Tuesday, November 04, 2008

From Grain To Grass

I have often wondered what it would look like if a number of farmers in Iowa just began converting their row crop operations back into grass for pasture. It would be quite the site and I'm sure there would be many other farmers who would look at it like the farmers looked at Ray Kinsella when he made a baseball field in the middle of his corn field (yep, that is a "Field of Dreams" reference). But, what if it really did happen? What if some of those flat and fertile acres in central Iowa were taken back to pasture and managed with rotational or mob grazing? I bet they could support quite a few head per acre!

This is exactly what one farm family in South Dakota has done. I read the article quite awhile ago in the October issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer", but hadn't had a chance to write about it yet. The farm family in question had been raising conventional row crops and feedlot cattle on family land when the decided that the wanted to make the switch. So, the moved from away from their crops and machinery and planted wheatgrass, big bluestem, switchgrass, and other grasses ... oh, and now they only have one tractor that they try not to use very often.

Along with their switch to grass they also made a chance in the cattle genetics and moved their herd to smaller framed bovines of the Irish Black and Hereford breeds. They feel, just as many others feel, that genetics and frame size has a big impact on how well a beeve will finish on grass and they have been very pleased with their results (at least that is what the article indicated).

One other thing that was mentioned in the article was their use of windrow grazing. This is a technique that I have read about previously, but must admit that I don't know much about it. What they are doing is using three of what had been their hayfields and rotating through those. Each year they will use two to make hay for their calves after weaning and then use the third for windrow grazing (sort of like strip grazing). Each year the windrow graze a different field in the winter in order to spread around the fertilizer.

I'm not exactly sure this windrow grazing idea would work on a farm our size, but it is an interesting concept and something I would love to learn more about. Plus, the article encouraged me ... maybe in 20 or so years when our place is mostly paid off the row crop field across the road will come up for sale. Then I could see what the transition looks like first hand!


Steven said...

This is what we're doing in Southeast Missouri we're just starting very slowly. Our family has about 190 acres that were all rented and farmed for many years and this year we took 10 acres closest to the barn and turned it into pasture and somewhat of an experiment. It's pretty neat to see all the disked ground around us now and our green patch in the middle.

Yeoman said...

FWIW, this happened in a lot of areas of Wyoming in the 30s. Environmental conditions started it off, as the wet years of the 20s yielded to the dry conditions of the 30s, and the plowmen failed. They prairie they'd busted went back to grass. The government also helped to get it rolling as it reacquired a lot of acreage in some ares to retire it as farmland.

This has also been occurring, slowly, in parts of Nebraska for a decade.

Yeoman said...

As a further fwiw, this is one of the things that Pollan advocated in his recent NYT column.

Walter Jeffries said...

We're doing something similar, turning forest to grass. We have two areas of woods that are marginal as forest land which we're going to convert to more pasture and to hay fields. The areas on the slope will be the pasture as they're too steep for haying. The lower flatter area will become pasture and then hay fields in time. Eventually this will give us more control of our winter feed. Currently we buy about 150 round bales of hay a year. I would like to be able to better determine what goes into that hay mix so we have better winter food for our pigs.

Rich said...

I was particularly interested in a statement in Polan's article that is related to this subject.

In Argentina, farmers have used an eight-year rotation with five years grazing cattle on perennial grass pasture and then three years of grain production without applying much (if any) fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides.

It seems like a pasture/crop rotation like this might be an easier transition towards a grazing-centered farm than going "cold turkey" and ending all crop production on a farm.

IluvABbeef said...

Ethan, swath grazing, as we call it, is commonly done up here during the winter months. Most of the swath grazing is done using crops like barley, winter wheat or oats, that are planted a month or so later than crops are usually planted (primarily April), then cut before (or is it after?) the first killing frost. Usually dry cows are put on it, because if lactating cows and/or calves were put on they'd have to be supplemented. Electric fence is used to section off sections of the feild cut for swath grazing to promote even "grazing" and manure distribution, and the fence is moved every so often when the cows have cleaned up the swaths to a fresh feeding area, just like what you'd do for strip grazing a pasture in the summer. Good things about swath grazing is that it gets the cows out of the drylot and it minimizes labour and fuel costs for feeding cows and manure handling. Risks involve unwanted consumption from wildlife like geese and/or deer, and the inability to determine of how much snow will accumulate during the winter. If too much snow accumulates for swath grazing, bale grazing is another option to pursue/consider (plan B for swath grazing'd probably be feeding cows), leaving swath grazing for the early spring to let pasture grasses catch up. Check out the Alberta Agricultural website for more: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex9239

As for converting cropland into pasture/hay land, I've been thinking about doing that with the cropland that we own, using it for maybe bale grazing or swath grazing, and to have for hay production (selling hay for instance). That's a good post on that Ethan, though I'd like to find more info on doing that..


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