FARGO, N.D. – Many who practice conservation tillage are now taking their operation to the next level by incorporating some type of animal presence into the system. Those attending the recent Conservational Tillage Conference in Fargo discovered they don’t have to own animals to make this happen. Instead they can find ways of allowing those owning cattle to graze cover crops on their land or spreading manure from an animal unit on their farm.
Grazing cover crops – Several attended a breakout session where grazing cover crops by neighboring cattle herds was discussed. The moderator of this session was Troy Salzer, University of Minnesota Extension in Carlton County. Since 1980, he has owned and operated Sandy Hills Ranch at Barnum, Minn.
He noted there are two different roles the land owner can take regarding the management of animals grazing on that land – an active role in the management or an inactive role.
“The potential profit generation back to the land in an active role is much higher,” he said. “In our area (northeastern Minnesota) some of the numbers I have heard in relationship to cow-calf operations ranged from a dollar a day up to a dollar and a half per day. Generally, in that scenario we are grazing corn stalks with cows, so we can count on adding some protein to their ration. However, if you do a good job in selecting your cover crops, then, in essence, you can grow that protein and come up with a complete ration in that scenario.”
If you want the owner of the livestock to take the active role in fencing, water and mineral management – the cost to keep the livestock there is free. The livestock owner also pays for the cost of the cover crop seed and the expense of seeding it.
“In some cases, I think there is value in considering the last option if you are very short on labor and do not having the ability to do the timely seed practices that should be done,” Salzer said.
Fencing can also be a concern; however, with the poly-wire electric fence now available, a half mile of fencing can be installed for about $200 and cattle adjust quickly to the electric fence.
Salzer said he is more comfortable with cows staying in an area fenced with a single strand of electric wire and a good fencer unit than he is with a fence made of four strands of barb wire.
He also suggested that the area being grazed be fenced into sections and every week or so allow the cattle into a new section to graze.
“It will keep them (the cows) a lot happier, even if you just periodically move them, even if just once a week, allow them to graze a new section of that field,” he said. “If the cows are laying down in the morning, it is a good indication they are happy.”
Access to water during the colder months can be a problem that needs to be addressed. In Salzer’s situation they buried black plastic pipeline at about 18 inches deep to a water tank and if you have enough livestock being served, a low-flow float should keep the water in the pipe from freezing. Those water lines that will not be used during the colder months are blown out with compressed air to keep them from freezing. Hay or straw can also be laid on the ground that covers the water line and that will help prevent freezing. Another technique is cracking the valve slightly, so the water runs continuously, but there must be a way to get rid of that water from a steady flow.
According to Salzer, cows in good health can walk as far as one mile for water during the winter months. However, during the warm summer months, 600 feet might become the limit for distance to get to water and if it is further than that, the cows may remain close to the water source and not do as much grazing on areas further away from the source of water.
Manure and compost management – If it isn’t possible to graze your land, you can still gain some benefits of animal agriculture by spreading manure or composted manure on the land. This can work well in many situations, according to Mary Keena, NDSU Extension specialist/livestock environmental management at the Carrington Research Extension Center.
“You get magic from manure that you don’t get from commercial fertilizer,” Keena said. “That’s what we call it – magic – because you can’t quantify it. We get the bugs, the organic matter and all the other things that come with manure…but you can’t take that to the bank. You can’t show them a dollar value on it, and that is where it gets hard.”
Some crop producers are reluctant to spread manure on their fields due to what they perceive as a compaction problem. However, some of the producers taking part in the roundtable discussion on manure management said that experience has shown what might be true in the case of fields with conventional tillage. In a no-till situation, if you do have any compaction, it heals itself over time if you have good biological action going on in the soil.
Compaction in the field can also be reduced by having a way to lower the tire pressure in the field while spreading manure and then increasing the tire pressure when traveling on the road. The lower tire pressure in the field greatly reduces the compaction and there are mechanisms that can be installed on your equipment that can be used to adjust tire pressure. Such units are common on farm trucks used to haul sugarbeets during harvest. A lower pressure is used in the field when loading the beets and the pressure is then increased to the normal psi when pulling out of the field.
Keena also stressed the manure should be tested for composition and the manure spreader calibrated for application rates. She also noted that composting manure doesn’t make the manure better, but rather reduces the volume of manure that is hauled.
Finally, there needs to be open communication between the different parties involved in the manure operation, she noted. This includes the landowner’s agronomist, manure hauler and the operation where the manure is coming from. This last person is an important source of information regarding chemicals that were used on the crops that the cows may have been grazing , since some of those weed control chemicals can impact certain crops the next year if they are present in the manure, since the rumen is not capable of breaking down those chemicals.