Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Grazing Weaned Calves on Cover Crops

Notice how tall the rapeseed is.

Last year was the first time we grazed cover crops with cattle. The cover crops were drilled following oat and wheat harvest and consisted of turnips, radish, and clover, along with the volunteer small grain that went through the combine.  We turned in 40 head of bred cows to graze 40 acres in mid-September and grazed until mid-November, when the water tanks would no longer stay thawed.  There was still ample forage left (I would estimate at least 2-3 weeks worth) when the cows were pulled out.  The cows did fantastic and went into winter in excellent body condition.  This led me to think that with the forage quality being that high, it would be better served adding weight to weaned calves instead of grazing bred cows.

After doing a lot of reading and research over the winter, we went into 2016 with a plan to wean and background our own calves on a post-small-grain cover crop rather than selling them directly off the cow.  With the cattle market down about 50 percent compared to 18 months prior, it doesn't hurt to add a little more value to the calves before they are marketed.  We fence-line weaned our calves in the first week of September and had them out grazing cover crops 7 days later.  It was also a first for us using a fence-line weaning method, and I can say we are now strong believers in the practice. However, that is a topic for a future post.  The steers were put out on the cover crop weighing 523 pounds while the heifers were at 507 pounds.  University of Minnesota trials resulted in a 2.23 lb/day gain on a similar cover crop mix, so we are shooting for a 2 lb/day gain (read about the trials here.). The calves have adjusted to their diet and look great, so I doubt we'll have any problem reaching that rate of gain.

Our view off the back porch is awesome.
The first field grazed consisted of a mix of ryegrass, clover, rapeseed, and oats; relative feed value tested at 296. I would advise against including rapeseed in this mix.  The calves would typically graze the much-shorter ryegrass first, which I think may have led to their eyes getting scratched by the rapeseed.  Their eyes therefore teared excessively, causing a few cases of pinkeye to pop up.  I treated any affected calves with tetracycline, administered by a Cap-Chur dart rifle.  We then decided to move the calves over to a different 40 acre cover crop field until the flies were thinned out by a frost. The cover crop in this field consisted of oats, clover, rye, and radish.

The second field of cover crops the calves were moved to had only a single-strand of high tensile wire along the road, and a single-poly wire held up by temporary plastic fence posts on the majority of the fence line.  I will admit that I was extremely nervous of the calves getting out.  Visions of calves running down the road in every direction had been planted in my head by skeptics.  To date, we have had no problems with calves getting through the fence.  I am, however, very picky (possibly fanatical) about checking the fence and making sure it's "hot."

As of November 7th, we have grown approximately 133 pounds of feeder calf/acre with about 3-4 weeks worth of forage remaining.  If we are able to keep the calves out grazing for another 3 weeks, each acre will have produced about 196 pounds of feeder calf with the only additional major expense being cover crop seed and drilling.  I believe we are being mildly conservative with our goal of 2lb/day/calf of gain, but we'll know for sure when the calves are weighed in a few weeks.  With the agriculture sector in poor shape, thinking outside the box, trying something different, and putting in a little extra work, can mean the difference between a profit or a loss.  My advice: sell that tillage equipment and buy some cattle.  Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 15, 2016

An Open Mind Goes a Long Way

There is a growing interest in more non-mainstream agricultural practices lately and for good reason.
As profit margins grow thinner, farmers have begun to seriously look for ways to reduce costs and keep the red ink pen in the drawer. Some are more open minded than others. While in the company of certain farmers, big time operators (BTO) and small time operators (STO) alike,  I've been poked fun of for talking about cover crops and having a small grain in my crop rotation.  That combination however, made us more money this past year than corn or soybeans.  Nonetheless, I firmly believe that if people aren't skeptically wondering about what we're doing then I'm not pushing the envelope far enough.  If used correctly, we have found that cover crops can improve the profit margins of our grain farm as well as our livestock operation.  Using practices that intertwine grain farming, cover crops, and livestock works better for us and has been more profitable than each could have been alone.  Going into this down cycle of agriculture, I am confident that our diversification into more than just corn and soybeans will carry us through.

Corn-soybean strip cropping trial.  Yield was very impressive.
An open mind goes a long way.  If we as farmers aren't continuously trying different practices and technologies, then we fall into the cycle of "that's how dad did it and that's how I'm going to do it."  This is a very dangerous mentality.  Your dad or grandfather may have been an innovator in his time, but a lot of those practices have been pushed to the wayside by newer and more efficient methods.  A big part of farming is researching, innovating, and trying new ideas.  Old methods like moldboard plowing just because that's how the last generation did it makes no sense on today's farm. Someone has since come up with a better and more efficient practice; be it ripping, strip-tilling, or even no-tilling.  Just because you were taught to winter cattle in a feedlot doesn't necessarily mean that's the most effective practice either. With the future state of agriculture looking bleak, thinking outside the box on how to keep costs down will be necessary. With that in mind, why would we reproach someone trying a different practice like cover crops, bale grazing cattle (more on this subject in a later post), or a crop rotation involving more than just corn and soybeans?  One of the very few advantages I have by operating solo is I can do whatever I like.  There is no senior member in
3 week old cover crop drilled following small grain harvest.  Grazing
this forage in October and the nutrient credit it provided made this our
most profitable practice in 2015.
our operation to dictate what practices we use or don't use.  I am not implying all older (or younger) farmers are reluctant to embrace new or unpopular practices; some of the operators implementing the same practices I have are well into their 70's.  Age does not always determine an open mind.  I believe it is a responsibility of all farmers to continually search for a better way to operate during their tenure as a steward of the land.  We should leave the land in better condition than when we received it.

Trying new things means I fail.... A LOT.  But we learn, and our operation is more profitable and efficient because of it.  No one likes to have a field that is a train wreck, myself included.  Train wrecks lose money and can be an embarrassing reminder of what went wrong all summer long.  However,with careful planning and intense management we have managed to avoid any total disasters so far.  There are certainly risks with trying new practices, which is why thorough research is necessary.  The risks involved in trying something new seem much smaller than the potential long-term risks of never progressing in the science of agriculture.  So if you take anything away from reading this post I hope it's this: don't be afraid to have an open mind and ask questions.  I love talking about ways to improve our farm as well as our farming methods.  Agricultural practices are continuously evolving and so should your thought process;  "that's how we've always done it" is a dangerous frame of mind.
Thank you for reading.