazing has been found to be the most profitable and environmentally beneficial system when compared against other dairy-based cropping systems (Posner et al., 1995; Dartt et al., 1999; Kriegl and McNair, 2005; Griffith and Posner, 2006; Chavas et al., 2009; Sanford et al., 2012; Hanson et al., 2013). Integrating rotational grazing with cover crops has the potential to be profitable, enhance production efficiency and improve water quality. There is a need, however, for research and training on the establishment of these management systems (Sulc and Tracy, 2007; Rojas-Downing et al., 2017).
Three factors that contribute to the decision-making process of farmers and ranchers on whether to adopt nutrient management and conservation practices into their farm operations include 1) information and awareness, 2) economic drivers, and 3) social norms (Liu, Bruins and Heberling, 2018). Farmers with high levels of self-efficacy in agricultural conservation are more likely to set conservation goals, adopt conservation practices, and adapt practices under changing conditions (Doll and Jackson et al., 2009; Bandura, 2012). Being aware of a conservation program or practice and having a positive experience or attitude associated with the program or practice is critical for acceptance and adoption (Prokopy, et al., 2019).
We focus this demonstration on spreading the voice of conservation champions through working with SSWIG graziers who already have positive experiences implementing cover crops but have not previously grazed their cover crops or would like to integrate the cover crop grazing into a new field. Farmers and ranchers are more likely to adopt practices if they have direct contact with local peers who can directly share soil and water conservation information (Prokopy et al., 2019). Science and technology can fail to effectively communicate or translate ecological outcomes in a way that is meaningful and usable to farmers (Pradhananga et al., 2017). Networking and knowledge sharing about conservation practices is a significant predictor on whether a farmer will adopt the conversation practices (Prokopy et al., 2008). When farmers and landowners are connected to community groups, they are also more likely to maintain conservation practices overtime (Prokopy et al., 2014). Therefore, farmer-to-farmer outreach is an effective method of information dissemination and field days have been identified as the quickest way to communicate new information on conservation practices (Murage et al., 2011).
The outreach throughout this three-year project will engage regional dairy and beef graziers. This will build awareness, opportunity, and comfort in implementing cover crops with alternative grazing management, which should help improve farmer profitability while enhancing water quality and reducing flooding potential across the region.
Acuña, J.C.M., and M.B. Villamil. 2014. Agronomy J. 106:860-870. Bandura, A. 2012. J. Management 38(1):9–44.
Blanco-Canqui et al., 2015. Agronomy J. 107:2449-2474. Blanco-Canqui, H., and P.J. Jasa. 2019. SSSAJ 83:1181–1187. Byrnes et al., 2018. J. Environmental Quality 47:758-765.
Cates, A.M., and R.D. Jackson. 2018. Agronomy J. 110:1-9. Chavas et al., 2009. Agronomy J. 101:288-295.
Dahal et al., 2020. Sustainability 12.
Dartt et al., 1999. J. Dairy Science 82:2412-2420. Doll, J. E., and R.D. Jackson. 2009. JSWC 64:276-285.
Clemens et al., 1990. Fertilizer Research 25:127-131.
EPA. 2017. Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force Report to Congress. Washington, D.C.
Good et al., 2018. SnapPlus 18.0. www.snapplus.wisc.edu.
Griffith, K., and J. Posner. 2006. Comparing upper midwestern farming systems. UW-Madison. Hanson et al., 2013. J. Dairy Science 96:1894-1904.
Havlin et al., 1999. Soil Fertility and Fertilizers, 6th Edition. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Kaspar et al., 2007. J Environ Qual 36:1503-1511.
Kriegl, T., and R. McNair. 2005. Pastures of plenty: Financial performance of Wisconsin grazing dairy farms. Krueger et al., 2011. Agronomy J. 103:316.
Kucharik, C.J. 2003. Earth Interactions 7:1-33.
Lathrop et al., 1998. Canadian J. Fish & Aquatic Science 55:1169-1178. Liu et al., 2018. Sustainability 10(2):432.
Luloff et al., 2011. Ecosystem Science and Management 24(12):1345-1353. Martínez-García et al., 2018. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 263:7-17.
Melillo et al., (eds). 2014. Climate change impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global change Research Program. Government Printing: Washington D.C
Moore, J. E., and D. J. Undersander. 2002. in Proc. Florida Ruminant Nutrition Symposium,UF- Gainesville. Motew et al., 2019. Science of The Total Environment 693:133484.
