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Building a case for increased diversity & more cattle

As the model for a two-crop rotation becomes challenging, farmers may want to look more closely at adding livestock and a variety of forages to their operations.

Amanda Radke

July 25, 2018

6 Min Read
Building a case for increased diversity & more cattle
Alan Franzluebbers

Concerns about trade continue to escalate, and farmers and ranchers may soon be feeling more pain as China flexes its muscles in dealings with President Trump.

Farmers are vocalizing these concerns in great force. In fact, just an hour from my hometown, corn growers recently protested the recent turn in the market by bringing their tractors and their message to the streets of our state’s largest city.

I’m not going to pretend I have expert knowledge in how various commodities will be impacted in these trade wars. However, I have a sneaking suspicion things may get worse in the short term before they get better long term.

What that means is grain producers, who were already struggling with low prices for their crops, are feeling the pinch. I’m afraid bankers may soon be pulling the finances for operations that were already stretched thin before all of these trade issues started unfolding.

Of course, as I’m writing this, I received an email about the Trump Administration’s plan of a $12 billion bailout for farmers to provide some protection to agriculture during these retaliatory trade wars. I think we can all agree trading good trade for federal aid is putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, but that’s a blog post for another day.

READ: USDA announces 3-prong approach to aid farmers

If those operations can survive in the short run, they may be looking for new ways to weather the next storm. Agriculture, no matter which commodity you’re raising, is a marathon not a sprint, and producers know they must conserve energy (money and resources) on the downhill, so they can fight those uphill battles (price swings, drought, etc.) during the race.

Understanding this, there may be a case for going back to the increased diversity of “Grandpa’s farm.” Nobody knew better than the previous generations not to put all the eggs in one basket. This lesson may best be applied to today’s agriculture and could not only benefit our pocketbooks but also the land we are managing, as well.

One of the most common questions I get asked when I’m traveling to speak at a conference is if my family raises crops as well as cattle. The answer is, yes, we produce crops — enough corn to feed the livestock, as well as a variety of other forage crops including alfalfa, grass hay, sudan grass, oats and cover crops. The benefit for us isn’t necessarily to capitalize on a cash crop. Instead, it allows us to be a bit more independent and self-sustainable on the feeds and forages we need to purchase in order to maintain and support our cow herd throughout the year.

READ: Calf and feeder prices grow more price sensitive

However, we also understand that a variety of crops greatly benefits our soil, increasing organic matter, protecting the top soil by keeping crop residues as cover over the winter months and allowing the cattle to fertilize the fields while they graze these various crops in the fall or until the snow cover will no longer allow it.

When someone argues with me that beef production isn’t “green,” I often go back to these management practices, knowing that there aren’t too many other foods that can offer the nutrition that beef does while utilizing marginal ground the way cattle do. Cowboys were green way before green was cool, and I think the way commodity prices are today, more producers may return to this sustainable production model.

A recent blog post titled, “Crops and livestock on the same farms, the same fields — why?” was published on the Sustainable Secure Food Blog, and I really appreciate how the article builds a case for integrated agricultural systems that are designed to best utilize the land using both crops and livestock on the same ground.

The article explains how with new technology, agriculture moved to a more monoculture system to improve yields and efficiencies; however, the tried and true method of multi-system farming and ranching makes a lot of sense economically and ecologically.

According to the article, “Interest in re-integrating farms to take advantage of the synergies between crops and livestock has increased in the past few decades. Crop-pasture rotations are part of an integrated system. Farmers can match the energy and nutrient flows of different enterprises (i.e. types of livestock and types of crops) to meet the desired outcomes.

“Ruminant livestock consume forages, often on pasture by themselves during much of the year. Animal manures are deposited directly on the land where they graze. Alternatively, they can be confined in areas during parts of the year with conserved forages such as hay or silage. Manures can also be collected from confinement areas and applied to cropland. This recycles and effectively utilizes nutrients throughout the entire system and can substantially reduce chemical fertilizer needs for cropping.”

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The blog post points out the benefits of growing forage grasses, arguing that it’s these perennial plants that have extensive, fibrous root systems to better manage water, capture carbon and provide a thick cover over the soil.

What’s more, an integrated crop-livestock system provides diversity that further protects the producer from market volatility, which makes the banker happy, as well as the family the operation supports.

Here is an excerpt that explains why: “The diversity of farming operations in integrated crop-livestock systems reduces the overall risk of failure. By having several different crops on a farm, the risk of any one component failing is reduced. This diversity also offers resilience of the farming system against extreme weather events and potential climate change.

“Greater integration of crops and livestock using modern technologies could broadly transform agriculture to enhance productivity. Integrated crop-livestock systems can also reduce environmental damage, protect and enhance biological diversity, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Integrated systems likely provide healthier, potentially more diverse foods and increase economic and cultural opportunities in many different regions of the world. Diverse agricultural systems that include livestock, perennial grasses and legumes, and a wide variety of annual forages offer enhanced agro-ecosystem resilience in the face of uncertain climate and market conditions.”

READ: Forage farming before cattle grazing

Preaching diversity may seem like ancient, outdated advice, but sometimes all that glitters is not gold. Don’t stone the messenger for saying this, but chasing $8 corn resulted in plowing up many pastures of marginal quality, which were perfect for cattle grazing. That’s truly unfortunate as the poor growing conditions of some of this ground left barren spots, increased erosion and the loss of topsoil.

Is it such a novel concept to consider recapturing the value of a more diversified farming and ranching business?

I believe cattle grazing helps to maintain the biodiversity of the soil, increases organic matter, promotes habitat for bugs, butterflies and many other wildlife species and provides for optimal productivity by using solar energy to convert poor ground into nutrient-rich beef.

I may be unpopular in saying this, but in the face of poor corn and bean prices, it might be time to get some cows.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.

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