The Practical Blog
Practical Farmers' blog is a place where staff share news, updates, photos, reflections and other musings on our work and members in a more informal setting.
Have you ever heard of a shared learning call? Probably not, unless you’ve been participating in our small grains monthly calls for the past year. They’ve worked so well there that we’ve decided to try out the format for other topics. A “shared learning call” is essentially a conference call, where you dial into a conference line with many others and listen as a farmer shares their practices for about 15-20 minutes and then we open the floor for questions and discussion for the rest of the hour. All you need is a phone!
Our first cover crop shared learning call will be on February 16 from 12-1 p.m. when Mitchell county farmer Wayne Fredericks will share his strategy for managing cover crops and planting into cover crop residue on heavy soils. Fredericks has been no-tilling soybeans for 20 years and has been planting cover crops, mainly cereal rye, since 2011. Here’s a sneak peak of his tips on planter set up for cover crop residue that he’ll share on the 16th:
“Watch your depth if you’re planting into high residue. You want to plant a little bit deeper,” he says. Fredericks sets his planter a quarter-inch deeper than he normally would on his John Deere 1790 which has 24 units on 15-inch rows. He also runs 400-pounds of down pressure per unit when planting into heavy rye residue. “Having the ability to apply the necessary down pressure is key.” If this is your first time planting soybeans into rye, you might want to plant into knee-high growth instead of waiting until it gets to almost three feet high. But, ultimately, “Termination timing isn’t as critical on soybeans as on corn,” he says. “I’ve planted soybeans into cereal rye as high as this table (34 inches).”
- Dial 641-715-3620
- Enter passcode 357330# when prompted
- Put your phone on mute to avoid feedback during presentation and unless speaking in the Q & A
Be sure to your calendars for these additional upcoming shared learning calls:
- Friday, March 2 Noon – 1 p.m. Shared Learning Call on Marketing Small Grains to Breweries and Distilleries
- Friday, March 16 Noon – 1 p.m. Steve Berger of Wellman Shared Learning Call on Cover crops for corn & soybeans: planter setup, nitrogen for corn, termination reminders
“We started planting cereal rye because it was easy to calve in. Now, most all of our covers are grazed as a way to justify the costs,” said Mark Schleisman, of Lake City. Cover crops that are grazed have value, but how much value? A three-year PFI research project, initiated in 2015, helped quantify this value by putting a price tag on the forage produced by cover crops. For three cow-calf producers in northwest Iowa, the practice of grazing cover crops, combined with cost-share funding, provides positive economic returns within the same year the cover crops were planted.
Wesley Degner, of Lytton; Bill Frederick, of Jefferson; and Mark Schleisman seeded cover crops of their choosing with the intention of grazing the forage produced. Farmers kept grazing records in order estimate the amount of dry matter cattle received from the cover crop. This dry matter was then valued at $80 per ton – a conservative value considering that hay is currently selling for $130 per ton.
All revenues and costs were then considered in order to complete an economic analysis. Read the full report here: Economic Impact of Grazing Cover Crops in Cow-Calf Operations
The Trial Was Conducted By:
- Planting cover crops for the purpose of grazing with cows and calves
- Sampling biomass the day cattle were turned out to graze cover crops in the fall
- Tracking all expenses and keeping grazing records
- Plugging numbers into a economic spreadsheet tool developed by Iowa State University
Across the three farms, the value of cover crop forage ranged from $28 to $61 per acre, before costs were removed. Costs included cover crop establishment and termination, labor, fence and water. In some cases, costs exceeded forage value, which highlighted the importance of planting cover crops early and waiting to graze until there is plenty of growth available. In the cases where costs exceeded value, cost-share payments, ranging from $11 to $41 per acre, helped keep farmers in the black.
Total net economic gain ranged from $2 to $60 per acre, a variance that can be attributed to the farmers’ different levels of experience with cover crops and their understanding of issues related to cover crop planting and grazing management. Wesley had never planted or grazed cover crops before this project. “Now that I’ve had a bit more experience with cover crops, I planted an additional 208 acres in 2017,” he says.”I grazed them from November to early January and plan on getting spring grazing out of these acres too. I’m still learning, but I think grazing both in the fall and spring will help me remain profitable.”