Oates et al., 2017. J. Visualized Experiments 125:e55310.
Poeplau, C., and A. Don. 2015. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 200:33-41. Posner et al., 1995. J. Alternative Agriculture 10:98–106.
Pradhananga et al., 2017. JSWC 72(6):639-649. Pratt et al., 2014. Agricultural Systems 130:67-76. Prokopy et al., 2008. JSWC 63(5):300-311.
Prokopy et al., 2019. JSWC 74(5):520-534.
Prokopy et al., 2014. Adoption of agricultural conservation practices: insights from research and practice. Purdue Extension. FNR-488-W.
Rojas-Downing et al., 2017. Agricultural Systems 153:157-171.
Sanford et al., 2012. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 162:68-76. Schipanski et al., 2014. Agricultural Systems 125:12-22.
Singer et al., 2007. JSWC 62:353-358.
Singh et al., (eds.). 2011. Soil Health and Climate Change, Soil Biology 29, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.
Snapp et al., 2005. Agronomy J. 97:322-332.
Sulc, R.M., and B.F. Tracy. 2007. Agronomy J. 99:335–345.
Tayyebi et al., 2016. Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 121:108-121. Tonitto et al., 2006. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 112:58-72.
Unger, P.W. and T.C. Kaspar. 1994. Agronomy J. 86:759-766. USDA-NASS. 2019a. Census of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.
USDA-NASS. 2019b. Wisconsin 2019 Agricultural Statistics. Madison, Wisconsin. Vadas et al., 2015. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 199:124-131.
WI-DNR. 2017. Wisconsin’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy 2015-2016. Madison, Wisconsin
Wilson et al., 2014. JSWC 69:67A-72A
Rotational grazing with cover crops will improve livestock and soil health, reduce nutrient leaching/runoff losses, and reduce inputs costs for the project's collaborating graziers.
Data collected during this demonstration project will be used to:
- Estimate how rotational grazing of cover crops affects cover crop growth, forage availability, and soil health.
- Estimate annualized costs of rotational grazing cover crops.
- Incorporate environmental, agronomic, and financial aspects of cover crop grazing into agroecosystem simulation models.
- Engage farmers of the North Central US to consider incorporating cover crops and re-integrating livestock into annual grain production systems.
This project is unique because we are combining outreach and demonstration with our collaboration with four graziers from the Sauk Soil and Water Improvement farmer-led watershed group (SSWIG) to estimate management specific return-on-investment values, generate erosion and nutrient losses, and collect soil health and cover crop yield data for each demonstration farm. SSWIG is comprised of more than 15 farmers located in the flood-prone area of Sauk and Columbia Counties in southern Wisconsin. The group met for the first time in 2019 and applied for a State of Wisconsin Producer-Led Watershed Protection grant, which they were awarded. One of SSWIG’s primary goals is to increase water infiltration within the watershed.
The demonstration will include a collaboration with four (4) farmers from SSWIG, field selection will be based on identifying areas that were not previously rotationally grazed with cover crops, feasible to create paddocks for rotational grazing, and manageable based on visual assessment of slope, aspect, landscape position, and hydrology. To be practical, implemented systems will not be prescriptive but will vary farm-to-farm. Demonstration fields used at each location will be based on what is conducive to the realistic management applied by each grazier depending on specific needs and capabilities. Each farm will change their management of one field to cover crop grazing and leave a control field that continues under their current management (w/out grazed cover crops). Sand County Foundation will work with each of the four farms to support their operations, both financially, as they adopt changes, and technically, to implement the cover crops into their rotational grazing management. An example provided by each grazier is summarized below.
Ron Schoepp (Schoepp Farms) will rotationally graze cover crops and corn stalks following the harvest of corn and winter wheat crops. Parts of the 19-acre field will be excluded from the grazed area, with both areas sampled for soil health parameters to quantify the difference caused by grazing. Ron has used rye as a cover crops after corn and soybeans for years. To extend the grazing season, livestock graze the corn stalks after grain harvest. He wants to demonstrate how corn stalks and cover crops can add more feed while enhancing the health of his livestock and soil. Ron plans to interseed a cover crop mix between corn rows. This should result in producing more biomass for grazing after the corn is harvested. The demonstration field has been no-tilled for over 20 years and was in soybeans last year. After harvest, wheat was no-till planted. The wheat was harvested in July 2021 and the cover crops were no-till planted early August, with hope to start grazing dairy heifers on the field in October or November.
