"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: (2020) Purchased some electric fence netting to use (almost hate to say this) for a couple of pigs and then - bacon! Incorporated 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). 2021: we are seeing some dung beetles & the sheep and their lambs roamed and grazed - we had the heaviest lamb crop with NO additional feed, which was great for the profits! Downside, apparently their nutrition was so good that 4.25 mo old rams lambs bred some ewes before leaving and we had some surprise early February lambs . Note to self: will have to watch that more closely! Moving forward in 2022, we plan to raise a few more pastured pigs (as we kept 2 gilts and AI'd them) and move them more often. We have a couple of overgrown wooded areas that need a little cleaning up, so we will see how the pigs can help with this. 2021 a family member purchased the adjacent 80 ac east of our 'home place'. We will be managing this place as well. Wray acres was grid sampled (soil analysis) and found deficient in lime & other nutrients. Lime and fertilizer were applied at variable rates according to soil test. Pond spillway was fixed and rye drilled in the front 20 ac (beans 2021). Designed and applied for EQIP program for this 80 ac. Also drilled in 12 ac of rye on our home place where we had a summer grazing blend. Completed our 8.2 ac NWSG (Native warm season grass) field and the last converted 17+ ac HEL field as a dormant planting in December. All crop acres had cover crops applied with various degrees of success (some were put in very late & did not have as much winter cover as we would have liked).
I almost forgot to mention, in 2021 we greatly reduced our purchased feed blend by not supplementing cows. We hand feed this all natural 'all stock' (cracked corn, DDGs, oats, soybean hulls) feed for our steers, developing bulls & heifers (just a couple pounds each), pigs, & sheep ('keep me friendly' basis only). This will help us 'convert' our livestock to cattle that perform in our environment - on grass - with no need for grain inputs. We are still giving our cows a yearly vaccination when they are pregnancy checked (but not de worming; grazing taller pastures and frequent moving should keep these in check). We were much better at tracking our hay usage this year; this will help us project future needs.
Phase 6: (2022) Increase incorporating livestock to graze cover crops and row crop residues. (2022 & future) 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. (Future) Use and incorporate chickens in a chicken tractor or egg mobile. 2022 small 'rabbit tractor' completed. Rabbits will graze grass, make fertilizer & meat (both of which are $$$ now). Fertilizer is very expensive this year; I'm not sure how much we will put on; it is good that we have started to reduce our dependency on this!
* 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.
Phase 7: (2022 & future) Work on reducing hay. "Put up" fewer hay bales (in non cattle accessible areas) or purchase. Expand or use temporary fencing to rotationally graze previous hay fields; devise options to get water to these areas (or closer) for grazing. Use cattle to renovate & hopefully rejuvenate some previously enrolled CRP acres to get the biology in better shape so it will grow more forage.
Phase 8: (2020-current) Using the "Power of the Pig"...having the small group of feeder pigs (& later the 2 kept gilts), made them very portable with the electric string. The gilts spent the winter in an area that we turned into a garden (nature's natural rototillers) through the #MilpaFirstAcre program. The 2022 born piglets are grazing and helping to renovate / rejuvenate a 10 acre area that we have been planting in a summer annual blend that hasn't been producing as well as we would like; we are hoping their impact will help.