To see the full economic impact analysis for each farm, read the full report here: Economic Impact of Grazing Cover Crops in Cow-Calf Operations. This project was supported by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Two years of monitoring birds on a central Iowa farm has shown that rotationally grazed pastures support threatened bird species. Properly managed pastures, grazed by a herd of grass-fed cattle, created a desirable habitat for grassland birds, which were attracted the pasture’s mix of short and tall vegetation. Some bird species, such as the bobolink and grasshopper sparrow, seemed to prefer these pastures over a nearby prairie conservation area.
Since 2016, farmer Bruce Carney of Maxwell, Iowa has been working with researchers from Drake University to conduct bird counts to better determine the effects of grazing on bird conservation.
Read the full report here: Monitoring Birds in Rotationally Grazed Pasture, 2017 Update
The Trial Was Conducted By:
- Taking weekly bird counts between May and September in 2016 and 2017
- Counting birds in three habitat types; restored prairie, perennial pasture and perennial + annual pasture
- Recording all bird sightings and bird calls in 10 minute intervals
In both 2016 and 2017, there were significantly more birds counted in Bruce’s pastures than in the nearby prairie. “Grazed areas are much more favorable for bobolinks,” said Keith Summerville, Environmental Science professor at Drake University. Bobolinks are ground-nesting birds and prefer grazed grassland over tall and dense vegetation. Some farmers regard bobolinks as an indicator species for a healthy ecosystem.
Two years of data shows that a properly managed, pasture-based grazing operation can provide habitat for a diverse set of birds and support large bird populations. “I learned that you don’t have to have thousands of acres to conserve wildlife. At first, I assumed the prairie would have more birds than my farm, but it really comes down to management. Smaller parcels of land, managed properly, can create favorable habitats and support birds,” stated Bruce.
For more details on this trial, read the full report here: Monitoring Birds in Rotationally Grazed Pasture, 2017 Update. This project was supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Drake University.
Cover crops are typically either aerially seeded into standing crops around the time of physiological maturity in late summer or drilled immediately following crop harvest in the fall. However, on occasion time does not permit one to get a cover crop seeded in the fall or the cover crop fails to establish.
In 2017, farmer-researchers Jeremy Gustafson and Chris Teachout evaluated spring cover crops that were seeded in March approximately 50 days before planting soybeans later in the spring.
Read the full report here: Spring-Seeded Cover Crops Ahead of Soybeans.
How Was the Trial Conducted?
Jeremy Gustafson conducted a trial in one field where he seeded oats. Chris Teachout conducted trials in two separate fields where he seeded two different cover crop mixes. See the table below for cover crop and soybean management at the two farms.
Aboveground biomass of the cover crop mixes was sampled the day before termination on May 27 at Gustafson’s and amounted to 1,537 lb/ac. Teachout did not collect biomass samples but reported that the mix in Field 1 was 6-10 in. tall at termination on May 19 and the oats+barley in Field 2 was 8-10 in. tall at termination on May 19. He also noted far less weed growth in the cover crop strips compared to the no-cover strips in both fields (weed biomass or weed counts were not collected, though).
Soybean yields at Gustafson’s (one field) and Teachout’s (two fields) are shown in the table below. In all three fields, the spring-seeded cover crop had no affect on soybean yield compared to no-cover crop.
Because they saw no reduction in yield, both farmers are considering using this practice in the future. “I will use this practice [in the future] in the case of no fall seeded cover crops,” Teachout said. “The next steps are to see if spring-seeded covers can be grown with early planted soybeans as a beneficial nurse crop.”
For more details on this trial, read the full report here: Spring-Seeded Cover Crops Ahead of Soybeans.
This project was supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
Are you growing rye or winter wheat for grain or seed this year? What’s the plan after your harvest? If you’re looking to add nitrogen for a 2019 corn crop, now might be the time to think about frost seeding red clover into that rye or wheat in late February.
The research is clear: if you can find a market for small grains, adding a third crop to your rotation yields economic, agronomic and environmental benefits. Iowa State University and Dr. Matt Liebman’s research near Boone shows that corn and especially soybeans yield better when grown in rotation, soybeans have less incidences of disease, soil health metrics improve, erosion decreases and water quality improves – all this with equal returns to land and management.
You can learn more about Matt Liebman’s research and many of the benefits of small grains production from other farmers in this video from our Rotationally Raised series:
You can also check out a farminar Matt hosted a couple years ago with Dick Sloan and his presentation from the 2016 small grains short course at the PFI Annual Conference.
