A good definition of a ‘weed’ is simply a plant growing where it’s not wanted. Oftentimes, while the ‘weed’ may be ugly and unwanted, it’s a powerhouse of nutritious food/feed source of man or beast. At least at certain times of growth.
Thankfully, cattle, sheep, or other livestock can take full advantage of many weeds and can turn them into meat or milk and I don’t have to mow them, chemically kill them, or stress that they are there. There are times i do have to intervene, but proper grazing pressure can sure eliminate a lot of work for me.
Ironweed, multiflora rose, foxtail, honey locust, mare’s tail, ragweed, even cocklebur (though to a lesser extent) are readily eaten in whole or in part by cows. Those are only a few of the weeds they eat but those listed are some of the most egregious to a producer because if allowed to proliferate, they can shade out better quality grasses and forbes.
The huge mess I have on the farmed ground is 90% weeds on the acreage i allowed to be organically row cropped for 4 years to soybeans. I had to disk it twice and harrow it to smooth it out from the ridged till condition in which it had been left, so another year of open soil provided a perfect seed bed for weeds. There is little doubt that there is plenty of grass seeds in the soil bank, but it may take several years of strategic grazing pressure to bring it back to its pasture. I can’t say ‘former glory’, because before it was about 90% toxic endophyte fescue and that wasn’t good either.
Both calves and cows will obliterate thorny honey locust trees when the leaves are tasty and perhaps when they are the most nutritious.
TANNACHTONFARM One would think you could just pull in and start with tillage for planting crops as part of my fescue elimination project. Alas, that isn’t true in my case. Since i had subdivided the 120 acres into 6 paddocks with 2 wire hi-tensile electric wire, all this had to be wound up and stowed for replacement after 4 years as per my plan. Old fence posts and wire had to be pulled up and stacked for burning when time allows and entrance gateway had to be widened.
Dallas and I did this in a couple days of remarkable weather in November!
The second step was to watch my soil be disked and planted to organic soybeans. The contract stated that each fall after harvest either chicken litter would be applied OR cover crops would be planted for soil protection and provide plough down organic matter the following spring.
What actually happened was;
Year 1 – 2017 disking and planting to organic soybeans – ample waterways were left and of course the 20 foot minimum from perimeter (organic rules). Harvested late in fall. no cover/no manure
Year 2 – Annual rye was thrown out in the spring and allowed to grow then plough down and plant to organic soybeans – harvested in very late fall. no cover/no manure
Year 3 – Disked early, but no planting and was allowed to grow into weeds. Weeds were apparently approved by government to qualify as a cover crop for (weather) preventive planting payment.
Year 4 – Disked weeds under, planted organic soybeans, harvested in late fall and left my field with ridges from ridge tillage (extremely rough). No repair, no cover crop, no manure
Year 5 – end of contract and, in February, i moved my cows onto the 120 to start the cleanup and repair. The ridging repair was not completed, so i kept my cows shifting on this piece in hopes of keeping down the weeds for easier tillage to repair. By August, still no sign of the repair to be done, so i did it. It took two passes with tandem disk followed by a harrow and the soil is bare once again. However, there was a good amount of ragweed, cocklebur, and some grasses starting to establish which were disked under and should help hold soil in case of wind or torrential rain until young plants start popping up.
FESCUE CONTROL WITH ROW CROPPING
THOUGHTS ON LEASE CROPPING VS GRAZING YOUR OWN STOCK
There is something wrong with me that leasing and renting properties never seems to work out. Even when there is a contract with goals and procedures laid out life, weather, resources change and stuff just doesn’t happen as plan. But, by and large, my disappointments seem rooted in being too accommodating. Or maybe it’s a lack of communication though for sure i don’t hold back giving my opinions and expectations – to a fault, i’m afraid. Nevertheless, things never turn out quite the way i want.
Currently, i’ve leased 120 acres(Bowyer Farm) for organic farming for 4 years. My goals are to eliminate or drastically reduce endophyte infected toxic fescue and build organic matter through the use of cover crops. I knew going in that my renter has no intention of ever letting cattle graze the cover crops, so i can’t be unhappy about that, yet, the more i see happening and the more i read, it is clear that my soil is lacking due to the removal of animal impact.
