Transition of a Conventional Beef Cattle Operation to Sustainable Agricultural Beef Cattle Operation and Evaluation of Alternative Pasture Usage and Hay Field Fertilization Practices in Northeast Kansas

Project Overview

FNC04-499
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2004: $5,863.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $3,520.00
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage, feed rations, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, range improvement, grazing - rotational, watering systems, winter forage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Summary:

    INTRODUCTION AND PROJECT BACKGROUND
    The M&J Ranch is a 520 acre cattle operation owned and operated by Melvin and Joyce Williams in Northeast Kansas. The operation is located just outside of Lawrence, Kansas in Jefferson County. It is a family owned and operated farm. A son, daughter-in-law, and two grandsons currently reside on the farm and assist in all aspects of the operation.

    The operation includes approximately 220 acres of hay fields, 200 acres of pasture land with seven ponds, and 80 acres of timber. An aerial photograph of MJ Ranch is shown in Figure 1.

    [Editor’s Note: All tables and figures mentioned in this report are available on request from NCR-SARE by e-mailing: ncrsare@unl.edu or calling: 1-800-529-1342.]

    The “cow-calf” operation currently consists of approximately 50 cows that calve during each fall season. There are plans to expand the operation with additional head count. Additionally, based on the study described herein, the operation wishes to transition to sustainable agricultural practices, and possibly to a USDA certified organic producer.

    Currently, sustainable agricultural practices and/or organic farming are not prevalent in the northeast region of Kansas and have not been practiced at MJ Ranch previously.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    The purpose of this project was to explore and demonstrate that sustainable agricultural practices are viable options to producers in the Northeast region of Kansas.

    The objectives of the project were to transition a conventional cattle operation into a sustainable agricultural cattle operation, to evaluate various sustainable agricultural practices, and determine which methods produce the highest quality and yields.

    The project addressed a primary concern of potential sustainable agricultural and organic beef producers; best fertilization practices for pastures and hay fields. Additionally, alternative feeding practices (e.g., enhanced rotational grazing throughout the year, pasture-fed/vegetarian-only feeding practices, etc.) were explored and evaluated.

    Hay Field Yield and Quality Investigation
    This section of the project investigated several organic fertilization practices without the use of conventional fertilizers.

    Approximately 50 acres of a brome hay field was segmented into 12.1 acre plots as shown in Figure 2. Plot A was fertilized with Chilean nitrate at 10 gallons per acre. Plot B was fertilized by seeding hairy vetch as a cover crop using a no-till drill at ca. 20 lbs./acre. Plot C was fertilized by seeding alfalfa as a cover crop using a no-till drill at ca. 10 lbs./acre. Plot D was fertilized by seeding red clover as a cover crop using a no-till drill at ca. 20 lbs./acre. Figures 3-5 contain photographs of each type of cover crop planted: hairy vetch, alfalfa, and red clover, respectively.

    Two additional plots (Plots E and F) were also segmented as shown in Figure 6 that were fertilized with conventional fertilizer at 240 lbs/acre of 30-10-0 (N-P-K) to serve as control plots.

    Table 1 and Figures 7 give the yield results for the hay field fertilization study. Yield was measured in bales per acre. Large round bales (ca. 5 ft. x 5 ft.) were collected from each plot and counted. The results showed that, on average, the organic fertilization practices gave a yield of approximately 45% of that of conventional fertilization practices. Of the organic fertilization practices, the use of red clover appeared to give the highest yield. Additionally, the yield during this study in 2005 was slightly higher than that of the previous year (2004) when no fertilization was conducted on this field (2.39 vs. 2.21 bales per acre).

    Table 2 and Figure 8 give the hay quality results for the hay field fertilization study. Crude protein and relative feed value were used as measures to assess hay quality. The results showed that the hay quality in terms of crude protein and relative feed value were higher using the organic fertilization practices than the conventional fertilization practices. Of the organic fertilization practices, the interseeding of the vetch, alfalfa, and red clover gave increased crude protein values over the fields fertilized with Chilean nitrate and conventional fertilizer. Not surprisingly, the field interseeded with alfalfa gave the highest relative feed value. Values for alfalfa-only hay are also given for 2004 for comparison purposes.

    Table 3 and Figure 9 show the soil analysis data for the hay field fertilization study for 2004 (prior to the study) and for 2005 (after the study was completed. The pH levels, phosphorus content (P), and potassium content (K) were all slightly elevated in 2005 when compared to the levels in 2004.

    One complicating factor to consider during the interpretation of these data was that the experimental field (especially Plots B, C, and D) used during this study developed a relatively strong stand of red clover naturally in 2005 that was not present in 2004.

    Evaluation of Rotational Grazing Practices
    This section of the project involved evaluation of enhanced rotational grazing and watering practices.

