12. Kent Solberg – Diversity in Crops, Farm Operations Empowers Soil Health

Kent Solberg is a livestock and grazing specialist for the Sustainable Farming Association, as well as a field consultant for Understanding Ag, and a farmer. He is interested in the ability of well-managed soil to transform farms, families, and even communities. He believes diversity is key.

“We’re focusing on these key principles of soil health: keeping the soil covered, minimizing disturbance, increasing plant diversity, keeping a living root in the soil, and integrating livestock,” said Solberg.

Many farmers interested in building better soil health on their farms are investing in keeping the soil covered and minimizing disturbance, but fewer are thinking critically about plant diversity and integrating livestock.

According to Solberg, including at least one of each of the three plant functional groups – grass, legume, and broadleaf – in a crop rotation can increase the health of the farm’s soil exponentially. In a typical corn/soybean rotation, farmers have a grass present in the corn crop and a legume present in the soybean crop, but adding a broadleaf can make a world of difference.

“Even if it’s not a crop we can harvest, we’re harvesting solar energy, we’re putting carbohydrates through photosynthesis into the ground, we’re freeing that microbial community, we’re keeping the soil covered – all of that building soil biology,” he said. 

Better soil biology builds soil aggregation, which increases the ability of the field to handle and hold water and impacts trafficability. Solberg admits that it is difficult to put a value on trafficability and being able to get into the field at the proper time, but that we all know intuitively how critical timing can be to farm productivity. With that in mind, trafficability is a tremendous factor worth considering. 

A lot of this is about being creative, says Solberg, and setting aside a few acres of your farm to try something new. Adding livestock could be a great way to bring a younger family member back to the farm, but if a livestock herd is not in the cards for you, he encourages thinking about custom grazing. A farmer can have the soil health benefit of adding livestock without the labor if he or she is creative about it.

“All the things we can control in the production and potential profitability of our farm fall under the ability to help that soil capture and store water and build that nutrient cycling,” said Solberg.

Learn how to implement additional crop and animal diversity to benefit your soil’s health in this podcast.

Planning for Harvest: Utilizing Cover Crops as Forages

Harvest is approaching quickly and, with that, many people are thinking about getting cover crops seeded, if they haven’t already. As you plan for your cover crop, think about what your goals are. Do you plan on harvesting those cover crops for stored forages? Will you have livestock grazing the cover crop? Regardless of which you choose, these steps will help make sure your forage harvest is successful.

Cover Crops for Harvested Forages

Harvested forages can be an added benefit from planting a cover crop. When planning for your cover crop, there are some things you should consider before sending the seeder to the field. While other crops can be used, the most commonly harvested cover crops for forages in the Midwest are cereal rye and the other cereal crops.

Cereal rye, wheat, triticale, and others can all make good forages for livestock. Make sure to review your seeding rate. Typically with a harvested forage, we will increase a rate by 50-100% to increase our final yields. For example, my typical cereal rye cover crop rate may be 45-60 pounds per acre. When planning to harvest that cereal rye for a forage, I recommend increasing that rate to 90-120 pounds rye per acre. This will help to increase total yield per acre when we go to harvest.

Also, consider adding fertilizer to the cover crop. Since we are now looking for an increase in biomass and will be taking a crop off, as well as stover, we will be removing those nutrients from the soil and not returning them. Talk to your SHP Field Manager or trusted agronomist to see what they recommend for a cover crop nutrition plan.

When it comes to harvest of the cover crop, timing is key. When and how you harvest will determine the nutritional value of the resulting forage. With cereal rye and other cereal crops, chopping or baling at the boot stage will ensure the best palatability and nutrition quality. As cereals get to the point of heading out, the lignin increases, which decreases forage quality and palatability for animals. Late-harvested cover crops are more ideally used as a low-quality forage part of a ration or bedding.

