Nothing but the good life in running a farm…

Posted: May 24, 2009 by Thrivelearning in Grass Fed Beef Cattle
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iLoveButter

iLoveButter

This is pretty close to what it looks like around here this time of year. Our red house sits on a hill surrounded by pastures and trees remarkably similar to the above. Have to post a picture sometime…

Pardon my stream-of-consciousness writing tonight, but I’ve spent the last two days getting all my spring planting done and I have a need to relax. 

Rains have been late easing off this year, which has made it virtually impossible to get any corn in. While I have about 3 acres, which will be a corn maze and also chicken feed and cow treats for the rest of the year, usually I have about 20 acres total in corn. Last year’s crop was a failure, but fattened the cows nicely and saved having to feed hay until the after the snow fell. (We have about two weeks of really miserable weather from about Dec 15 on – but it’s almost never a white Christmas.) 

My studies down this line have been to improve my cattle grazing (our most profitable crop, actually – grass-raised cattle have very low overhead; it’s the corn finishing which takes the profit out.) The trisk is to lower costs and improve the quality of feed by having the cattle forage all winter instead of feeding hay. Simple to say, but it takes some logistics. And I am fast approaching haying season, with all of it’s logistics and timing – so comparing notes about how to get by with less hay is always a tempting distraction.

Yesterday and today, I spend in disking, fertilizing, and planting. One small field (about 3 acres) went to cowpeas and sunflowers. This is a summer grazing extension – to make our pastures last longer. This will then be planted in July with my second over-wintering crop – milo. Planted too late to fully mature for a harvest, it will still be green when the frost kills it in October – and then I’ll feed it stalks and all in December then ice and snow is on everything else.

Another field was cultivated and set to corn – another 3 acres. Because it was too close to a flood area (which the green lobby has gotten Congress to call “wetlands”) where the creek gets out – and so is too wet right now to plant. I’ve got rye growing there, which also holds the moiture and keeps the ground soft. So looks like I’m going to have some rye grain crop and some rye straw bales – then cut the clover I’ve got growing with it so that we have some hay later in July off that same ground. (Love to get two crops off one planting…) 

Nearby, I have some wheat growing – and the clover is taller than it is in some areas. Great year for clover – cool and wet. End of June I’ll have that wheat, which gives me a partial chicken ration (corn and a commercial mix are the other two thirds – whole corn ground with the cob). What we don’t need is sold on the commodity lines and usually pays the cost of putting in the wheat and clover.

Just finalized a two-year rotation for that corn-maze ground: Corn  (which is harvested after the maze too late for a cover crop) is then followed by oats and clover, frost seeded. That gives me a hay crop when the oats is headed out – which, along with the clover and corn stubble, the cows love dearly.  Now, I have the option of disking that ground up in September and seeding rye (a once-over disking, so I keep the clover) – I just have to be able to mow the rye down before I plant corn – which is sometimes iffy if the rain keeps the ground too saturated to put a tractor on it. Corn one year, hay the next.  Costs are only in planting, fertilizing, and spraying the corn. I used bin-run oats (not certified seed) and the least expensive red clover I can find.

The rest of my crop ground (except for wet years like last one and this) are in a three-year rotation: 

  1. Winter Peas and barley, harvested by cattle, followed by corn. 
  2. Rye after corn, also harvested by cattle – which goes into soybeans.
  3. Wheat with clover after soybeans – and then back to Winter peas and barley.

Advantages of this:

  • the winter peas leave nitrogen for corn (as does the clover). Cuts down on nitrogen required for corn. (This will be our first year trials.)
  • barley has similar feed value to corn. Eating it with the stem is more nutritious, plus harvested barley usually has to be ground and mixed with other grains to make a cattle ration. 
  • Winter Peas also make meat more tender. (Note to self: get our own steer fat enough by April/May to send to butcher.)
  • Rye sprouts at 39°, so it up and ready to eat before the grass is ready on the pastures.  Probable sequence is to eat down the rye from mid-March to early/mid-April – then switch to winter peas and barley until mid May – then back to rye until late May.  This saves our pastures to get lush growth on them and allows us to keep the bull away from our cows until about mid-May, meaning we have March and April calves – which are born on grass, not snow.
  • Rye (and all these cover crops) tend to suppress other weeds which need to sprout in Spring from seeds left the year before. So we have less weeds and as we harvest with cows, then all the weeds we do get become forage – a nice clover salad.
  • Cover crops give a forage crop as well as seed. I keep a small acreage (the best) back and harvest that for seed for the following year. Wheat gives a triple crop: grain, straw, and then about a month later – clover-stubble hay. 