Our contract was spelled out and ends after next year’s crop (it was a 4 year deal). I had hoped that it would be successful and that then we could move forward with working another piece and removing more fescue, but it doesn’t work.
Here are some bullet points i have:
animal impact is essential to making cover crop and soil improvements financially viable as well as building organic matter and tilth.
in a lease situation, the owner doesn’t have the power to make certain that soil is covered. (in fact, in Missouri, the owner must get permission from the tenant to even walk onto the property!) This past year, the soil did not have anything in it from November until June (except volunteer ragweed growing in the spring) and now that it’s been worked and readied for more soybeans, it still lays open to the sun, wind, and rain with prevented planting. (it’s now October 2019 and covered with weeds again). Cover crops simply don’t get planted even though that was the written goal.
I knew going in that i was incurring some opportunity costs by leasing vs grazing my own cattle on the property. I weighed that against the possibility of getting better control of the toxic fescue and giving my friend an opportunity to expand his organic cropping endeavor.
Lessees do not care for your property as you would. Trees and brush are growing rapidly in fence rows and untilled portions of the land. I still do the labor of keeping them under control and since the crop is organic, i must follow the rules of how to manage. In other words, i can’t chemically treat the plants or stumps if they are within 20 feet of the crop – So they grow and grow. It will be 7 years from the time i cut brush and treated and the time i regain control of my property.
This experiment was worth the pain since i now know that it simply is not the way i would ever do this project again. I’m especially glad I went with the organic approach despite the stumbling blocks since a conventional farmer would have slathered the soil with toxic chemicals year after year and farmed fence row to fence row and through the waterways. My friend is careful to leave ample grass strips in waterways and leaves 20 foot buffer from the fences (organic rules). At the same time this leaves at least 20 acres that is not be utilized for any purpose since he won’t allow grazing at any time. (mistakenly, i agreed to that)
The weather immediately turned into drought mode for these 3 years and I’m having to downsize my cow herd drastically to accommodate since my acres for grazing is reduced. Incredibly, this has turned to be a blessing since i’ve culled deeply (after this fall, it will have been about 40%!), no cow gets a second chance and i’ve sold a lot of older cows that i would typically try to ‘get one more calf out of.’ This year’s calf crop is the best I’ve ever had. Now if only market prices weren’t in the tank.
If i had my own farming equipment and the desire to run it, i think there is opportunity to improve the soil, increase tilth and organic matter, create better wildlife habitat, create another employment opportunity, and increase profit with combined cropping/grazing especially if a value added food crop market is developed. We actually do have all the equipment, but not the time or energy to develop the plan, work the plan, and market. The equipment mostly sits in the barn and serves as depreciating assets against income.
At the end of the day, we do the best we can and then we die. The hope is to leave a legacy of some sort – be it a physical asset, money, or wisdom. A friend recently sold his rather large farm he had promoted, taught, enjoyed, and improved with holistic, organic practices for all his life yet it sold to conventional farmers who are likely to plough it all under and row crop until it is degraded. That is sad, but life goes on. Conventional, monoculture agriculture is government supported and is primarily how a farmer makes money.
The third step is move my cattle back in and begin the repair and return to perennial pastures for regenerative ranching.
Over 4 years ago, I rolled up the fence on the Bowyer farm and hung the hi-tensile wire rolls on the posts at the end of each run and stored the fiberglass posts in the barn on pallets. At age 55, i truly was questioning this decision to have the farm organically row cropped for 4 years in a quest to eliminate or set back the toxic endophyte infected fescue which had become quite horrible to animal and wildlife health. Reminding myself that, should i live long enough, i’d be reinstalling all this fence at age 59 – and here i am doing it. Praise Yah for the strength and health to do so.
In addition to moving fences on the east 320 in preparation for more efficient and effective total grazing, I’ve been doggedly setting up this 120 for total grazing. It is supposed to start raining this evening (Wednesday) and do so for more than a week, so i’ve spent hours each good day walking out hi-tensile line, pounding in posts, clipping the wire to the posts, setting up gateways, and scrambling up and down the ditches with drop lines through the many ditches and draws on my farm.
