There are a few ways to try to rid pastures of toxic endophyte infected fescue (E+ Fescue).
- Tillage and reseed
- Spray (with Roundup), Smother, Spray
- Tillage and farm for several years
- Total Grazing (this is the one i’m incorporating now – 2021)
Starting in the fall of 2016, I worked with an organic farmer friend and we wrote up a contract as to what would be done and preparation began.
The first step was for me to clear my pastures of obstacles for modern tillage equipment.
FESCUE CONTROL WITH ROW CROPPING
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.
FESCUE CONTROL WITH ROW CROPPING
FENCING, FENCING, FENCING
Building fence, not the notion of combat sport.
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.
The five principles of soil health are:
- 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.