No Till Notes
Date: Week of October 7, 2012
By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-Till Educator
Since I wrote last week’s article I’ve had a few phone calls and e-mails asking me to expand on the topic of adding forages to dry land crop rotations and how to implement these forages into the crop rotation. I will share some of my ideas of what I think will work, but I’m by no means an expert in forages and grazing cattle. I really think this a concept worth exploring to integrate livestock, diverse forages for grazing, and crop production.
It makes a good deal of sense to me that if we can improve the soil we work with our forage and crop production on those acres should also improve. The most important aspect of improving soil health is to increase the organic matter of the soil and improve the biological diversity in the soil. This concept would also diversify our operations by adding livestock into our operations.
The addition of a mixture of forages would provide this increase in organic matter and diversity provided the forages are managed properly. These forages would be grazed rather than hayed and a least 50 percent of the forage has to be left for the soil. It is critical that we leave enough forage on the soil surface to protect the soil and feed the biological organisms in the soil.
If we had cattle in our operation I would replace the dry land corn acres with forages in our winter wheat, corn, field pea crop rotation. Dry land corn is the weak link in our crop rotation from a moisture requirement standpoint. We run out of moisture occasionally in July and August when the corn really needs moisture to produce grain. This year is a good example where we had enough moisture to produce a good plant, but lacked the moisture to produce much grain. If we would have had forages in place of the corn we could have produced a good forage crop with our limited rainfall this year.
In order to achieve long term grazing of forages I think you would need to implement a forage crop rotation within the forage cycle. I would plant one third of these forage acres to an early season forage mixture which I would plant in early spring. This mixture would include forages such as forage field peas, forage oats, radishes, and turnips. You want a diverse mixture of forages for the quality of the forage and the diversity it brings to the soil.
I would also plant a summer forage mixture on another third of the acres consisting of sorghums, millets, forage soybeans, sunflowers, radishes and turnips. I would time the planting of this mixture so that it is ready to start grazing at about the same time that the grazing of the spring mixture has been completed.
The final third of my acres I would plant a mixture of the spring and summer forages. My thought is to have a combination of forages with some of the forage growing in the later part of the summer and part of the mixture being cool season forage that would continue to grow into the late fall. This would extend the time of living roots growing in the soil and add additional forages for grazing into the late fall and early winter.
The logistics of how to really implement this type of grazing program would have to be worked out. Fencing, grazing rotations, and providing water for the cattle would all have to be worked out to achieve the highest efficiency of this grazing program. I don’t have the answers for these types of questions, but I do know of producers who have implemented these forage crops into their crop rotations. This type of cropping system integrating cattle grazing into their operation has worked well for them.
At this year’s Panhandle No till Partnership winter meeting we have invited some of these producers to speak about integrating cattle, forages, and crop production. With a dry weather pattern these forages may have a real fit here in our region. The forages could also help take some grazing pressure of the rangelands and allow them to recover. I think these forages are worth taking a look at and implementing livestock into our crop production acres may increase the profitability of our dry land acres.