Additionally, as i’ve been putting in fence and taking a break from pounding in posts by hand, i spend time resting by lopping out locust tree sprouts and treating the stumps with RTU. The bigger trees will require my chainsaw, but there are really, really high winds right now plus i must focus most of my limited energy on getting the fences installed. Tree and brush removal is a HUGE job considering they were allowed to grow these past 7 years due to organic certification regulations. (3 years prior to organic farming, then 4 years of farming). I’ll likely use more time, fuel and chemical (including brush spraying) getting the place back under control than would have been needed keeping it under control since the cattle will actually eat a lot of the little sprouts and brush before they can grow into trees.
The fourth step is to put numbers and thought to the final analysis.
The wrap up of working with a tenant and incorporating cropping with grazing.
I was notified after the last crop was harvested that the land was very ridged because the tenant had used a Buffalo ridge till cultivator. He asked me if I wanted him to level it back out. Not being familiar with such a practice, I said I would check it out and see if the cattle would fix it. Quickly, I discovered that even hundreds of mobbed cattle would never repair the damage done to the lay of the land and asked the tenant to fix it so that it was like as he found it.
In December nothing had been done, by spring, nothing again, so I began putting the paddock hi-tensile fences back in so I could begin managed grazing and moved the cows in as soon as there was something to graze. Despite there being primarily cocklebur, ragweed, and foxtail, there was a massive amount of grazing for the cows. They did a very good job eating the weeds and thereby keeping them short as I waited and waited for the tenant to return to fix the fields. By August, it was clear he was not going to get the job done, so between myself, my son, and a young man who was willing to work, we got the double disking followed by harrowing to smooth the ground done.
Something had to be done quickly since some of the paddocks had weeds nearly three feet tall and growing rapidly in the hot dry summer, so we pulled our old 14-foot disc out of the fence row, put on new tires, greased it up and off to the field. Double disking was required to take out all the ridges caused by the Buffalo ridge tiller used on the 100 acres of tilled soil then we followed up with a 23-foot harrow. This really did a good enough job since now the field will rest until grazing for winter stockpile in November 2023.
(After visiting with Jaime Elizondo, I may no-till a summer annual (sorghum almum) in May to provide some roots and shade for the soil. It can be grazed safely in about 30 days, then the entire field will be allowed to return to perennial pasture and stockpiled until November 2023)
Now, though my fields are once again bare to wind and sun, it was a necessary step. I did not plant any forages in the soil since I think there will be plenty of seeds already in the soil and many young plants could already be observed from summer growth.
In an ideal scenario, the field work should have been done immediately or shortly after soybean harvest of 2020 and would have been a fabulous opportunity to sneak off another crop – wheat – when grass seeds could also be thrown out. Harvest the wheat the next summer and a nice cover of grasses and forbes underneath. Field work done, living roots in the soil all winter, crop in the summer, ready to stockpile for winter grazing. But it didn’t happen! This is why i submit that to manage crop/pasture rotation and improvement the landowner must do it or maintain total control at all times.
I did not include the $8300 worth of lime spread on the place because it sort of stays there for future use though i hear that soybeans use up a lot of lime.
Remember that my main purposes for allowing the property to be farmed was to try and eliminate toxic fescue, to allow my neighbor and friend more acreage for his farming operation and I knew he would respect it as best as he could. He left ample waterways, left the steep bits unturned and did not turn the soil more than necessary, thereby hopefully not destroying microbes and mycorrhizal symbiotic relationships even after four years.
Time will tell if this has any effect on setting the fescue back. However, I was very excited to view the soil test results. Something happened with tillage, application of lime, a couple of ‘cover crops’, and soybeans. Not surprising was the reduction in organic matter, but with proper total grazing management, that’ll be set to right or better in a year or two.
Excessive growth of forages will cause too much thatch covering the soil and not allow young plants to grow through or at least set them back. Good grazing management and disturbance (cattle walking around) will help alleviate this issue.
Having no animal impact on grass pastures results in overgrowth which kills out good forages. Thankfully, managed, nonselective grazing will put this problem to rights within one growing season.
The big surprise was the release of nutrients in the soil as per this basic soil analysis. I took samples in the same spots at the same time of year and sent to the same lab with same parameters for best comparison.