In Iowa, most of this research and most farmers’ experience has been with adding oats and/or hay to their rotation. But now, with more and more people planting cover crops – and most of them planting cereal rye, more and more people have been raising it for seed. Saving a few dollars on cover crop seed is great, but the real opportunity comes after rye harvest when you can grow another crop.
Many people in that boat are planting multi-species cover crop mixes, and for farmers with cattle, that’s tough to beat. A balanced grazing ration that likely includes a few protein sources and plenty of sorghum-sudan grass is a great way to save money on hay costs later in the year, and maybe be able to rest some permanent pastures in the fall so they’ll produce better next year. Learn more about what farmers with livestock are planting after small grains harvest in this episode of Rotationally Raised:
Growing Your Own Nitrogen
But for row crop farmers, harvesting small grains during the summer presents a perfect opportunity to grow some nitrogen. It’s something organic farmers have been doing for years to augment manure as a nitrogen source. However, most organic farmers either have hay in their rotation or grow oats, a spring small grain, and seed red clover with the legume/forage hopper of their drill at oat planting time.
But what about seeding clover into an already established winter small grain, like rye or winter wheat? Can you do it? “It’s always worked for us,” say Doug Alert and Margaret Smith, who own and operate Ash Grove Farm near Hampton in north-central Iowa. They’ve been frost seeding red clover into winter small grains for about the past 10 years, and have always managed to get a stand of clover established.
And, because they’re organic, clover establishment is crucial: “We can’t afford to have a failure because that’s a major source of nitrogen for the corn crop,” Doug says. Iowa State University research has shown that farmers can expect a nitrogen credit anywhere from 75 – 100 lb / acre.
Benefits of Red Clover
Dr. Bill Deen studies cropping systems and nitrogen management at Guelph University in Ontario, where winter wheat is a more predominant component of cover crop rotations. Many of his findings stem from a long-term crop rotation study started in 1980 that, among other configurations, includes a rotation with red clover frost-seeded into winter wheat ahead of corn.
“What’s remarkable about red clover is you get the N credit while simultaneously increasing corn yields,” he says – in other words, the clover provides additional benefits that increase yields above and beyond its contribution to nitrogen, a phenomena known as the rotation effect. “We’re not quite sure what the mechanisms are. Certainly it does add N to the system,” he says, “but it also seems to improve the use of N by the corn crop,” Deen suspects that it may have something do with how clover affects the soil.
The other advantage of red clover over other cover crops is that the nitrogen release pattern works well ahead of corn. “It seems to have an effect on soil nitrate that is very favorable when you look at the pattern of demand by corn,” he says. Radishes, for example, may release the nitrogen too early, and rye might hold onto it for too long. “Red clover is the most consistent supplier of nitrogen,” he says.
Red Clover in Practice
Two challenges to working red clover into a winter small grain system are planting and terminating. For planting, Dr. Deen agrees with Doug and Margaret – as soon as the snow is off, but the ground is still frozen, it’s time to frost seed. “Going from impassable snow to mud is often a very short time frame,” Doug says, “So you have to be ready to go when you hit that window.”
- Ideal frost seeding conditions;
- Selecting clover varieties for frost seeding and your management goals;
- And which legumes should be planted instead for best effect.
Frost Seeding Red Clover in Iowa
Actually doing the seeding isn’t that tough. Iowa State recommends broadcasting 10-15 lbs/ac onto frozen ground and the seeding method is likely going to be dictated by what equipment you have available. “I like that you don’t have to have a top of the line system for it to work,” Margaret says. When they first started seeding red clover into rye, Doug used a 3-point mounted fertilizer spinner, and that worked okay – he could cover a 20-25 ft. swath. Later, he switched to a grain drill and just used it as a drop seeder, but that was only 15 feet of width, and trying to cover a lot of acres quickly is tough on a drill.
So last year, he built a toolbar specifically for seeding red clover – it adds seeding capacity, and it also links into his auto-steer, which is important because he’s doing a lot of this seeding at night, when the ground is nice and hard. His setup – shown in the photo – is a Gandy Orbit-Air seed hopper mounted on a used sprayer boom with a hydraulic metering system.
With this setup, he can seed 40 acres between fills and because he can drive 7-8 mph he can cover around 20 ac/hr. “This is all very important because of the small time window,” he says.