Ideally, we’d get away from spraying at all. Corn and soybeans are the only plants right now that does better at all with spraying.  Mainly because they have longer growing seasons that many weeds can mature and go to seed in amongst it – like cockleburr.  Rye before corn or soybeans does a good job of suppressing weeds. One plant-doctor told me that corn takes a little hit from rye, as it is basically a grass. But if that’s the cost of not having to spray, it’s a lot cheaper.  I really want to get away from corn and soybeans altogether. But they are cash crops which give us (usually) some cash income faster than cattle.

The combination plantings we do tend to both utilize the nutrients better. Most of the corn fertilizer is not well utilized. Soybeans can glean everything they need in following corn, especially when following a cover crop which doesn’t allow the fertilizer to leach away. Wheat with no fertilizer is possible right after soybeans, as it can take the residual N and do OK. I like to spread my wheat broadcast with the clover from the fertilizer buggy – but keep the fertilizer down to minimums. And use their buggy to do my planting. One less trip over the soil. Have to use slightly more seed, but it comes up thick and I don’t have to spray as some do with their planted wheat. Clover fills the gap between wheat and also possibly supplies some N as well. 

I’d rather get away from corn. Margins are just too high, so any poor performance and the crop doesn’t pay for itself. From 20 cows I get 20 calves every year (mostly) and so get about $5-600 profit per steer. Some years, I get $1,000 profit from corn after all the input costs are subtracted. That and the low time-input costs of raising cattle are pushing me toward getting out of grain crops altogether – but when I use cows to harvest the cover crops, I’m getting additional pre-digested nutrients spread in those areas, which then lowers grain input costs.

And so I’m working up a method which is unknown by the extension specialists I consult – some sort of whole-farm integrated holistic approach. Some trials of it this year have proved the initial approach is sound. 

Essentially, in using my cows to graze ahead of spring planting, I then keep all the nutrients out in the fields, deposited in a way which is more readily accepted by the next plant crop. Cows do not over-graze their pastures in the spring, which allows a luxuriant growth before they touch them.

Also, where I can, I then plant crops using no fertilizer and inexpensive seed, which keeps weed populations in check while I build organic matter in these soils.  I am using my crops to feed cattle as forage, not as grain. And using my cattle to raise my crops. Four-hooved combination combine-aerator-fertilizer-mobile storage units. Which replace themselves every year.

While this essay doesn’t approach organizing this data into usable format, you can glean the principles as I ramble down below. Factually, I haven’t boiled them down for myself as to goals and priorities. I only know that I want to lower my inputs and improve the soil. Integrating cattle and cover crops into my regular cash-cropping systems then also gives me improved cattle and soil-health simultaneously. 

Corn (whole corn on the ear, not shelled) is prefered by cattle and their handlers. Because of that cob, a cow can’t founder (bloat), no matter how much you feed them. So it’s a great treat, which then keeps them loyal to you and allows you to get close and check how they are doing on an individual basis. Also, a bucket of corn will call them out of the woods or pasture so you can do a head count and see which one the bull is following (so you know when to expect a calf from her).  And if a expectent cow doesn’t come up, you stick a few cobs in your pocket so you can find where she had the calf and then get close enough so you can inspect the calf while she’s being calmed by your delightful treat. 

So I’ll always raise some corn. Our solution right now is to grow a small maze for a local non-profit and then take the corn from it for these treats.  (As above.)

There is the option of using milo for this, if you bind it and simply throw the binders to them for feed. Won’t fit ina bucket, though.

My ideal would be to get away from harvesting anything except through cattle, since they are extremely efficient in turning forage into meat. And the theory is that if you raise the right crops, the integration of cattle will actually cut out both harvest and fertilizer costs.  All you’d have to do is to cultivate the soil and then broadcast the next set of seed.

Theoretically, you could get away from spring planting with wheat, rye, and barley. Then graze the remainder during the summer (when pastures are short on grass anyway.) These take seeding them into clover and reseeding clover every three years or so, since the yearly cultivation takes a hit. The trick with this looks to be simply disking once, and lightly enough that it just opens up the soil so the new seed can make contact without wrecking the clover root structure entirely.

Practially, you can get a clover seed crop as well – and then turn the cattle in to clean up the leftover stems.  Set aside some of each crop area for the next year’s seed.

If you raise milo as a winter forage as above, you could theoretically get away from having to hay at all. Sure, you’d have some as a back up, but I can see the day that I just use milo or windrowed pastures during the winter so the cattle can get to it through the snow and ice. Keep the tractor in the barn all winter, nice and dry.  Use an electric golf cart (heated cab?) to check the cattle and move temporary fences to designate their next feeding area.

I mentioned cattle as being more profitable – it’s only that there is over two years before you see any of that money.  Takes that long to grow a steer or heifer you can send to market. So you always have a leapfrog scene of cows, calves, and yearlings in your pastures. Plus the bull.