All in all, the question becomes ‘would i do it again?’ The answer of course, is ‘it depends.’ Seven and eight year crop/pasture rotations have been in practice for millennia and even as soon as just 80 years ago, but the right protocols must be followed for any good results. Typically, 3 years cropping, 4 years of annual/perennial pasture/hay. However, to do this, one needs to maintain full control, which would include owning expensive machinery and someone on staff who wants to and knows how to run it and achieve the work in a timely manner.
Using biblical principle of counting the cost in advance was wise, but i neglected to realize how much it would bother me to disturb the soil in such a manner. As a friend pointed out “at the end you will know what you didn’t know.‘ And that is so true – no use lamenting the choice now, learn from it and remember.
Limited disturbance. Limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil. Tillage destroys soil structure. It is constantly tearing apart the “house” that nature builds to protect the living organisms in the soil that create natural soil fertility. Soil structure includes aggregates and pore spaces (openings that allow water to infiltrate the soil). The result of tillage is soil erosion, the wasting of a precious natural resource. Synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides all have negative impacts on life in the soil as well.
Armor. Keep soil covered at all times. This is a critical step toward rebuilding soil health. Bare soil is an anomaly—nature always works to cover soil. Providing a natural “coat of armor” protects soil from wind and water erosion while providing food and habitat for macro- and microorganisms. It will also prevent moisture evaporation and germination of weed seeds.
Diversity. Strive for diversity of both plant and animal species. Where in nature does one find monocultures? Only where humans have put them! When I look out over a stretch of native prairie, one of the first things I notice is the incredible diversity. Grasses, forbs, legumes, and shrubs all live and thrive in harmony with each other. Think of what each of these species has to offer. Some have shallow roots, some deep, some fibrous, some tap. Some are high-carbon, some are low-carbon, some are legumes. Each of them plays a role in maintaining soil health. Diversity enhances ecosystem function.
Living roots. Maintain a living root in soil as long as possible throughout the year. Take a walk in the spring and you will see green plants poking their way through the last of the snow. Follow the same path in late fall or early winter and you will still see green, growing plants, which is a sign of living roots. Those living roots are feeding soil biology by providing its basic food source: carbon. This biology, in turn, fuels the nutrient cycle that feeds plants. Where I live in central North Dakota, we typically get our last spring frost around mid-May and our first fall frost around mid-September. I used to think those 120 days were my whole growing season. How wrong I was. We now plant fall-seeded biennials that continue growing into early winter and break dormancy earlier in the spring, thus feeding soil organisms at a time when the cropland used to lie idle.
Integrated animals. Nature does not function without animals. It is that simple. Integrating livestock onto an operation provides many benefits. The major benefit is that the grazing of plants stimulates the plants to pump more carbon into the soil. This drives nutrient cycling by feeding biology. Of course, it also has a major, positive impact on climate change by cycling more carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil. And if you want a healthy, functioning ecosystem on your farm or ranch, you must provide a home and habitat for not only farm animals but also pollinators, predator insects, earthworms, and all of the microbiology that drive ecosystem function.
Horribly dry here and no chance of rain in the forecast! However, it’s perfect for disk ploughing and rota-tilling sod pastures so that they have ample opportunity for the grass that is turned up to die. On the four paddocks i’ve selected this is mostly toxic endophyte infected fescue and other weeds. Except for the 18 acres that i had tilled this spring and were involved in the annuals scheme, the remaining 32 acres is established pasture – pasture that has been grazed for at least 55 years. Tilling it up created quite a clatter on my rota-tiller. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. There basically is no topsoil on my pastures except in the low spots along ditches. Sad – very sad.
Pulled into the first sod bound pasture land (Paddock 15) with the John Deere 4250 and the Howard Rotavator on 29 August 2017. Granted, i know most recommendations are to have this seeding done and in no later than the 20th of August, but this year just wasn’t going to allow it. And thankfully, i didn’t get in earlier; had i put these seeds in slightly moist soil, they may have germinated, sprouted, then dried up in this heat and dry weather. As it is, the seeds are just resting in that super dry soil waiting for just the right conditions to grow and thrive. The concern at planting late is that there won’t be good growth before freezing weather and a long winter.
(On the 1st of September, i mustered my bulls and hauled them (Allen and Dallas helped a lot), i spent too much time outside and became overcome with ragweed allergies. This kept me sleeping and recovering in the house for two days. Andy was able to take over for me so we kept on schedule.)