And, some years, the window is too short, and they don’t get a chance to frost seed. But they still seed it, even if it’s a little late, and haven’t had a failure so far. And that’s not necessarily intuitive. “Clover’s low-light tolerance is phenomenal,” says Margaret, “To me, it looks like it should never survive,” when looking at the thick blanket of rye that soon covers the clover, but adds that they’ve never had a problem getting a stand of clover established.
Red Clover Termination Before Corn
Once it’s seeded, there’s little management of the clover between seeding time and termination prior to corn planting. And because Doug and Margaret are organic, herbicide termination is not an option. Instead, they have traditionally plowed the clover as soon as they could in the spring; likely right after oat planting is done. They’ve been debating whether the plow is the right option for termination – or whether a lighter tillage pass would be sufficient – and whether spring or the previous fall is the appropriate time to terminate.
For conventional farmers, light tillage and plowing are still options, but termination with herbicide can also do the job. Penn State University Extension – where red clover is more commonly used as a cover crop – has some good guidelines. They recommend the following: “An excellent herbicide program to terminate a red clover stand prior to planting corn is one pint of 2,4-D LVE and one pint of dicamba (Banvel or Clarity). Apply 2,4 D and/or dicamba 7 to 14 days prior to or 3 to 5 days after corn planting if corn seeds are planted at least 1.5 inches deep. Do not plant soybeans after dicamba application. Applying 1 to 2 pounds per acre of atrazine will help provide additional control of the red clover. Glyphosate or paraquat alone are not recommended to kill a legume such as red clover.”
Red Clover Green Manure Resources
Practical Farmers of Iowa continues to conduct on-farm trials on the usage of red clover as a cover crop. PFI members have conducted research on many of the topics discussed in this article, from comparing red clover to mid-summer-planted mixes, to the nitrogen value of red clover, to interseeding clover into winter rye, and much more. To find the results of these trials, check out practicalfarmers.org/research-reports and search for “red clover.”
Here are a few:
Iowa State University also has a good production guide on using clover with winter small grains: “Intercropping Winter Cereal Grains and Red Clover” (PM 2025).
In Iowa, cover crops are typically either aerially seeded into standing corn around the time of physiological maturity in late summer or drilled immediately following corn harvest in the fall. However, the earlier one can seed a cover crop, the more potential for growth and biomass production. An earlier seeding date also opens up the opportunity for more diverse cover crops like brassicas and legumes that need more time and heat units to grow than common cover crops like cereal rye.
Farmer researchers Jack Boyer and Jeremy Gustafson interseeded cover crops (cowpeas, annual ryegrass, rapeseed) into corn at the V4 stage in June. Corn hybrids chosen exhibited vertical and horizontal leaf orientations to test whether more light penetrating the corn canopy would encourage successful cover crop establishment and growth.
Read the full report here: Corn Leaf Architecture for Interseeded Cover Crops.
How Was the Trial Conducted?
- Corn planting date (both hybrids): Boyer = Apr. 25; Gustafson = May 5
- Cover crop mix interseeding date: Boyer = June 14; Gustafson = June 16
- Cover crop mix seeding rates: Cowpeas (60 lb/ac); annual ryegrass (22 lb/ac); rapeseed (7 lb/ac)
- Corn harvest date (both hybrids): Boyer = Nov. 4; Gustafson = Oct. 25
Aboveground biomass of the cover crop mixes was not sampled but photographic evidence shows that cover crops persisted beneath the corn canopy into early fall at both farms.
Corn yields at Boyer’s were affected by the hybrid (horizontal leaf architecture vs. vertical leaf architecture) and the interseeding. See figure below.
At Jeremy Gustafson’s, corn yields were not affected by hybrid or planting population. All strips were interseeded. See figure below.
“The seed germinated well,” Gustafson said, seeing mostly cowpeas by mid-September. “Not much made it into fall, though. Leaf architecture didn’t seem to matter and lack of rain really played havoc with this trial.”
“This technique requires more testing before wide spread adoption,” Boyer said. “I need to understand what caused the yield hit. The cover crop species I interseeded worked with both corn varieties, so I will probably try another interseeding with just one variety.”
For more details on this trial, read the full report: Corn Leaf Architecture for Interseeded Cover Crops.
