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Let them Graze – Grazing Cattle on Cropland gives Producers Feeding Flexibility, Soil Health Benefits

Let them Graze – Grazing Cattle on Cropland gives Producers Feeding Flexibility, Soil Health Benefits

It turns out cattle can make you a better crop farmer. 

Livestock have a symbiotic relationship with the land. They feed off of the lush, green cover and leave behind waste that  provides nutrients for new growth. 

That’s why integrating livestock is on the list of five principles for improving soil health

Other principles have a more direct connection to soil: keep it covered, minimize disturbance, encourage plant diversity, and keep a living root in the ground. But livestock like cattle or sheep can do a lot for the critters underground – the earthworms and microbes that break down organic matter and keep soil porous and resilient. That can all translate to better crop yields. 

One of the first worries farmers have about cattle on cropland is what those heavy hooves will do to the soil. Will compaction keep rain from soaking in? Prevent the next crop from establishing a good root? 

Studies by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln say no. 

One study on the silty clay loam fields of eastern Nebrsaka found that 16 years of grazing corn residue after harvest didn’t hurt soil properties or crop yields. In fact, soybean yields improved by more than 3 bushels per acre after grazing, something the researchers said may be explained by an observed increase in microbial activity.  In addition, cattle benefit your future soybean crop by eating volunteer corn seed, reducing the need for corn killer in next summer’s spray tank. 

Letting cattle chow down on crop residue may seem to conflict with another soil health principle, keeping the soil covered. But the Nebraska studies assured that’s not an issue, either. Grazing should remove only about 15% of the residue cover, according to UNL experts.

Nutrients remain in place, too. After 16 years, their studies measured no differences in soil organic matter. Most nutrients, such as nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and calcium, are put back onto the land as manure. 

Growing a cover crop can provide several benefits for soil health. Not only does it provide more for cattle to eat when they’re grazing after harvest, but it adds plant diversity and keeps a living root that feeds the below-ground livestock community. 

For the cattle producer, the extra feed source is a major appeal. Producers can extend their grazing season by moving cows to corn stalks or cover crops after harvest. It gives pastures a rest and reduces the winter feed bill. 

Among the dropped ears, cobs, husks and stalks, there’s enough nutrition for cattle to maintain a healthy body weight, at least early in the grazing period, according to an article by South Dakota State University Extension Beef Specialist Julie Walker. Producers might need to supplement feed as cattle finish off the most palatable of the crop leftovers. 

Growing up in Nebraska, Jamie Johnson’s family always ran their Angus cattle on corn stalks after harvest. 

“It was just kind of less work if you let them feed themselves,” she said. 

Now Johnson farms with her husband, Brian, and his parents, Alan and Mickie Johnson, near Frankfort in eastern South Dakota. The Johnson operation has long included cattle, but only in recent years did they start inviting the cows onto their cropland. 

The Johnsons graze crop residue for different reasons than Jamie’s family did when she was growing up. While they enjoy an extended grazing season and fewer chores like she did in Nebraska, the Johnsons are especially motivated by the soil health benefits of cattle on cropland. 

“They really do the work for you out there,” said Johnson, who serves as first vice president on the South Dakota Soybean Association board of directors

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