So to wrap it up with costs:
That’s a lot of money! and doesn’t even include the $60/acre spent earlier this year in lime spread. Hope it all pays off – i don’t want to ever have to do it again and with managed grazing, it should last many lifetimes.
So very odd that i’ve completely forgotten to finish this summary of my expensive permanent ley scheme which was completed the fall of 2017! So quick answer is that three years hence, there is a beautiful and diverse stand of valuable desirable mix of grass and legume species. Many of the original plants seeded are returning each year. I’ve been careful to allow them to mature and go to seed each year since to add to the seed bank. However, i still have not gained in cow days per acre in comparison to what i had before though the species are higher quality and likely allow better gains and performance in the cattle. Overall, i won’t do it again. I don’t like tillage and now that i’ve started total grazing, i’m hopeful i can improve forage while making money instead of spending money.
This beautiful burnet plant is such a valuable plant and three years later, it still comes on strong each spring. Always excited to see it!
As a first step of my endophyte infected fescue eradication and pasture renovation project, today was the big day of tillage. My husband had purchased a Howard Rotavator 600, which is 10 foot wide sod-cutting and chewing machine and the soil (actually just dirt, it’s in pathetic condition) it’s been through gave it a real workout. Even the tractor couldn’t keep up and i had to sidle over and only take 2′-5′ bite of new sod at times, especially going up hill. This first pass took place on May 17-18, 2017.
One pass tillage next to existing stand of grass. Serious clay content. Methinks some of this worked up harder than if i took down the gravel road!
All in all, i mapped out about 18 acres actually tilled. There are about 25 acres total in the area being renovated, however, because of the steep slopes, several acres are left alone to serve as grassy waterways. I wonder, however, as hard as the ground is, if the tilled portions won’t actually hold and stop more water than the hard pan waterways. Hmmm.
So far, 12 hours spent (1.5 acres per hour) tilling, but not counting time servicing tractor and machine or time spent getting to/from the farm. Tractor uses about 7.7 gallons diesel fuel per hour, so 92.5 gallons there. Second pass should take a bit less time, but we’ll see!
We received a big storm last night with about an inch of rain, so the second pass won’t happen for a few days – depending on weather. Allen will be right behind the second rotatiller pass with the Einbach harrow/seeder and my selected annual grass mix.
With the first pass May 15, 16, and 17 behind me, several very light rain showers, and a few days of drying out, I was ready to get to that second tillage pass and get the annual seeds in the dirt!. Thursday, May 25, 2017, I spent 4 hours with the Howard Rotavator 600 and was pleasantly surprised that, for the most part, the John Deere 4250 tractor worked along nicely at A2 speed vs A1. This effectively increased my speed from 2.1 mph to 2.6 mph. And it showed up in the final tally for sure! The second pass on the same 18 acres, instead of taking 12 hours as before, only rang up 7 1/2 hours. Nice. Admittedly, i could never make a farmer (row cropper); how do those guys run those things for hours on end, daylight to dark, day after day. I was thankful, i could distract myself for a while, at least on the long rows, by chatting (private message) with my son, who was at a cafe in Spain, and texting about soil conditions with a friend who was farming another part of my farm with 120 acres for organic soybean production. I finished up with the second pass on the 26th. It was also seeded on the 26th.
When i was about 2/3 rds completed, Allen came with a huge bag of premixed annual seed to fill the hopper on the Einbock power seeder and harrow. He finished all 18 acres in about 4 hours, counting a couple stoppages due to hoses plugging.
So, time spent so far:
Mixing seeds – 1 hour
Tractor – first pass – 12 hours
Tractor – second pass – 7 1/2 hours
Tractor/Seeding – 4 hours
Using published machinery rental rate
tractor and rotavator – 36 acres times $20/acre = $720.00
tractor and seeder/harrow – 18 acres times $15/acre = $270.00
Seed costs – $31.56 per acre is what i ordered – HOWEVER, i am informed that Allen actually put on about half again as much, so i will multiply that amount by 1.5 for a per acre cost of $47.34. The additional seed will hopefully pay off in increased forage yields. So total seed costs are $$852.12.