This project was supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
It’s hard to pick just one favorite part of the PFI conference, but I think mine is our potluck and this year we have a special treat – a whole roast pig from one of our members! Please join us Friday January 19 from 7-11 pm for a shared meal hosted by Ty and Bobbie Gustafson of Story City Locker and Donna Prizgintas and Lonna Nachtigal of the DonnaLonna Kitchen Show. Practical Farmers will provide a main dish, coffee, water and tableware. Please bring a side dish and beverage to share.
Potluck is held at CMPI Event Center (2321 North Loop Dr.) in Ames. Friday January 19, 7:00-11:00 pm.
- A whole roast pig from Crooked Gap Farm, roasted by Story City Locker;
- Buns from Madrid Bakery;
- Salad greens from Lee’s Greens;
- Beans from PFI member Darren Fehr;
- Coffee and water;
Don’t want to keep food cold or warm all day? You may drop food off at Scheman when you arrive for the conference and we will transport it for you! Items can be dropped off on a designated table on the ground floor at Scheman. We will transport food from there until 5 pm 1/20/17. We can plug in crock pots and refrigerate dishes.
Need to pick something up last-minute? Visit one of these local establishments:
Dave and Meg Schmidt operate a diverse livestock farm, Troublesome Creek Cattle Co., in Exira IA; raising grass-fed and finished cattle and sheep, pigs and poultry. Feeding the 100% grass-fed cattle herd over the winter is a great expense, so they have experimented with feeding different forage sources- hay, cover crops, crop residue and stockpiled pasture to minimize costs. Hay is the most expensive forage to feed during the winter, so the Schmidt’s were curious how the could extend their grazing season and decrease the amount of hay they have to feed.
The full Practical Farmers’ Research Report is now available.
This research was conducted during the non-growing, winter seasons, from 2013 to 2017. The Schmidts recorded the movement of animals through different lots and pastures, tracked weights on a monthly basis, and noted the amount and value of feed consumed. Monitoring began when animals finished the normal summer grazing and moved to winter crop fields or stockpiled pastures – approximately November through the end of April.
Cover crop grazing
Cereal rye, wheat, hairy vetch and/or oats were planted three out of the four years, for the purpose of grazing during the winter. Table 1 shows seeding records and costs. In 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, cover crops were aerially seeded by a neighbor. In 2016-2017, cover crops were drilled by Dave.
Stockpiled forage in the pastures was comprised of orchardgrass, red clover, smooth brome grass, tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass. Generally, the Schmidts stopped grazing pastures in August in order to grow enough to stockpile for winter.
The percentage of hay consumed by the cattle herd during each non-growing season is shown in Figure 1. The remainder of the herd’s ration was fulfilled by a mix of cover crops, crop residue and stockpiled pasture, depending on the year. Herd size is listed in animal units (AU) which equate to 1,000 pounds of animal.
During the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, cover crops and crop residue provided almost half of the winter feed needs for the herd. During the winter of 2015-2016, the most hay was fed, because the farmers were not able to plant cover crops the season prior. The least hay was fed in 2016-2017, due to a combination of grazing stockpiled pastures along with cover crops and crop residue.
Growing animals were weighed approximately once a month. The weights nearest the beginning and end of the winter feeding period were used to figure average weights and average daily gains (ADG). “Last year [2016-2017] was our first time with significant stockpile grazing and the finishers are the heaviest we’ve ever had them at this point in time. We were able to dramatically reduce the amount of time the cattle were fed hay in the lot – roughly early February to mid April. Perennial stockpile really pays because we can graze it shorter to the ground when it’s dormant, so animal days per acre go way up” stated Dave.
Utilizing diverse winter forage sources allowed the Schmidts to feed less hay, increase the size of their herd and save money. The Schmidts concluded that incorporation of stockpiled pasture is necessary to decrease costs and work towards their goal of only feeding hay for one month per year. To see a detailed cost comparison and to read more about calf and feeder weight gains over each winter, read the full report here.
“We should be able to graze stockpiled annual and perennial pasture well into December. When that feed source is gone we will feed baleage; wrapped oats that were cut at flowering and wrapped alfalfa and orchardgrass. Once that’s gone we’ll have to buy dry hay.” Dave and Meg hope these research results aid other farmers when deciding how to extend their grazing season and cut winter feed costs.