Darren Yanke (Echo-Y Farms) will harvest winter wheat in late July and early August. He will plant the cover crop mix after harvest and proceed to put a temporary fence around the 80-acre field. Holstein heifers and/or grassfed beef will start grazing the cover crop weather permitting in October and until December, depending on the weather. The cattle will move to a new paddock every 1 or 2 days.
Roger Bindl's fields are currently planted in a corn/soybean/winter wheat rotation, with the demonstration starting in a winter wheat year. Once the wheat is harvested in August, a diverse mix of cover crop species will be planted with the intent to graze cattle in the fall once fully established. Fields planted with the cover crop mix will be grazed in the fall and monitored closely to assess the effect of the cover crop and grazing treatment. A portion of the field will be fenced off from grazing cattle to serve as a control for the study.
Ron Bula wants to see how his production changes and what economic benefits he can achieve by focusing on cattle grazing and adopting a mixture of cover crops. Similar to relay cropping methods, a cover crop mix will be planted, grazed by cattle, then no-till seeded with the next mix using a three-stage rotation: spring, summer, and fall. Ron will maintain one of his existing fields in the pre-existing crop/forage rotation without grazing. Another field will be planted with the three-stage cover crop rotation, with grazing incorporated.
Grazier Interviews and Agronomic Data
In Spring 2021, Sand County Foundation met with the four SSWIG graziers to conduct management interviews to thoroughly record their agronomic management practices. This information was used to develop a demonstration plan, but will also be used to quantify input costs, detail system management specifics, and develop a plan for grazing and cover crop termination.
The information was used to generate the four farmer profiles, which will be extended upon project completion into case-study publications. The interview included questions to understand motivations for adopting rotation grazing of cover crops.
In addition to the interview questions, agronomic data collected by the University of Wisconsin and SCF will be used as input data to estimate the economics of grazing cover crops and model environmental runoff for the four demonstration fields. For example, graziers will track grazing livestock numbers and dates so that financial savings can be calculated. Timing of planting and terminating the cover crop will be monitored. All data collected over the 2-year period will be used to help develop costs projections including seed, site preparation, fencing, fertilizer, establishment, and maintenance costs.
University of Wisconsin began to collect basic soil health and nutrient parameters during spring 2021. Cover crop and forage biomass data from each paired demonstration field and reference site were collected before and after grazing. In addition to measuring the crops and collecting samples, the Canopeo app was used to record percent ground cover.
Soil samples were collected by the UW graduate student in fall 2021, prior to the ground freezing. Total carbon, total nitrogen, and phospolipid fatty acid (PLFA) analyses are in progress, in the planning stages.
Bulk density samples were collected at each site and are being analyzed at the UW lab.
Saturo sampling for infiltration rate was attempted several times during fall 2021 period, but the instrument was malfunctioning. We are currently working on fixing the unit and will return to infiltration measurements spring 2022.
To estimate phosphorus loss in runoff, SCF has been entering agronomic data collected during the grazier interviews into the Soil Nutrient Application Planner (Snap-Plus) to provide a before and after runoff comparison of sediment and phosphorus loss from each of the four paired fields (Good et al., 2018). Snap-Plus is an agricultural nutrient management planning (NMP) tool developed by the University of Wisconsin - Madison for use in Wisconsin. SNAP-Plus has been updated over the years to be used as an agricultural conservation compliance tool through the use of a soil loss calculation output and a Phosphorus Index (PI) calculation output that indicates non-compliance with the Wisconsin Phosphorus Rule. Being true to its original purpose, Snap-Plus requires detailed agronomic inputs to run properly. This particular aspect makes it useful for agricultural compliance work, but we are finding it is not robust enough to adequately assess the adjustments the graziers have implemented in their grazing management. We will summarized Snap-Plus improvement recommendations during the next report and also identify an alternative tool for assessing environmental improvements.
