For years, it has been a struggle between crops and cattle over farmland. Land was used for one or the other. That struggle may come to an end in the future with the help of a Kansas State University Research and Extension specialist.
Jaymelynn Farney, K-State southeast area beef specialist, suggests producers attempt integrating cover crops and cattle into a sustainable agricultural system. As cropland is broken up and cover crop acres increase and pasture acres decrease, this procedure may become more necessary for some producers, she pointed out.
“One of the biggest benefits is your ability to minimize your risk,” Farney explained. “If you can have multiple agronomic products—in this instance, crop ground and livestock—you have a better chance of staying in business and being one of sustainable agricultural operations.”
Typically when corn prices increase, cattle prices decrease and vice versa, Farney said. “If you have both, it helps you capture the hot markets at the time,” she added.
Integrating crops and livestock improves soil quality and crop yields. She referred to an Iowa State University study in which grazing cattle on cover crops increased soil microbial biomass and significantly increased corn grain yield the following year. Additionally, the system can increase water infiltration and build soil organic carbon as well as resist soil erosion from crop fields.
This type of system also allows the reduction of synthetic fertilizers used in an operation. “It’s a great way to recycle nutrients within your operation,” she said. One nutrient cattle can contribute is nitrogen. In a New Zealand study, cattle can increase nitrogen by threefold.
Producers did show concern regarding compaction issues caused by cattle on cropland. Farney admitted compaction could be an issue if a field is overstocked. However, proper stocking rates will prevent most compaction problems.
“Wetter soils will have more compaction than frozen or dry soils,” Farney said. Tilled soils showed more compaction in depths up to 12 centimeters in one study. Compaction is to be expected in areas where cattle congregate such as near a water source, she added.
“The real problem is a lack of true research in the southeast Kansas area on this type of soil as to cattle compaction,” Farney said. “It’s always in a row crop farmer’s mind that cattle cause compaction.”
However, Farney said she has seen data from Georgia that cattle have very little compaction and little impact on yield with no overall negative impact on crop ground.
“Until people see how little cattle impact it, it’ll be slower to be adopted,” she said.
“Every instance of grazing cover crops made money,” she said. “Even though researchers didn’t account for fencing costs, the scenario would still make money.”
Farney said she liked a winter wheat grazing scenario for producers who are interested in using an integrated crop livestock system.
“On the cattle side,” Farney explained, “research has shown that grasses like wheat, barley and triticale are very good quality forages for cattle and work well as covers. They have a good root mass and physically cover a lot of ground.”
Farney also pointed out brassicas are very popular for interseeding and weed control. These include turnips and radishes, which have incredibly high protein levels. “It may take your cattle some time to adjust to these forages,” she cautioned.
Farney said, “Pretty much any legume is typically a great feed for cattle because they are very high in protein and digestibility and very palatable.”
She did caution producers to be cognizant of which species are safe to feed to cattle. “Hairy vetch is toxic to cattle but people love it as a cover crop,” she warned.
Farney admitted integrating crops and livestock is a large commitment. “It is a time and potentially a financial investment to make sure cattle are contained and have a water source,” she said. “Depending on your level of comfort for containment, that investment can be very cheap or expensive.”
She said producers in western Kansas are more likely to put up temporary fence around crop ground and haul water to cattle. “That’s something that isn’t as readily adapted here in southeast Kansas and is something that, in a cost perspective, is not cheap.
“If you have ready access to permanent water sources, it’s better than hauling it,” Farney pointed out. “But if you’re looking to expand your ground or allow native grasses to recuperate, it might be economically feasible.”
Farney went on to explain more research is being done to learn more about integrating crops and livestock. “We have a couple producers where projects are going on right now,” she said. “There are some people already in southeast Kansas who will graze cows on corn stalks for the winter. It’s not unheard of to see people utilizing their residues but it’s not the norm by any means.”