Kathy Voth is one of the featured speakers at Practical Farmers of Iowa’s 2018 annual conference (Jan. 18-20, in Ames), and we’re excited she’s able to join us. Kathy publishes the popular weekly online grazing magazine, “On Pasture,” in partnership with Rachel Gilker.
For 12 years, Kathy also worked with the Bureau of Land Management, working with ranchers, university researchers and agency staff to develop solutions that help communities live sustainably in their environment. In 2004, she developed a method, based on principles of animal behavior, for teaching cows to eat weeds.
I chatted with Kathy to learn a little more about why she advocates that farmers reconsider the place of weeds in their pastures. It turns out that weeds are highly nutritious for cattle, in addition to their abundance and resiliency to weather — and that cattle, just like people, learn to eat the food they grew up seeing their mothers and elders consume.
Kathy will lead a workshop on this topic, “Teaching Cattle to Eat Weeds,” at our annual conference next month. Visit http://pficonference.org to learn more or register.
Here’s what Kathy had to say to some of my questions.
When you first developed the concept of teaching cows to eat weeds, around 2004, it was a pretty radical idea for graziers. Have you seen more buy-in to this idea over the past 13 years?
That’s not changed – it’s still a pretty radical idea. Most people think that cows eat grass, sheep eat forbs and goats browse brush. What it comes down to is animals eat what they’ve learned to eat. Our thoughts about what animals eat really restricts us and them.
It kind of goes in waves. For a while I worked really hard at getting the information out. One time, I went to Missouri and when I came back, told my dad how people had pretty much laughed at me. Then five years later, they invited me back to the same conference to talk about the same thing.
My dad said I probably shouldn’t go. Well, I went and they thought I was the greatest thing. It depends on what people are ready to think about and accept, and you just have to be there at the right time.
What do you consider a pasture weed?
Lots of people are really hung up on the idea that a weed is bad and should be killed, but a weed is just a plant out of place. I think weeds are an all-around good thing.
Even among domesticated cows, different groups eat different things. I was in Boulder County, Colorado working with a group of cows, and they were pretty much eating anything. I thought, ‘I’m going to take in every single plant they’re eating and test it.’ It was like 20 plants. One was field bindweed. They’d been eating that long before I showed up.
A lady at the testing facility said she’d really like her cows to eat field bindweed – her cows didn’t have this particular culture. There are examples of cows eating all kinds of things.
From my perspective, we have wasted way too much time and money managing weeds and should let our cows eat them. The beauty of the process is that you train one group of animals to eat one weed and watch them in pasture. They will generally try other new plants on their own, because the training process opens their eyes to the possibility that other things can be food.
Mostly, we try to manage for grass.
Why do you think that is? If cows have these potentially diverse food cultures, why do you think there’s this misconception about and focus on grass?
My theory is the reason we think cows’ [only natural diet is] grass is that, when we could start to harvest forages and store them for long-term, about the time we got mechanized enough to do that, grass was an easy thing to store. So that’s what we fed them – the more grass you have, the more you have to store.
Back in the 1750s to about 1850, people thought cows ate carrots, beans, potatoes and turnips – things we’d never think of feeding them. That just pointed out to me that cows are flexible. It’s people who are inflexible.
Have you ever heard back from anyone who was initially skeptical of teaching cows to eat weeds, but had a change of heart?
I’ve had lots of people that were really skeptical and went ahead and did it – like one guy in Montana. I think he got roped into the project by a gal he worked with at [a natural resources conservation office]. I sent him instructions, he started training and I came out to help. Sure enough, [the cows] started eating some weeds, then other weeds.
The heifers we had trained he had in a pasture divided in half with a single wire. The steers on the other side of the wire learned how to eat the weeds from the heifers – so he was very sold on it.
The guys I worked with in Bolder County, Colorado were like, fine, we’ll give you some cows to work with but we don’t want to be involved. I would do different projects with these cows, trying them on different weeds. Eventually their owners became my friends. The last year I worked with them, they had a herd of 800 cows.
I didn’t always get the same cows, and the ones I trained that went out with the herd taught others. It took about six years of sorting cows – but now they run for the weeds first.
What that guy was really impressed by was that some of the native plants were making a comeback.
If graziers already feel they’re doing a good job managing their pastures, is there still a reason they should consider training their cows to eat weeds?
If you know what you’ve got in your pasture and know what you’re managing for, you can do a good job and maybe you won’t have any issues.
