Cover crops could fit into the soil health puzzle

There are many pieces to the soil health puzzle. According to some of the livestock producers on the panel at the Soil Health U event, Jan. 24, in Salina, Kansas, cattle play an integral role in their success.

Panelists at the event, sponsored by High Plains Journal, were Caleb Ramsey, Doug Manhart, Chad Basinger and Shawn Tiffany.

Ramsey runs a fall calving cow-calf operation, and at one point he had so many pastures it took a long time to check cattle. They were looking for a place to bring the herd closer to home to calve and be checked more often.

“We started buying more feeder steers and running them out on some multispecies cover crops through fall, after wheat harvest,” Ramsey said. “We’re seeing some good gains.”

Manhart and his father are “pretty dedicated no-tillers.” The introduction of resistant weeds caused some problems and spurred the Manharts to start using cover crops.

“We were unable to financially control weeds in a fallow type of situation and so we wanted to go to cover crops,” he said. “We typically feed cattle through the winter in a lot situation and then move them to grass in summer. It was an easy fit for us to experiment around with some grazing options on crop ground with some of those same cattle.”

Like Ramsey, Basinger was looking for more places to go with cows and calves and still keep costs down and not have them penned up. They didn’t have space to pen cattle up when the cowherd grew or the facilities to manage them.

“We just worked on ways to keep them out on the tillable acres or even on some of the native range and rotate through some of that,” Basinger said. “The benefits of running some of the cattle across some of that crop ground improved our yields.”

Tiffany’s operation is almost exclusively custom cattle feeding for farmers and ranchers around the Midwest.

“I wish I could say it was some noble soil health thing that got us going on cover crops but at the time soil health wasn’t really being talked about extensively for us,” Tiffany said. “It started out just as another means to provide options for our customers and just graze cattle. And try to cheapen calves up on their behalf.”

Could cover crops work without livestock?

Basinger said livestock seem to add another step in the process, but it benefits the soil ultimately.

“It speeds the process up and helps break that crop down into the manure and the urine the cows leave behind. They trample some in so it helps build some of that up,” he said. “It’s possible with out, but probably sure speeds it up with the livestock.”

Tiffany thought they had their cover crop system figured out, but 2018 threw a wrench in all of it.

“We’ve been doing it long enough that really thought we kind of had things figured out,” he said. “Like we’ve all said, every year is different.”

Even though the acres Tiffany planted to be able to graze 750 head of calves hasn’t seen a single hoof. It got wet and cold and didn’t grow like it should have. There’s good stands out there now, but Tiffany isn’t going to chance turning calves out, fearing damaging the field.

“I’ve got a great insurance policy out there,” he said. “I can chop that this spring. I could maybe put some cattle out there this spring. At the very least I’ve got armor on the soil catching this moisture and protecting what we have going on out there.”

How do you decide when is the right time to turn the cattle out?

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Ramsey said that’s a tough question to answer. Nothing’s ever certain—picking a certain size, a certain day or whatever.

“If you’re going through a wet spell, dry spell; how tall it is; what we’re wanting to gain off of it; what are you wanting to leave,” he said. “There’s a lot of answers. A lot of what you want to get out of it.”

Basinger agrees. A lot of it depends on what the end usage is for it. He’s got some they let freeze out and left stockpiled in the field. They’ll eventually run fence across it and graze the cows in paddocks.

“It just depends on what you want and part of it is depending on what crops go into, when can you graze it, when is it big enough to graze,” he said “Then 30 days or 60 days in, graze it before you determine if you want to go to a different crop if that’s your intent.”

Do any of you use rotational grazing or move paddocks around?

Tiffany said in late September through the first part of May is the busy season in his feed yards. That’s when pens are full.

“Obviously there’s not a lot grazing that time of year,” he said. “All my labor and resources are tied up in the yard. I don’t have the manpower to go out and move fences every day.”

When the cattle are out on the cover crop, they get checked a couple times a week for health, mineral and water. Tiffany just doesn’t have the labor to intensively manage movement and fence changes.

“It’s great, when it works,” Tiffany said. “I think if you have that at your disposal, you’ll get more uniform grazing, more uniform manure distribution. Probably less compaction, because if you’re rotating those you’re moving water sources as well.” 

What are the challenges with rotational grazing, and are there any tips or tricks that made it easier for you and your operation?

Manhart said when they first started looking into grazing cover crops on their operation; they heard “a lot of crazy stories” of large numbers on really small acres with lots of different paddocks. Initially they tried to replicate it, but found it takes a lot of manpower.

“What we’ve gone to in the past couple years is larger paddocks and moving the fence less often and it just seems like it works better for us,” Manhart said. “Again, it’s probably not ideal but when you start to factor your time and what it takes.”

Since they’ve gone to bigger paddocks they’ve had less headaches

“We still have pretty uniform grazing, pretty uniform manure distribution,” Manhart said. “The other tip we found is we wanted to do things initially a really simple way.”

Ramsey said one of the biggest issues they have in his area is water.

“Trying to get water to each paddock and move it with them as they move to each field,” he said. “We haul a lot of water and there isn’t a lot of available resources in some areas, so you’ve got to have road access; some way to get to it.”

Manhart usually splits a field into four sections and tries to move them every week. Normally, the first section or two get caught up while the other paddocks are still growing.

“Then we try to circle back around and hit it again,” he said. “Doesn’t always work, but that’s the plan anyway.”

What kind of gain can you expect?

Tiffany explained his situation, as one of somebody wanting to finish calves and see them staged well to perform in the feedlot.

“Gain is largely determined by how you stock it, but we’re targeting anywhere, personally, from a 2 1/4- to 2 1/2-pound gain,” Tiffany said. “We don’t want a bunch of 700 pound big fat calves because they’re not going to do worth a darn.”

As for the cost of gain, Tiffany has done it several different ways.

“In our deal we’re just trying to break even on our inputs,” he said. “We want to charge enough to the owner of the cattle to where that’s paying for the seeding, if we need to put a little fertilizer on there, that’s covering that. But we’re just trying to break even.”

At the end of the day, Tiffany’s advantage is “we get all the fertility, all the soil health benefits.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].