Cereal rye, in particular, can be difficult to dry down, so chopping is a good option. You can also make sure the stems are conditioned into small pieces, wind rows are wide, etc. to ensure conditions are ideal for drydown.

If you typically focus on planting early, harvesting forages from cover crops may cause a delay in those fields by a couple of weeks. For this reason, soybeans are a good option to follow harvested acres.

Grazing cover crops

Having livestock harvest the cover crops themselves is also an efficient way to add quality feed to your forage plan and to extend your grazing season. If you plan to graze the cover in the fall, one of the first things to look at is timing. Will there be enough time between seeding and when you intend to graze the cover crop for it to get off to a good start and produce a decent amount of biomass? 

One consideration may be seeding methods. Aerial seeding the acres intended for grazing may give the cover crop the longest time period for growth. If you would prefer to broadcast seed or drill following harvest, prioritizing those acres you plan to graze earlier in your harvest schedule will help to make sure you have more time to get seeding and potential growth. Looking forward to future years, plan ahead and plant an early corn hybrid or soybeans where you plan on grazing to give the cover the biggest growth advantage. Adding a winter-kill cover crop species – such as oats, radish, turnips, etc. – can add additional nutrition and biomass value to a grazing system.

Fence is a large consideration too. Does the field have any current fence and is it suitable for the livestock you plan to graze? In some cases, electric wire is enough to keep livestock in safely, but also consider what your state considers “lawful fence”. In Iowa, a fence for cattle must utilize 3-barbed wires or meet the other requirements defined by Iowa Code 359A.18.  If your cows get out and cause damage to crops or an accident, a single hotwire would not be adequate to meet those requirements. Make sure to double-check what is recommended in your state and by your insurance company.

Once your perimeter fence is adequate to keep your animals in, do you plan to continuous or rotational graze? Continuous grazing would be the simplest route. Rotational grazing would help your cattle to have a more uniform graze, which also allows for more consistent nutrition due to the reduction of selective grazing allowed.

Consider what species would be best for growth and grazing purposes. Check out our blog post comparing different types of cover crops. Talk to your local SHP Field Manager or agronomist to figure out what seed will fit your operation best. 

Based on where your farm is located, cover crop yields for grazing can be highly variable. Early seeding can help to improve yields, but early frost, late harvest and other factors can all play into the amount of biomass that the cover crop will provide for grazing purposes. It’s always good to have additional stored forages available.

Ryan Larson

Ryan grew up on a dairy farm, but his family sold their cows in the ‘90s and rented out the ground. After graduating from college in 2013, Ryan persuaded his parents to let him rent their 160 acres and has now grown his operation to 450 acres. He also has a cow-calf operation consisting of 40 beef cows in Garretson, South Dakota. 

Ryan attempted conventional tillage the first five years he farmed, but he experienced soil erosion. After hearing a speaker talk about transitioning to no-till, he decided to try it. He also started conducting his own comparison tests between no-till and conventional planting, while simultaneously experimenting with cover crops.

With limited labor and assets, Ryan has found no-till saves him money because he doesn’t need as much equipment or horsepower, and he saves valuable time by not doing tillage.

Ryan’s trial started with a no-till field where he interseeded a cover crop mix into v3 standing corn. Following the corn harvest, he planted rye, which he will terminate before no-tilling soybeans next spring. Ryan’s plot is looking at the effects of cover crops and no cover crops in the same field. He will be establishing a cover crop every year for the next five years.

These same conservation practices have major value for the cattle side of the farm as well.  Ryan implemented strip grazing cover crops and pasture in the summer, which provides 2-7 days’ worth of feed at a time to his cows. Strip grazing has allowed him to better ration his feed, ensure the cows are not eating all the most nutritious grass first, and keep his feed quality consistent. He saves time not having to haul as much manure because it’s evenly distributed.

Experimental Grazing: Tripling Hay Production

After spending much of my career advising other farmers, I wanted to do research on my own farm to understand the impact of grazing on soil and how it could improve the economics of the farm.

