By Julie Mettenburg, Tallgrass Network leader
The great Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem of North America once stretched across some 12 states and part of Canada. Today, the prairies are up to 99% functionally eliminated, replaced by development and the cultivation agriculture that has thoroughly mined these soils.
Here on the Demonstration site of the Tallgrass Network Savory Hub, where we are utilizing Holistic Management, we are blessed with some of the remnants of that original perennial Tallgrass prairie. As in the Flint Hills of Kansas and a few other locations in the U.S., we still have Tallgrass because the rock beneath it proves unyielding to the plow.
But where we have crop fields, we encounter the same challenge as many farmers across the Midwest U.S. and Canada: How can we keep the soil covered, transition back to the perennial grasses at a stable level of succession with soil and ecology regeneration, and remain profitable and flexible for the markets year-to-year?
Despite our region's best efforts and decades of conservation reserve, when corn prices spiked a few years ago, so many acres came out of pastures and went back under the plow.
Enter Colin Seis of Australia, and the pasture-cropping method he uses to revitalize his pastures.
We met Colin in October 2015 at the Savory Artisans conference in San Francisco, and were excited when our colleague Gail Fuller brought him to Kansas in July 2016 for a field school.
We think pasture-cropping may provide some excellent options for our farmers throughout the Midwest, in providing a viable way to transition back to perennial grasslands with the long-term flexibility, soil coverage, and root systems that are needed to regenerate our whole ecology.
Our Experiment: the Set-up
Our hypothesis is that if we can utilize pasture-cropping as Colin does, to sow annuals into perennial pasture (potentially that tillable 99% of our region that was taken out of native Tallgrass long ago), for year-round grazing and perhaps even to have a crop harvest, we can achieve the following:
- Retain flexibility to crop or graze in any given year, depending on the markets and our Holistic Financial Plan, while keeping the soil covered with perennials and root systems underground;
- Stimulate and accelerate re-establishment of perennials but especially the native Tallgrass prairie grasses, which can be notoriously difficult, by putting annual root systems down to stimulate the underground "conversations" so important to good soil life;
- Enable continued grazing, perhaps year-round if desired, to assist with both of the above;
- Provide an entry point for farmers wanting to transition away from monoculture crop farming but who have too much invested to quit cropping cold-turkey,
- Potentially boost profit per acre.
First, we wanted to test the concept in a very small area. We do not have much crop land, having transitioned what we did have back to grasses decades ago. But as a Savory Hub in a transition zone where cropping is a dominant paradigm, we were eager to see if our hypothesis bears out, so we can help other farmers evaluate its use in their own Holistic Plans.
So, we chose a small pasture area in which to test it. Our goals were to see if we could coax an annual forage to come up amidst a well-established perennial, and how it would perform in what might be assumed to be a "competitive" environment. We also wanted to see if it could be cost-effective.
Preparation of the Paddock
The protocol was the brainchild of our Chief Scientific Experimenter and resident microbiologist, Roxanne Mettenburg. For the experiment she chose a "beat-up" fescue pasture near the barns that is typically used as a sacrifice area and that would benefit from a little stimulation and TLC. She wanted to plant warm-season annuals into the fescue for summer grazing, to help us over the gap in which fescue tends to go dormant, and to help diversify the pasture.
We had already stripped the pasture for grazing, so we went with the western most 1-acre patch. One benefit to the acre was the ability to till it. Unlike most of the site, this field had once been a crop field.
We had overgrazed the paddock in May and June, using it as a sacrifice quarantine and hot-wire training area for 55 new heifers that came in different groups during that time. It had appropriate regrowth when they went in, but it had been grazed very heavily for the two months, consistently with about 30 animal units at a time, without opportunity to recover. The last group moved out on June 20, leaving it severely grazed but ideal for the experiment.
The forages already present, although clipped short, were fescue, lespedeza (not the invasive kind), foxtail, crabgrass and other weeds. It was dry during May and June, and we had rolled out red clover hay at the end of the grazing period for the heifers, although they didn't eat it very well. So there were bare spots, severely grazed down fescue, red clover residue with seed that will self-sow, and weeds.
Roxanne located the seed desired -- cost of $15 with enough left over to plant again -- and roped our Chief Farming Officer, Al Mettenburg, into planting it on July 6, before going to the Colin Seis field day the next day. They planted 30-50 lbs of sorghum sudan, with some lespedeza and rape seed tossed in, to the acre. We already had those seeds and have had great luck with both. The original intent was to use pearl millet due to what she thought was turning out to be a dry year with lack of June rain, but she couldn't obtain the seed without driving a long distance. She decided it more important to get the seed in the ground, given the rain forecast and our family schedules.
