Marlin Johnston

Marlin Johnston in his corn fields, at far left, the first summer with people poised like cows. Courtesy photo.

SIDNEY, Mont. – Marlin and Aurilla Johnston received the Richland County Conservation District Cooperators Of The Year award at the MonDak Ag Days banquet earlier this month.

“We chose the Johnston because they have had an excellent winter feeding demonstration for the past three years involving corn and cover crops,” said Julie Goss, director of the Richland County Conservation District. “Marlin’s willingness to try this grazing alternative on his operation, the excitement he has for the project and the sharing of the ups and downs with others is one of the reasons the Conservation District chose the Johnstons.”

Tim Fine, Richland County Extension agent, talked about the grazing project.

“We wanted to know if we could extend our cattle grazing season in eastern Montana through the winter with cover crops and standing corn and reduce our need to feed 100 percent hay over the winter,” Fine said.

The “Dryland Corn Grazing project” was scheduled to begin in the spring of 2017 but due to lack of moisture the plan was postponed a year.

The Johnstons no-till planted a nice cover crop mix with their Flexicoil drill on June 1, 2018.

“The mix included: turnips, radishes, berseem clover, forage oats, safflower and sudangrass,” Fine said.

Then, Johnston planted corn. “To plant the corn on June 15, Marlin plugged every other tube, so he was planting on a 20-inch spacing.”

Fine said Marlin and Aurilla took an hour to place an electric fence around the cover crops to graze the grown crops in the fall.

He would move the fence to the corn and feed the corn through the winter months.

Through research, it was found that the cows would need to be limited to the amount of corn crop that would be available to them.

“Marlin wanted to make sure the cows were in good condition due to the extra nutrition needed going into calving season, so during the bitter cold in 2019, he did feed a little hay,” Fine said.

According to Fine, Johnston moved his cows into the cover crops on Oct. 23, 2018, with the field divided into seven 10-acre paddocks.

“We wanted to make sure the cows ate all the cover crop, not just the tops,” he said.

Some 100 cow/calf pairs grazed for eight days and then the calves were weaned. The cows were then moved into the next cover crop paddock.

“Marlin continued to move his cows through the cover crop on to the sudangrass and then on Dec. 28, he began to graze in the corn,” Fine said. “The cow/calf pairs grazed well.”

Gross said the Johnston’s paddocks for the corn are two or three acres and last about a week before the cows need to be moved.

In June 2019, Johnstons began seeding his corn on a different set of fields, but needed to reseed it due to the wet, cool spring.

“Marlin was not able to get a good fill on his heads due to lack of growing days,” Gross said. “Although he had this minor setback, he grazed cover crops and sudangrass up until January.”

In February 2020, the Johnstons continued grazing the corn.

Currently, the cows are doing very well, especially with the open winter Dawson/Richland County had in 2019-2020.  

“We were very pleased with the results of the trial. It was a good project and proved cover crops and standing corn do work to not have to feed as much hay over the winter,” Fine said.

Gross wrote a grant for $3,338 to help offset the cost of the electric fencing and the soil testing.

The Johnston’s also participated in the Conservation District Cost Share Program, Bio Control for Canada Thistle and planting shelterbelt trees. The Johnstons also host one of the Conservation District’s weather stations.

During the project, the Johnstons worked with Fine, Gross, the local NRCS staff, MSU Extension and the Soil Conservation District .