Soil and environmental data collected from these demonstrations will serve as critical calibration data for cover crops modules in agroecosystem simulation models being improved in our USDA Sustainable Agricultural Systems CAP project, Grassland 2.0-An agroecological transformation plan for perennial grassland agriculture. These models include SnapPlus (widely used in Wisconsin for farm-gate nutrient management plans; Good et al., 2018), Agro-IBIS (a process-based simulation model that predicts C, N, P, and H2O flows; Kucharik, 2003), and SmartScapeTM (a landscape-level decision support tool used to understand how altering land use and land cover affects a range of ecosystem service outcomes; Tayyebi et al., 2016). The farm finance information will help populate the ‘farm-gate financials’ module of SmartScape. As part of the Grassland 2.0 project, C, N, and P losses estimated from these farm fields with and without cover crops will be used to calibrate newly parameterized SnapPlus, Agro-IBIS, and SmartScape models. The graduate student research assistant for this SARE project will work closely with the modelers from SCF and Grassland 2.0 in this effort.
Working closely with the collaborating SSWIG graziers, information gathered through their interviews, cover crop and forage biomass sampling, soil health parameter analyses, rate of return estimation and SnapPlus modeling will be integrated into four unique case-study publications.
To ensure that the project outputs are practical, actionable, and address current questions and areas of concern, the team has been collaborating with Serge Koenig and Justine Bula (Sauk County, Department of Land & Water) and Todd Reitmann (Columbia County, Department of Land & Water).
As part of Grassland 2.0, the models described previously will be used in numerous stakeholder engagement events. The primary importance of the model development is how we will use them in stakeholder engagement over the next 5 years in Grassland 2.0 Learning Hubs, which are iterative workshops convened at several local Wisconsin watersheds, the 4-state Driftless Area, and the 11-state North Central Region.
Data are still being collected.
The four farmer collaborators are early adopters and all part of a farmer-led group, Sauk Soil and Water Improvement Group (SSWIG). They have experience hosting field days and pasture walks on their farms.
By engaging experienced 'conservation champions' in the demonstration, we can collect data to answers their specific questions regarding the economic, environmental, and agronomic benefits of rotational grazing with cover crops to improve their confidence as they promote their management approach. The goal is to empower them to share their lessons learned with other farmers within their watershed group and across the north-central region.
The project team will share information about the conservation management and resulting outcomes with farmers, Certified Crop Advisors, and other conservation professionals at field days and through webinars.
Educational outputs include:
- Develop four case studies, journal article, video, and webinar to articulate personal experiences and impacts of grazing cover crops.
- Complete a field-day and collaborate in additional partner outreach events.
- Integrate soil and environmental data from demonstration farms into agroecosystem simulation models.
Educational & Outreach Activities
At the launch of the grant period, Sand County Foundation developed a press release announcing the project award. It was shared by Agri-view on April 5, 2021 and Country Today on October 9, 2020. The project was highlighted on Sand County Foundation's Facebook page on March 23, June 4th (Dairy Month), June 28, and September 24, 2021.
A project website was created in the Fall 2020. Four farmer profiles were developed in Fall 2021, to showcase each collaborator's farm management and to summarized the demonstration details for each site (see above under Project Activities). These profiles will be expanded throughout the project to build in a case study with data.
A project kick-off meeting was held in November 2020 to narrow down field locations and demonstration objectives. During this meeting it was determined that two of the original proposed site collaborators would be changed in order to ensure that the project goals aligned with the goals of the collaborating farmers.
A project advisory meeting was hosted by the project team (SCF and UW) at the Sauk County Land Resources and Environment office on January 13, 2022. Preliminary data were shared and the 2022 field season was discussed. The meeting was attended by the Farmer Collaborators, Justine Bula (Education Coordinator, Sauk County Dept. of Land Resources & Environment), Patrick Bula (Soil Conservationist, NRCS-Baraboo), Serge Koenig (Conservation Technician, Sauk County Dept. of Land Resources & Environment) and Todd Reitmann (Senior Resource Management Specialist, Columbia County Dept. of Land & Water).
- Grazing cover crops
Grazing cover crops
On December 14, 2021, one of our grazier collaborators was invited to share his experience with cover crops at a farmer meeting that was held in an adjacent watershed, that does not currently have a formal producer-led group. Twelve farmers attended representing seven farms and several hundred acres of land in the watershed. The attendees stayed beyond the scheduled end time of the meeting to continue discussing soil conservation strategies and opportunities for farmers to organize into a self-directed watershed protection group. As a member of the neighboring farmer-led group, the grazier provided personal insight and encouragement to the farmers for creating a similar farmer-led effort.