Capitalizing On Pasture Management, Cover Cropping, and Nutrient Cycling To Combat Sky High Inputs
— Author unknown
Not only have the costs of fertilizer and herbicide gone up in some cases almost 300%, but the supply chain of inputs farmers need to grow their crops has been completely disrupted. The cost to fill up our tractor has more than tripled in the last 2 years.
By leaning on the mixed farming systems we have in place on our farm, we are closing nutrient cycles. In return, we are able to offset rising inputs to realize continued profitability and sustainability on our farm.
When we plant pasture, we use a mixture of perennial grasses and legumes. A typical mixture will have 5 or 6 warm and cool season grasses, different types of clover, and alfalfa. The legumes will fix nitrogen to help the grasses grow better and in turn, there is no need to apply a synthetic fertilizer.
This pasture mix also makes an excellent, high quality forage. Our cattle are moved daily with a combination of permanent exterior fencing and temporary fencing. The infrastructure within our pastured systems are all meant to be temporary and move with them. Our portable infrastructure includes water, shade in the summer, and mineral. Minimizing permanent areas where the cattle congregate encourages a more even distribution of manure throughout the field while eliminating soil compaction, bare soil, and soil leaching.
Our flock of laying hens are housed in a portable wagon in the spring through late fall. They follow behind the cattle, scratching through the dense patties to distribute them more evenly, allowing them to dry out and decompose faster. While scratching and churning the soil to search for bugs and worms, they deposit their own manure; rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, back onto the soil. As an added benefit, providing our hens with fresh pasture every few days provides us with rich, dark orange eggs yolks with higher levels of vitamins A and E, and more omega-3s, (PSU, 2010).
In addition to grazing our cattle and chickens directly on the pasture and cropland, we store our manure and bedding in a dry manure storage. We can occasionally churn the contents of the manure storage to encourage decomposition, and then spread the manure back onto our cropland.
In our no-till system, we on average make less passes across our fields, saving us in fuel and time. We plant cover crops on 100% of our ground that is not planted in a perennial pasture mix. We plant a multi-species cover crop mixture of annual grasses and legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil where we are planting our next non-gmo corn crop (rye, crimson clover, hairy vetch, barley, oats, radishes, etc). In the fields where we are planting non-gmo soybeans, we will first plant a cover crop of rye to assist with weed control and minimize herbicide use. In the fields we have access to water hydrants and fencing, we will graze our cattle in the Spring before planting as well. Any ground that has a small grains crop (like wheat or rye) and has infrastructure to set up temporary pasture, we will plant a warm season multi-species cover crop mixture. An example of what this cover crop could include would be sunflowers, sorghum-sudan, pearl millet, sunhemp, cow peas, soybeans, and corn. All of these cover crops have grazing value and give the added benefits of not only working to fertilize the other species in the cover crops to grow a healthier forage, but also give us the ability to graze our cattle and chickens to directly deposit their manure back onto the field and ultimately create healthier soil for us to minimize external inputs.
These systems take time to realize their full potential as the health of our soil continues to improve. The key is patience, a willingness to try new practices, and an overall goal of decreasing our dependency on external inputs to raise our livestock and grow our crops efficiently in our own farm ecosystem.
Research shows eggs from pastured chickens may be more nutritious. (2010, July 10). The Pennsylvania State University | Penn State. Retrieved May 13, 2022, from https://www.psu.edu/news/agricultural-sciences/story/research-shows-eggs-pastured-chickens-may-be-more-nutritious/
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