I was rotationally grazing cattle and sheep on 160 acres that included pasture ground, and hay production acres as well.

One year, I grew some corn. The following spring was very late and wet and I had no place to go with the cattle. I feared using my pasture because I didn’t want the cattle to trample in the mud and destroy it, so I made the decision to turn the herd out into the prior year’s cornfield. They ate whatever was there, which was mainly leftover corn stalks and weeds. When I was able to return them to the pasture, I felt it was too late to plant another crop in  the cornfield, and other priorities had crept into my plans for that season, so I left it alone for the rest of the summer.

The field turned into a jungle! The weeds had taken over and it looked really unkempt. I was committed to no-tilling, which was hard because it would have been easier to just work the ground.

That fall, I was out of pasture and didn’t want to feed hay yet, so I turned the cattle back out into that jungle field. This began my experiment with intensive grazing.

The next spring, I set up a grazing system in that field where I gave the cattle a little more room to graze each day. I inched them across the field for about a month and then let the field rest the remainder of the year.

I continued that pattern for several years: never planting, fertilizing, or tilling the ground.

In 5 years, the field had completely transformed. Grazing had stirred up the seed bank and allowed new, diverse species of grasses and legumes to germinate, which increased feed quality. Controlling access to the field and grouping animals into larger groups impacted soil organic matter and diversified plant species.

The economic benefits were clear, too. Along with tripling hay production, I was able to get more pasture productivity without adding acres, which allowed me to put more cattle in the same space. By controlling access to the field and grouping animals into large groups, it impacted soil organic matter and diversified plant species.

What started out as a mistake, per se, actually became my greatest lesson.

Soil is a living thing; so you can’t solely think your way into changing how your field performs. As I look back on my grazing experiment, I am reminded of the importance of testing different practices and methods. Don’t be afraid to give your idea a try!

Grazing Timing and Cover Crops

Grazing can provide many benefits to your operation such as producing feed for livestock, lengthening the grazing season, and producing a second crop off of your corn and soybean acres; however, implementing grazing requires planning. One thing to consider is the time of year your livestock will be utilizing this additional grazing and what cover crops make the most sense for your operation.

Below, I have laid out some guidelines for grazing timing, cover crop options, and when to establish that cover crop:

  • Spring
    • Establish cereal rye, wheat or triticale in the fall for grazing in the spring.
  • Summer
    • Establish summer annuals, such as pearl millet and sorghum-sudan to be grazed before frost. These usually need 45 to 60 days before grazing and are best utilized behind wheat or other small grain crops. In general, summer annuals should not be grazed when frost is possible to avoid prussic acid concerns.
  • Fall
    • Establish turnips, radishes, and oats in the summer for grazing in the fall
      • You can do this by interseeding a cover crop in a standing corn crop. With favorable weather, the green cover crop is established and ready to be grazed after harvest and into the fall. Planting a soybean crop following the cover crop grazing rotation is a good choice. However, if grazing is limited to fall, any planting issues the following spring are usually eliminated.
      • Brassicas such as turnips and radishes should not be the only source of feed for cattle. They should be included in a mix or other feed such as hay should be provided to avoid herd health issues.

Grazing cover crops favors utilizing a mix of multiple crop species within the same field.  By using multiple species we can enhance feed quality, reduce potential herd health issues and increase soil health benefits. Overall, implementing grazing gives growers a potential economic advantage by saving on harvested forages and utilizing livestock manure to improve soil health.

Every growing season and operation is unique, but the key is planning before implementing. Reach out to other growers in your area, and discuss your plan with your forage seed provider. Adding cover crops could not only enhance your row-crop operation, but your livestock operation as well.

3 Ways Grazing Can Benefit Your Farm

Planting annual cover crops in between cash cropping systems can be a great way to produce extra forage and extend the grazing season. Cover crop grazing can provide benefits to your operation including saving time, money and improving soil health.