    Funds were used to segment existing pastures into four additional subplots. Figure 10 gives an aerial view of the pasture showing where the additional fencing was installed. Figure 11 shows a photograph of some of the new fencing installed. Approximately 5,163 linear feet of new cross fencing was installed to allow for enhanced rotational grazing.

    Funds were also used to purchase a “hay unroller” to allow for winter feeding in the pastures throughout the operation instead of in small areas and/or confinement in feed lots. Figures 12-14 show photographs of the use of the hay unroller during winter feeding. This allowed for a more homogeneous distribution of manure and urine throughout the pastures during winter, rather than the buildup typically seen with the conventional practice of confining the cattle to smaller feed lots during the winter. This practice was observed to be advantageous not only from an environmental perspective, but also as a fertilization practice for the existing pasture land.

    Additionally, funds were obtained outside the scope of this project from the Kansas Rural Center to fence existing ponds and to add watering tanks outside the pond perimeter. This allows the cattle to water outside the ponds and reduces pollution and run-off into the waterways (i.e., Stranger Creek Basin). Figure 15 shows a photograph of a one of these watering tanks at MJ Ranch.

    Cattle weight gain and health records were maintained before and during this project. Table 4 and Figure 16 show the data for weight gain obtained for six steers for 2004 (prior to the initiation of this project) and for 2005 (during the conduct of this project). No significant differences were observed in the weight gain of steers.

    Table 5 show the data for adverse health incidents in the cattle for 2004 prior to the initiation of this project) and for 2005 (during the conduct of this project). There did not appear to be any adverse affects to the health of the cattle during the conduct of this project. The out break of pink-eye disease is relatively typical in Northeast Kansas during the summer time. No observations of this disease during 2004 was actually considered atypical.

    Evaluation of Vegetarian-Only (Natural) Feeding Practices
    This section of the project involved the evaluation of vegetarian-only or natural feeding practices. Funds were used to plant an additional 20 acres of alfalfa hay. This allowed for the supply of more protein into the cattle’s diet and allowed for the reduction of conventional supplementary feed in the cattle operation. Table 2 shows the hay quality data for a typical alfalfa field in comparison to that of the typical brome hay fields. Both the crude protein and relative feed values are significantly higher for alfalfa hay. Figure 17 shows a photograph of the newly planted alfalfa field.

    Cattle weight gain and health records were maintained before and during this project. Table 4 and Figure 16 show the data for weight gain obtained for six steers for 2004 (prior to the initiation of this project) and for 2005 (during the conduct of this project). No significant differences were observed in the weight gain of steers.

    Table 5 shows the data for adverse health incidents in the cattle for 2004 prior to the initiation of this project) and for 2005 (during the conduct of this project). There did not appear to be any adverse affects to the health of the cattle during the conduct of this project. The out break of pink-eye disease is relatively typical in Northeast Kansas during the summer time. No observations of this disease during 2004 was actually considered atypical.

    OUTREACH
    On Wednesday, September 28, 2005, the Jefferson County Grazing Tour came to MJ Ranch for a field day to discuss the results presented herein. Twenty-six people from the region attended. Presentations were given by Melvin Williams, Joyce Williams, and Mark Williams on the producer grant and the results obtained. Presentations were also given by Jefferson County Extension office and the Kansas Rural Center. A tour of MJ Ranch including stops at the project field plots was also provided. Figure 18 shows some photographs taken during the field day. A copy of this report is on file at the Jefferson County Extension office.

    CONCLUSIONS
    The results of this study demonstrate that sustainable agricultural practices can readily be incorporated into conventional beef cattle operations. More specifically, the following conclusions were made from the various aspects of this project:

    The hay field yield and quality investigation showed that the use of red clover as a “cover crop” or “green manure” gave a higher yield than other methods of organic fertilization; however, the yields obtained using these organic fertilization practices were approximately one-half of those obtained using conventional fertilizer. Hay quality was improved in terms of crude protein and relative feed value using various cover crops.

    The use of enhanced rotational grazing practices and the practice of feeding cattle during the winter with the use of the hay unroller rather than in more confined space allowed for a more environmentally friendly operation with no adverse affects to the health of the pastures or cattle.

    The use of vegetarian-only feeding practices did not appear to have an adverse affect on the weight gain or health of the cattle.

    ACKNOWLEGEMENTS
    The M&J Ranch would like to thank the North Central Region SARE Office for the opportunity to conduct this research and Mr. Jerry Jost, Kansas Rural Center, and Mr. David Halluer, Jefferson County Extension Agent, for their collaboration on this project.

    Project objectives:

    To study the feasibility of transitioning a conventional operation to a more sustainable operation by implementing a rotational grazing system, comparing commercial fertilization of brome pastures to utilizing cattle manure, and inter-seeding legumes to provide nutrients to the soil.

    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.