"Something" was happening to our soil. We had been fertilizing, haying, and sometimes grazing these certain areas for many years, but the yields have been decreasing. So we soil sampled a couple areas - thinking that they may be low in lime; however, that came back OK and the orangic matter was nice also. The P was a little "low" if we wanted certain yields but this didn't seem like the whole story. After attending some 'cover crop' seminars, we starting thinking more about the microbes - or the livestock below. More reading, googling and U-Tube videos - and we started realizing that we weren't "listening" to our ground and animals. It seems so obvious now, but we had been applying bandages and easy-fixes to compensate for our own 'mismanagement' practices which follow - what 'everyone else' had been doing, or how you were supposed to do things as driven by industry... So, we started paying more attention. Those poorer performing fields had very few species diversification (mainly K-31 and some misc undesireable weeds (forbes)) - and undisolved cow patties (more on this later). Our cows grazing in these areas were 'mineral pigs' where we couldn't hardly keep any mineral in the feeder...
Phase 1: In 2016, we removed 41 acres of highly erodable land (HEL) from row crop production and drilled winter wheat into the soybean stubble. We did this for crop diversification and weed suppression. We ensiled the wheat the following spring in 2017. The wheat was not terminated and we brush hogged it and drilled a blend of novel endophyte fescue, clover, and Timothy in the late summer. In 2018 we ensiled the volunteer wheat and other greens in the spring. The establishment was marginal, so we drilled pearl millet into the entire area. We were able to ensile two cuttings off of this before winter; yields weren't great, but due to the light hay crop, this ended up being a life saver. For 2019 we again baled a hay crop. August 14, 2019 we brought 15 fall calving cows over to the 41 ac area; cross-fencing with electric, smaller paddocks and lanes for grazing management. Commercial fertilizer was used for all of these crops. No chemical heribicides were applied. These cows have gone through not quite 50 lbs of mineral every three months.
Also, in 2017 & 2018, 100% of our row crop ground had cover crops planted on them after no-till practices (2016 just had no-till practices).
Phase 2: Spring of 2019, we removed another 11 acre section of HEL from crop production and flash grazed it to "terminate" the rye cover crop. We then drilled pearl millet. We also chose to rent another small 10 acre field, which was previously in corn, just down the road. We drilled a Sorghum-Sudan hybrid into this. Commercial fertilizer was used on both of these fields; chemical heribicides were not. It was not a great year for these crops; the first cuttings were very sparse and disappointing. The second cutting better, and the third cutting on the S/S grass was excellent. In September, we drilled cover crops into both of these fields. The pearl millet field received a 4 way blend; the other a 2 way blend. Both cover crops emerged before our extra cold November weather. Strictly limit the usage of chemical herbicides; only applied in early summer in a few places to try and eradicate several patches of perilla mint (toxic to livestock); limited sucess was achieved-it wilted and died, but came back in the same areas, maybe not quite as thick? Canadian thistles were clipped as discovered before going to seed. Also limited use of fly spray (permethrin). Did not use the IGR additive in the mineral; did use the CTC this summer as we had a cow with anaplasmosis the year before. We did not vacinate or pour (deworm / ivermectin) the 15 cows that came to our homeplace. We are using ivermectin sparingly; at weaning on calves that will go into a temporary dry lot.
Phase 3: As part of our 2020 vision - To give our neighbors something to really talk about, we pulled our remaining 55 acres of HEL on our home place out of row crop production (after the harvesting of the 2019 soy bean crop). Although late, we drilled winter wheat into the bean stubble. We hope to graze the large section adjacent to the cows in the spring and ensile the sections they don't get to. We will also ensile the 2-way rye blend on the rented 10 acres; graze or bale the 4-way blend. Also in December 2019 & January 2020 we were able to move our larger cow 'mob' onto some 'bottom ground' that had corn stubble and a fairly heavy infestation of fall panicum. The cows did a nice job there; time was limited in these areas due to water source (using a rock water crossing in a creek (limited access water; cows don't like to stand on rocks) and unusual large rain amounts and also snow. Begin the gradual weaning of ground from commercial fertilizers, especially as plant diversity increases (possible introduction of species to jump start this). Work on improving permanent exterior fences; several of them were new about 50-60 years ago... (never ending, right?)
Phase 4: (2020) We are planning to work with the NRCS office and hope to utilize the EQIP program to devise a plan for the 55 acres. We plan to trench reliable, pressurized water to several locations so we can more effectively divide our grazing areas. We will put some of these acres into some permanent pastures; others we are considering blended annual crops and cover crops to be used for summer, fall and winter grazing - especially if we can get reliable water in these areas. Our plan is to utilize mainly temporary electric fencing to do more adaptive grazing due to its flexibility. We will start this plan whether we are able to receive program assistance or not. Explore marketing options for all natural (non-implanted) grass fed beef (lamb & rabbits).
Phase 5: (future; but sooner) Purchase some electric fence netting to eventually use (almost hate to say this) for a couple of pigs. We are going to try and use the pigs to kill the perilla mint (thinks it's only toxic to ruminents) and then - bacon! Incorporate the sheep with the cows in some areas to clean up fence rows, shrubby vegetation and undesirable forbes; sheep seem to prefer this over grass. Continue to limit the insecticide use for flies and grubs - bring back the dung beetles and use other natural methods (fly catchers, harrowing, chickens, etc).
Phase 6: (future) Increase incorporating livestock to graze cover crops and row crop residues. Increasing field edges to 10-15 feet. Increasing crop field grass waterways. Continue with no-till practices and incorporating cover crops. Phase out commercial fertilizer on all pastures and livestock grazed annuals and cover crops. Continue to build organic matter on the planted crop ground, working toward using less chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.
* Note: we cash rent our row crop ground, so we are working with our renter to implement no-till and cover crops while also being mindful of their yields and profitability.