  1. Cost-Savings
    • One of the biggest expenses for any cattle farmer is feed costs. By keeping cattle out grazing, it provides significant cost-savings by reducing the need for harvested feed. By growing a cover crop on corn and soybean acres, not only do the harvested feed costs decrease, but the cost of labor to make and feed the harvested forages also decreases as the cows do the work. By raising a cover crop with livestock in mind, grazing time and overall forage production can be extended beyond what a  typical perennial pasture can provide. This can usually mean an additional 3-4 weeks, or even more in the fall or spring when pastures are dormant.
  2. Time Savings
    • The time savings can go beyond just feeding. Cattle naturally apply manure in the same place they graze. This saves time by removing the need to haul manure from a barn or a lot to the field. When cattle are out to graze, that means less labor time to clean the manure out of the barns. Rotational or mob grazing helps spread out the manure more evenly and adds even more benefit.
  3. Soil Health Benefits
    • Looking for a way to try out some cover crops on your farm? Grazing is a good place to start. Not only do the roots from cover crops drive increased organic matter in the soil, but the manure from the cattle provides an important soil health benefit and improves nutrient cycling. It is generally best to start off with a cover crop behind corn ahead of the next years soybean crop. This takes advantage of the corn stalks as a feed source as well, and soybeans can be more resilient to any compaction issues or later planting that may result from grazing.

While these are tangible benefits of grazing, there are important factors to consider before implementing these practices on your farm. Logistical concerns are very real, so it is essential to plan ahead. The cattle need water, a fence around the land, handling facilities, and a shelter for inclement weather. Cattle should not be grazed on extremely wet ground as it can have negative consequences on the soil structure and cause compaction and other issues for the following cash crop. It is also important to check your herbicide and other pesticide products to make sure they allow for your grazing plan. Plan ahead, and talk to others that have grazed cover crops to work out a plan to make grazing cover crops successful on your farm.

Grazing During a Wet Spring

Planting annuals in between cash cropping systems can be a great way to produce extra forage and extend the grazing season. And one of the simplest techniques to do this across the Midwest is to plant cereal rye after a corn crop ahead of next year’s soybeans. Cereal rye is very winter hardy and can be a source of forage for a 2- to 3-week jumpstart on your spring pasture, or to save the grass for later grazing. And when grazed at the right stages, cereal rye can be an excellent forage.

Different techniques can be used to graze the field. Temporary fence or permanent fencing can be used for strip grazing, mob grazing or simple continuous grazing (also known as set stock).  Over the years we have tried many different ways to manage the grazing on our farm, but have recently gone back to a simple set stock situation allowing the cows to roam the field and enjoy what they want.

Unfortunately, the weather in the springtime can be particularly unpredictable. Wet and cold conditions can limit growth and the ability to get cows out on the cereal rye. And those years when the rye won’t start growing, will, for sure, be those same years when your hay supply is running short. This can create a tremendous urge to get the cows out on something green.  However, keep in mind this is not a long-term sod formed under permanent grass, this is a crop field that you want to plant a soybean crop on later. Cattle hooves, particularly in wet conditions, can be a source of significant compaction. And of course, it never fails that a few dry, warm, sunny days in a row will give you the encouragement to turn the cows loose, just to see the forecast turn on you, and go back to wet conditions.

We took advantage of a few sunny days a few weeks ago to get some of the herd out on cereal rye. Fortunately, we held off turning out the entire herd. We were grateful for that when we received over five inches of rain the following week, and while the cows seem to be doing fine, every wet day increases the compaction and damage done to the soil. It’s a personal judgment call as to when you need to pull them off, but the cows sure don’t want to go back to the lot – and I don’t want them there, either.

So, for now, I just watch them out the back window of my house, and hope they sit still, cringing every time they walk to the far end of the field and back.

I’m ready for these May flowers everyone always talks about…