But your investment is mosly fences and watering supplies.  With my planting crops every year for their use, I’m increasing inputs slightly. However, by grazing your crop-land, you are also then extending how many cows you can actually effectively feed on your land – and so you’ll have more calved to sell to market. This means your output increases proportionately to taking the middleman out of the picture. 

Another rotation that might work:

  1. Milo fed over winter, with oats/clover frost seeded and then grazed – this is actually a complete year-over-year rotation by itself.
  2. Wheat over-seeded into clover (fall), and grazed after spring harvest of seed and straw. 
  3. Rye, followed by cowpeas and sunflowers – out by July in time for Milo.

You can harvest your own seed from all of the above except Milo.  If you cultivated after the wheat and planted a short-season Milo in June, you’d then be able to get seed – and rye would be able to root if immediately again cultivated and broadcast into the milo ground.

Milo would replace the ground corn in chicken feed. Chickens (in mobile huts) follow cows in their rotation through the pastures, according to the Salatin plan, and pay their  own way with meat and eggs – as well as scratching the cow paddies into oblivion and getting rid of worm parasites from the cattle.

There’s another point to touch on – rotating cows through tree pastures. This drives the extension specialist nuts. They show you pictures of trees where the cows have packed down and eroded the ground around them. And where you have an individual tree, this does happen. 

The trick is to have small groves of trees with pasture surrounding or in between. Grass grows better in partial shade. Cows will graze longer if they can stay cool while they do. Trees, like any crop, need to be weeded. Plus, there are a variety of forages cattle need in the spring which grow in wooded lots among the trees. Tannin is used as a natural dewormer by cattle – meaning live oak leaves are valuable. The specialists I’ve talked to don’t know what cattle eat out there.  But something they need.

I’ve also seen that woods will lose a lot of their brush if you run cattle in them. Smaller sprouts get grazed off and so the trees are able to grow with less competition, so they develop straighter trunks. Dead branches are trampled, speeding decomposition – which are mixed with cattle manure and urine to promote growth. 

Doesn’t mean the wood lots are brush free. Anything with stickers or thorns is left alone (other than first growths – blackberry leaves are a nice tonic for cattle as well as humans). So there is ample opportunity for new trees to sprout among the brambles. Locust, gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, multi-floral rose – these all have their place. 

And like any pasture, you don’t keep cattle in there all year round. You rotate pastures, which includes the woods in them. 

There is also an interesting crop rotation which has trees in there as well. If you were raising walnuts, this would be a 50-year rotation before you could harvest for lumber. And you’d get the nuts after the first 7-10 years. I’ve read of some fast-growing pulp tress which are harvested after 10 years. So you’d plant these in long north-south rows, far enough apart to give decent shade when they were grown, but not dense shadow. And you’d probably plant them in groves, or staggered, so that they would force each other to grow straight and tall, plus protect against sheer winds. And I imagine that you’d raise bramble-berries amongst them at the base for the first few years to protect them from being grazed off as you rotate cattle through your covercrops – since you are still farming inbetween.

The later years would require different crops – like alfalfa or something that does actually better in partial shade as opposed to requiring full sunlight – like most row crops we raise. And when the trees are harvested,  you’d go back to rowcrops while the trees were young. At least that’s one idea for this rotation. 

A smarter approach would be to plant young trees at the base of older trees  – staggering your crop to mimic nature, so that you don’t take out all the trees at once, but plant new ones (which are later thinned) where the old one is removed and there is now sunshine in that gap. What this would go is to give you some tree harvest every few years – instead of once every 50 years, as is done currently. And it takes that long to heal the ruts those loggers leave…

That probably points a farmer in the direction of using cattle to help raise trees and grass – and then get out of row-cropping for the most part. 

My current scene, while it points me in that direction, says that I just simply integrate what I have better to continuing lowering the inputs while not making any drastic changes that alarm the neighbors. 😉

By taking the whole farm, and utilizing the natural integrative components which exist, the farmer doesn’t have to work as hard, has more profits due to less inputs, and enjoys a creative life filled with new opportunities and learning experiences.

It’s the farmer’s job to be a good steward of all of these components. Tend to the wood lot as well as the pastures. Keep the cattle well fed, but use them to manage the pastures and woods. 

Selling cattle and crops keeps the humans rewarded for stewarding the land.

Really, I have a book on this subject to write, when all is said and done. But there’s a lot more to be said. And the great point about farm-blogging is that it allows that writing to get started…

– – – –

OK, now you just got a glimpse into my mental processes in this area. 

And I’m sufficiently debriefed that I can now sleep after all this physical labor yesterday and today. 

Thanks for listening. Drop by for a steak, fresh vegetables, and garden-raised salad some day. That’s what makes farming worth it – the best food.

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