Al rented the no-till drill from the county extension agent for $80, and it took about 1.5 hours to plant, due to challenges with the drill. He had problems with skips, but since it was already a perennial pasture, they did not leave soil exposed. That night it rained about 1 inch, then we received regular rain throughout July and August, which is highly unusual.
Roxanne and our resident crop farmer, Marvin Bauman, attended the Colin Seis field day on July 7, where Colin confirmed that the idea of planting the warm season into a dormant cool season would work (or one could plant a cool season annual into a warm season pasture).
Since the patch was fescue, Roxanne had assumed it would go dormant, but that was not the case. The fescue never did go dormant this year due to rains. This lack of dormancy raises the question of whether grazing the annuals could risk grazing the fescue before it fully recovered; fortunately, fescue can take a beating and keep on ticking, but we would want to heed the perennial recovery time if this were a repeat strategy.
Another challenge with the choice of sorghum sudan is the risk of prussic acid and nitrate poisoning. These necessitate careful time planning for when the forage can be grazed, and by what species. For me, Chief Grazing Planner, this did not provide the type of flexibility I like to see in a forage, raising the bar of risk and precision beyond my comfort zone. So I'm not sure it would have passed our Holistic testing in a non-experiment situation. But it does provide a lot of tonnage, and for our purposes, the timing worked out just fine. It is also used for baleage / sileage and that could provide a good option for farmers if grazing isn't feasible.
Gail wondered about soil fertility, but we did no testing. If we were crop farmers and going to implement this strategy larger-scale, we might consider it. Our Savory Hub Network colleague Phyllis Van Amburgh, who operates a dairy in New York State, points out that the sorghum sudan roots will also tiller when they grow back this fall before frost, generating some good soil conditioning action. So that's cool.
We put in 7 head of isolated males, 2 bulls and 5 yearling steers, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, and the sorghum sudan was over their heads in places. The growth is much taller, thicker and more green in a few areas where there had been a hay ring years before, thus heavy impact, and even some pig activity several years earlier. Undoubtedly the more lush growth is due to an increased amount of organic matter in those areas.
And undoubtedly the growth was aided by near-ideal rainfall, but with Holistic Planned Grazing, which empowers the soil to better utilize the rain that does fall, it's likely the strategy would work here in our region even in dry years.
Going forward, we anticipate after they graze down the sorghum sudan, it will recover and there will be more to graze. We expect to see rape coming in for fall, which the animals love. Long-term, we'll have the lespedeza, clover and fescue pasture, which makes a winning forage mix.
Is pasture-cropping a good option?
We don't know if we'll need to repeat the experiment here, but are considering it as a strategy for crop fields in transition back to perennial pastures. Where tillage is possible (unlike our rock-protected natives), we are encouraged about the flexibility and options that pasture-cropping can provide.
It will be important, however, to use the Gross Profit Analysis and other Holistic testing questions in any given year, and determine whether pasture-cropping advances our Holistic Context. In farming it seems we can chase after all the latest ideas without pausing to consider whether they are really necessary. In this case, certainly not -- we did not need the extra forage or stimulation in the pasture. But we are glad we tried it to understand how it might work, and it did advance our Context as a Hub learning site, so it passed the tests this time around.
We also caution that Colin's knowledge developed over years of practice is invaluable. Pasture-cropping is not so simple as just sowing annual seed into perennial forages. It's worth studying up on his methods, and practicing in a small plot before going big. We also share concerns about pasture-cropping into undisturbed native Tallgrass, where biodiversity is already extraordinary. And we see annuals, in the form of what we would call "weeds," naturally proceeding through this process of covering bare soil in fields and pastures anyway. The animals love a lot of them too.
Colin did plant some innovative ideas in Marvin's head about some of our crop fields. Similarly, one of our Network partners has taken this knowledge and put it to use where he is struggling to re-establish a native Tallgrass perennial mix in a 40-acre crop field that recently came out of CRP. In just our second year of grazing it as part of our Hub site rotation, we are seeing the grasses fill in. But to accelerate this process (and to see for himself), as part 2 of our experiment, he rented the no-till drill from the county and recently sowed in alfalfa, tillage radish and cereal rye, with a goal of providing some extra forage and enhancing that root activity underground, in 2 of the pasture's 6 paddocks.
This field also has hardpan, so the radish might help penetrate that underlayer that can turn herd impact into a mucky mess when it's wet. I am particularly interested in this potential outcome. But again, whether this passes the testing questions for larger scale investment remains to be seen, when the herd under Holistic Management can work miracles itself.
In the longest term, we have hopes for our friends at The Land Institute to develop their perennial polyculture grains that could perhaps make tillage a permanent thing of the past. But in the meantime, pasture-cropping seems like a great intermediate step, and the initial results of our experiment are encouraging.