GLENWOOD, Minn. — Take a drive through rural Minnesota these days and you will see more corn and soybean fields, and fewer fence posts. The disappearing fence mirrors how livestock have disappeared from the land, along with pasture and alfalfa, and all of the economic value that animals can add to row-crops. That’s too bad, because as it becomes harder to make a living solely with corn and soybeans, having livestock out on the land adds economic vitality to rural communities in ways that shipping cheap commodities out by rail and truck just can’t match. The question is, how can we bring those animals back?
One answer: cover crops. There are lots of opportunities to integrate cover crops like rye into conventional row cropping systems, providing numerous soil health benefits along the way. Rotational grazing of livestock provides a perfect opportunity to make cover crops and other forages a financially viable part of a farm in the long-term. If you’d like to learn more, join the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota Jan. 19 for a “Bringing Livestock Back” workshop, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Glenwood, Minn. For details, contact Bryan Simon at 320-492-2526 or email@example.com.
In recent years, I’ve been on local farms that are seeing consistent financial success because they have integrated livestock into their row crop operations. The benefits are numerous:
• Homegrown crop insurance. Rotationally grazing cover crops and other forages builds organic matter, that portion of the soil that does everything from generate fertility to manage moisture. Each 1 percent increase in organic matter produces several pounds of plant-available nitrogen per acre. In addition, the water-holding capacity increases as organic matter levels go up, making fields more resilient in a drought. Increased soil aggregates and pore space allow for better water infiltration, which greatly helps under wet conditions. One local farmer who has been cover cropping for five years told me that his soil health and structure has improved so much that even with the wet fall this past year, he didn’t even leave a rut while his neighbors were constantly getting stuck. Good soil health is the best crop insurance we have.
• More opportunities for the next generation. Livestock offer the ability to get more out of your existing land base, creating opportunities for bringing new people into the operation. One of the ways cover crops can help do more without buying or renting extra land is by extending the grazing season. Winter wheat and rye cover crops can be ready to graze three weeks earlier in the spring than a typical pasture, and grazing cover crops and corn stalks can push the grazing season into winter. That extra forage production potential is money in the bank.
• Increasing profitability. Livestock provide a chance to increase net profit per acre. While bushels per acre is used at the coffee shop as the measure of a farmer’s success, a more telling figure is profit per acre. Animals integrated into crop production can greatly reduce input costs by contributing fertility and reducing pesticide use. Livestock also add value to small grains and crop residue, as well as any land that is too marginal for cash crops and better suited for pasture. Another local farmer told me that the acres he winter feeds cattle on prior to planting corn consistently see a 30+ bushel per acre yield bump the next season. His full-season cover crop planted for grazing is beating his neighbor’s return on corn.
There’s no doubt livestock can add economic and biological resilience. But let’s face it: once animals are removed, the fencing is torn out, and row crops become the dominant enterprise, it seems daunting to bring animals back. But if it comes down to being profitable or not, especially when commodity prices are low and input costs are high, bringing livestock back to your farm could be worth it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a fulltime livestock producer. Some row crop farmers are “borrowing” or “renting” livestock to graze cover crops and pasture. Such arrangements are made more practical by portable fencing technology that can temporarily take the place of all those posts and strands of wire that were torn out. It’s a win-win: the crop farmer can add economic value to cover that builds soil health, while the livestock producer gets access to low-cost feed. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has a Cropland Grazing Exchange that links crop farmers and livestock producers.
The bottom line: whether by adding them as a fulltime enterprise or borrowing a neighbor’s herd, we can bring livestock back to the land.
— Bryan Simon, The Land Stewardship Project
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