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Taberts/Millers study soil health in northern Minnesota

Tabert/Miller family

Benjamin, Liam, and Mikayla Tabert; along with Peggy and David Miller. (Not pictured, Thea Tabert)

RED LAKE FALLS, Minn. – A Red Lake County family has agreed to share their 2022 growing season with readers! The crew at Trinity Creek Ranch includes Mikayla and Benjamin Tabert, and Mikayla’s parents, David and Peggy Miller.

They run a cow/calf operation and raise many types of crops at their ranch, located about 45 miles east of Grand Forks, N.D.

With roughly five frost-free months annually, everyone at Trinity Creek Ranch is dedicated to understanding their growing season and their patch of the earth.

They strive to capture as much sunlight as possible while maximizing profit per acre and long-term sustainability. To them, one key to this pursuit is increasing soil health.

They’ve experimented with cover crops for 10 years and are always looking for ways to feed the herd well by rotationally grazing pastures and/or grazing crop residues and cover crops.

“I enjoy seeing the integration of the crops and the livestock,” said Mikayla, 28. “Stacking enterprises is something that I find very enjoyable. The cost savings for grazing and harvesting crops through the cattle is huge.”

Trinity Creek Ranch started seeding cover crops in 2012, which was Mikayla’s senior year in high school.

“We did cover crops where it worked – usually after wheat – for several years,” she said.

Deciding in high school to go back to the ranch, Mikayla attended North Dakota State University where she earned a double major in Animal Science and Crop and Plant Science. She and Benjamin married after finishing college in 2016, and they joined the ranch full-time.

“We always had prioritized soil health, but we learned a lot that first winter on the ranch and made a lot of changes over the next few years,” Mikayla said. “We started growing a lot of different crops in our rotation and trying to do more grazing and cover crops.”

In recent years, they have raised corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflower, and peaola (field peas and canola intercrop) and grow tall fescue for grass seed production. Tall fescue is a turf grass for golf courses and lawns.

They intend to try to establish Kernza in the fall of 2022. They also raise alfalfa and plant some “complex covers” for grazing. They’ve raised cereal rye and interseeded soybeans into the rye.

The cow herd is moved frequently to “greener pastures.” The Millers/Taberts use a lot of temporary fencing and will move the cattle to a new grazing area daily, if needed.

“You pretty much open the gate, and they fly past you,” she said. “We spend more time setting things up than anything.”

After fall harvest, the cows are let out on field residues and cover crops. With the help of strategically-placed big round bales, the crew has fed the herd on farm fields until January, February, or even March. The cows can still find feed, but the wind, cold, and snow make conditions uncomfortable for man and beast.

The ranch focuses on producing high quality black baldies through mostly Black Angus/Hereford crosses. With COVID, they increased their marketing of freezer beef and sell quarters and halves to customers through their local lockers. The bulk of their finished cattle are marketed to beef processing facilities, although with the drought of 2021, the calves were sold as feeders.

The farm was successful in getting an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) contract to study cover cropping, and that helped them feel more comfortable trying a variety of sowing techniques when they were starting out.

Because of the short growing season, they determined that cover crops needed to be seeded during the growing season to establish them. Since 2017, they have been interseeding sunflowers and corn with cover crops and experimenting with different cover crops species blends and seeding timings.

Mikayla reached out to her college advisor, Dr. Marisol Berti, to find research in this area and ask if they would collaborate on a cover crop seeding date trial. She wanted to find out when was the best time to interseed a cover crop into sunflowers.

Dr. Berti was looking for a graduate student for sunflower-alfalfa intercropping and offered the opportunity to Mikayla. Working on her master’s from the ranch, she is now conducting thesis research in sunflower-alfalfa intercropping and interseeding sunflower with cover crops.

“It is basically seeding sunflower and alfalfa at the same time to establish alfalfa for the following growing season,” she said. “That could allow the farmer to skip that first low-yielding alfalfa production year.”

Growing season

The 2021 growing season was very dry in Red Lake County, and that hurt Trinity Creek Ranch. There were crop insurance payments for every crop, and the family had to really work at producing feed for the cow herd – plus sell the calves early.

Unlike some parts of northern Minnesota, the ranch had limited snow during the winter of 2021-22. The snow only began piling up in March.

“The real question is, ‘Did the water infiltrate the soil?’ It is still plenty frozen,” Mikayla said on April 22. “I feel like we probably don’t have the deeper soil moisture back in general. I’m most worried about our pastureland.”

She added that the winter cattle lots were sloppy – but they are thankful for moisture after last summer.

The crew will have their work to do when the 2022 growing season finally arrives.

In the meantime, the family is enjoying Mikayla and Benjamin’s two young children: Liam, 2, and Thea, 7 months old. The children are already considered part of the operation.

Recommending Mikayla for the 2022 reports was Tim Dufault of Crookston, Minn. He’s been very impressed with soil health field days the family has held at their farm. Tim said this is a great opportunity for Mikayla to share with others what is happening on her side of the fence.

Across Minnesota and the northern states, we often hear that the growing season is too short to effectively raise cover crops or gain benefits.

Mikayla lives in the northern part of a northern state, but she believes whole-heartedly that cover crops can and do help soil health.

“I tell myself, ‘If you really want to do it, you’ll make it happen,’” she said. “Adding cover crops doesn’t have to all happen at once. A good way to start is following wheat with cereal rye. The fall growth isn’t huge, but you get growth in the spring, and that’s a starting point.”

Update for April 23: Trinity Creek Ranch received 3 inches of rain on April 22-23, as well as a little hail.

“Lots of roads washed and flooding everywhere with the ground still frozen,” wrote Mikayla in her update. “We’re quite thankful we only have 10 or so calves out of heifers and the cows don’t calve until next month!”

Farm & Ranch Guide/Minnesota Farm Guide wishes everyone at Trinity Creek Ranch a very vegetative and successful 2022 growing season!

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