The problem comes when something bad happens – it gets dry, you’re managing as best you can but you overgraze. These accidents happen often, because weather changes often. Suddenly you have more cows than you thought.
My thought with [developing this approach] was that if my cows know how to eat weeds, I don’t have to worry because weeds are very resilient. They come up during drought, so my cows will always have something to eat.
Grazing weeds is a strategy for resilience. Plus – nobody knows this – weeds are more nutritious than grass. They are basically the equivalent of alfalfa or better.
Protein is one of the limiting factors for most cattle; it’s a hard thing for most cattle to get. Weeds are very high in protein, and very digestible. That means cows can gain weight even if their pastures are lower quality.
Any time an animal has protein and dry grass, they can eat all that dry grass as well and still get an adequate diet. The protein helps them process dry food better.
You might even be able to raise more cows – you basically have 43 percent more forage if you teach your cows to eat weeds.
Does your method for teaching cows to eat weeds work just as well with older animals? For graziers who want to start doing this, would they need to plan for a longer training period?
I started with heifers because we all believe younger animals learn more quickly than older ones. But then I started training anything that anyone brought me and it always worked.
Some individuals are better weed-eaters than others, but it wasn’t breed-specific, it wasn’t age-specific. If a mother cow was a really experimental eater and would eat a lot of new things, her calves were also like that – because I got to follow some of the calves over a number of years and watch their offspring.
The bulls were really interesting, because I would teach the heifers and they would put the bull in for just a day, and he would learn really fast – I think because he was trying to impress [the cows] and fit in.
The cows have taught me a lot over the years.
How do cows compare with goats when it comes to tackling pasture weeds? For graziers who do mixed-species grazing and already integrate sheep or goats, is there still a reason for them to consider training their cows too?
Goats don’t do a better job. I did goats for a long time and did prescribed grazing with them. What I found is cows are every bit as good as goats.
The reason I would always choose cows over goats is cows are so much easier to manage and sell on a market than a goat is. It depends on where you are – I think the goat market is getting better. But building fence for goats is so hard; they’re just so smart. But a cow, I can build a one- or two-strand fence and they’ll stay in.
I tell people if you already have cows and just want to get goats to manage weeds, don’t do it. Cows can do every bit as good as goats – even on brush.
But if you think you have a market for the goat or just happen to like goats and sheep, then that’s fine. I would probably still teach the cows to eat weeds.
First I would watch what everybody is eating, because before I knew cows could eat weeds, I knew there was research showing that you could put five goats per pasture and everyone would eat well. But I’ve since found it’s maybe 2.5 goats or 3 sheep per pasture.
Once cows have been trained to eat weeds, how much active pasture management is needed? Do you still have to get rid of noxious weeds?
For example, in Montana, they have a lot of spotted knapweed and really need to reduce that. To do that, there are times you really should put your animals in a pasture. I would do that in mid-July for Montana, because at that time your other plants have senesced. You’ll have grazed your spotted knapweed before it goes to seed, even if it flowers after that, research has shown that most of the seed isn’t viable.
You could manage timing that way.
One of the reasons I really thought training cows to eat weeds would be a good thing is because, while you can put up multiple fences and force cows to eat everything, in some places that’s not viable – the landscape is too big, or water sources aren’t close enough together. My thought is a if cow is out there 24/7 and knows to eat weeds, you don’t have to do anything about it.
After completing two years of cucumber enterprise budgets, Ann Franzenburg and Emma Johnson looked at their farms and decided: “Let’s do cherry tomatoes.” For this enterprise budget, both farmers did a careful accounting of the revenue, costs, and labor for their 2017 cherry tomato crops. The analysis of their data, and their comments on varieties, harvesting, and marketing, is available in a new Practical Farmers’ Research Report: Enterprise Budget for Cherry Tomatoes.
- Both farms had profitable cherry tomato crops, netting $1.31/lb at Franzenburg and $1.54/lb at Johnson
- Labor was the largest expense for both Franzenburg and Johnson, accounting for 62% and 68% of their total expenses, respectively.
- Harvesting and packing was the most time-consuming task on both farms, accounting for 74% of labor-hours at Franzenburg and 62% of labor-hours at Johnson.
Franzenburg and Johnson both plan to repeat the cherry tomato enterprise budget for 2018 to provide a two-year look at the crop’s production and profitability.
Click here, or on the image below to download the full report.