Buckwheat 6# @ $ .90/lb
Lespedeza 6# @ $1.00/lb
Pearl Millet 5# @ $1.05/lb
Oats 12# @ $ .28/lb
Cowpeas 6# @ $ .90/lb
Sunflower 5# @ $.45/lb
Red Clover 2# @ $1.95/lb
Total expenses then amount to $1842.12 or $102.34 per acre. That’s a lot and does not include the 2 tons of lime i had applied in April at a cost of $66/acre. It’s tough to say this all has to be recouped in one year or one grazing because the lime will be there for the rest of my life and the tillage will have long term effects in loosening the soil as well as eradicating the toxic endophyte infected fescue. With so many variables, counting the cost, or rather, measuring the increase or lack thereof, in the short run, is very difficult in ranch renovation.
The plan is to have something to graze in 60-75 days. This will depend large part on moisture. We are getting pretty dry now already and need a rain. I will post updates.
By the way, you noticed i’m not including costs associated with photography and blogging. It’s a good way to force me to sit down and keep a log of expenses, time, and results. Hopefully, it will help others as well!
Managing soil, water, and animals properly and privately goes a lot further than politically motivated government regulations written by people who are far removed from soil and weather.
It’s been a rather busy and momentous month, so i’m way behind on reporting on the annuals for grazing and pasture improvement project. Here are photos of growth at 60 days. Turned the cows in on August 1, 2017. Yah willing, my final report will be coming soon. It will take some number crunching and analysis, so will be several days, but i’m ready to put paid to this project.
This is volunteer yellow foxtail as identified by our county extension agent. Despite being a ‘weed’, this forage is exceptionally palatable with excellent nutritional value.
Cows and calves grazing annuals. in the middle of the photo, one can see where i didn’t till because of a small ditch. I was concerned about erosion, but that wasn’t an issue this year. Wishing i had tilled right on through them. Live and learn.
As you can imagine, i was shocked at the lack of grazing days provided by the annuals, but this was my first experience. When i turned them in on the annuals, the cows and calves grazed it all down in four days! In a few days, i was able to turn them back in for a couple more days grazing to boost that yield just a bit. However, at this point, the paddocks will take a very long rest. One thing i did not observe and record in previous years and that is cow condition. At least for this year, these cows were slick and shiny healthy coming off the annuals, but they were that way going in, too. So…..
So, in a nutshell, it cost me a total of $1842.12 to plant 18 acres of annuals for grazing. The purpose of annuals to help rejuvenate the soil microbe community and not necessarily for gain in grazing. Good thing, because it certainly failed in that department. However, as i had written before, the goal is to eradicate toxic fescue and build organic matter. It does look like that has happened at least in short term. It is very hard to measure long term benefits. However, from this point, i’m planning to tack the sail and switch to tilling then no-till a permanent ley (grassland). Whether or not that will work remains to be seen, but i’m keen to find a way to reduce then eliminate any tractor work. I hope to get that scheme underway and perhaps even completed this week. This new scheme, although i do plan to till before planting to permanent ley, will provide a side by side comparison of planting annuals first vs planting permanent pasture once and done. There will be a few spots, too, that won’t be tilled and seeds will be drilled straight into established pasture.
Additional thoughts and observations:
Grazing days – 4 days on 18 acres with 146 cows, 110 calves, and 6 bulls
Labor – setting up and taking down polybraid – two strips – 3 hours.
There is general concern that the annuals need to be stripped off for best utilisation because of the assumption that the cows will destroy too much of the forages. However, my experience is that there was very little waste overall and certainly not enough to justify 3 hours of labor in stripping off small sections. Having said that, i have to quantify that one strip allowed access to only 4 1/2 acres, then 5 acres, then about 8 1/2 acres. Perhaps larger sections would have shown more waste.
If conditions allowed less work setting up and taking down and one had more valuable annuals, then it may be better to take advantage of the benefits of strip grazing.
Post grazing observations:
where the soil was tilled and planted with annuals, the Kansas ragweed did not grow, but giant ragweed was there, though, far from as thick as an untilled/unplanted paddock.
Trampling of annuals was negligible – nearly all had been eaten with the exception of a few sunflower plants.
The pneumatic harrow needs a work over since there were a lot of skips in seed application. Thankfully, the yellow foxtail proliferated thickly in the tilled soil to keep the soil covered. Actually better than the annuals and the cows loved it.