Tag Archives: cover crops

A Perfect Match by Jim Gerrish

Once again, Jim Gerrish, owner American GrazingLands,  pens a thorough and relevant article.  This one published in The Stockman GrassFarmer June , 2020 issue.  Click here if you’d like to request a free copy of The Stockman GrassFarmer.

A Perfect Match

May, Idaho

Some things just seem to fit together really well.  Bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches come to mind, among other things.

How about no-till, cover-crops, irrigation, and MiG?  That is another combination that is hard to beat.

Industrial farming with conventional tillage has led to widespread land degradation through soil erosion, loss of soil carbon, and destruction of soil life.  No-till minimizes soil disturbance and the concurrent loss of organic matter soil life.  The downside of no-till farming over the 50 or so years since its inception has been heavy reliance on potent herbicides like paraquat and glyphosate.  To eliminate the need for those herbicides and their toxic side effects, innovative farmers have figured out approaches.  The roller-crimper as a mechanical tool can terminate existing vegetation and turn it into moisture-conserving mulch.  High stock density grazing can also terminate or suppress existing vegetation and turn it into dollars.

The exponential growth in cover-crop use over the last decade has also accelerated the adoption of no-till farming across the USA and around the world.  While many farmers started using cover-crops based solely on soil health benefits, others came to realize livestock were the missing link in their efforts to heal the land.  We quite talking about sustainable ag a few years ago and started talking about regenerative ag.  Why settle for sustaining the agricultural wreck we have created over the last century?  Why don’t we try fixing it instead?

Ray Archuleta uses a great example to illustrate the difference between the sustainable and regenerative concepts.  ray asks,  “If your marriage is a wreck, why would you want to sustain that?  If your farm is a wreck, why would you want to sustain that?”

Regeneration is meant to create something healthy and strong that will last your lifetime and beyond.  I think it is a valuable lesson in world selection and world viewpoint.

In a similar vein, many years ago I said the most tragic divorce that has happened down on the farm was the divorce of livestock from the land.  Taking grazing animals off the landscape and locking them up in concentration camps removed a critical component of ecosystem health.  We will only regenerate a healthy landscapes with effectively managed livestock as part of the process.

We can argue about the sustainability of irrigation.  Around the world, including the USA, aquifers are being pumped to the point of depletion.  Land is being degraded due to salinization from irrigating with high salt content water.  Pumping costs are increasing in many irrigated farming areas as water is pumped from deeper and deeper wells.  No, irrigation in that sense is neither sustainable nor regenerative.

Living in the Intermountain Region of the USA for 16 years now and enjoying a different type of irrigation basis.  I think there is a time and place for irrigation in a regenerative ranching or farming context.  With direct snow-melt as our water source we avoid aquifer depletion and most of the salinity risks associated with irrigation in semi-arid landscapes.

For many years, a lot of this region was flood irrigated.  There are a number of benefits to flood irrigation.  Flood irrigation can rely entirely on gravity flow of water so there is no pumping cost.  It can hydrate parts of the landscape outside of the farmed fields.  The infrastructure investment is fairly low.  However, Water use efficiency cannot be counted as one of the favorable aspects of flood irrigation.

Per ton of forage grown, flood irrigation typically uses about 50-80% more water than sprinkler irrigation.  As we think more and more about the pending worldwide water crisis, all of us in agriculture must become better versed in water conservation whether we are in high natural rainfall or irrigated environments.  That brings us back to thought of no-till farming with cover-crops and the role of grazing animals in groundwater management.

We have all heard and read those popular press articles citing how many pounds of water it takes to produce a pound of hamburger or a steak.  Some beef industry estimates are as low as 1000 lbs of water per lb of beef all the way up to 12,000 lbs of water/lb of beef claimed by some vegan groups.  Since a pound of beef only contains about 10 ounces of water, the rest of all that water has to be somewhere else.  That somewhere else is mostly in the soil or the atmosphere meaning that same water will be used for something else tomorrow or the next day or the next.

Our job is to get as much back into the soil or the deeper ground water system.  This is where MiG comes into the picture.  We use time-controlled grazing management to manipulate the amount of living plant residual and the amount of trampled litter we create in the pasture.  Both of those grazing management responses are critically important factors in managing soil water.  Infiltration rate and surface runoff are directly tied to our day-to-day grazing management choices.

When we can easily produce twice as much animal product per acre using MiG compared to ineffectively managed pastures, that translates to a doubled water use efficiency.  Think about the cost of seeding cover-crops on irrigated land and the relative return on investment between those two different management scenarios.  Regardless of the particular pasture in question.  MiG always increases the return potential.

Jim Gerrish is an independent grazing lands consultant providing service to farmers and ranchers on both private and public lands across the USA and internationally.  He can be contacted through www.americangrazinglands.com.  His books are available from the SGF Bookshelf page 20.

 

 

 

 

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:

  1. animal impact is essential to making cover crop and soil improvements financially viable as well as building organic matter and tilth.
  2. in a lease situation, the owner doesn’t have the power to make certain that soil is covered.  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.
  3. 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.  Bottom line, from a purely income/expense perspective, I make more money with grazing vs leasing the property for row cropping.
  4. 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.  A lot gets big and away.  More work at the end of the organic regime.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

At the end of the day, I’m looking forward to bringing the 120 acres back under my management even though i will only graze it once i get it seeded back down.  With managed grazing and some brush/tree removal, the pasture will be back hopefully making money for me soon.

IMG-6088
You can see the worked field which has now been bare soil since harvest of soybeans last November.  That means 10 months and counting of open, unprotected soil.