One of the most valuable ends for a cover crop is for it to be eaten by livestock, converted to manure and added to the soil as processed nutrients.
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That’s a significant challenge in areas where crops are of such high value that the investment in infrastructure for livestock, especially grazing, makes little sense.
That’s true for the south end of Huron County, where highly productive soil and expensive land steer farmers to grow corn, soybeans and wheat.
Why it matters: Adding livestock to row crop production systems has many soil health benefits, but the economics don’t always make sense.
When Joel and Paula Brodie moved from their farm in North Huron back to what was Joel’s grandfather’s homestead near Brucefield, they had the same challenge. They wanted to farm livestock and use cover crops to improve soil health and feed animals, but the farm is in an area where it’s hard to justify the conversion of valuable corn and soybean acres into pasture.
The result is a farm with 100 ewes and about 12 beef cows, and only eight acres of permanent pasture, much of it in uncroppable ravine land. The rest of the farm is in row crops. However, part of the business plan is to use cover crops to seasonally graze the livestock.
To that end, a cover crop mix was recently planted in the winter wheat field after it was harvested and after it was spread with manure.
To set up the farm for grazing, they fenced 74 acres at a cost of about $41,000. Some of that was covered by OFMAP project funding.
“It’s a fairly environmentally sensitive farm. A stream goes through the middle of it and everything drains towards it,” says Joel Brodie, who spoke during a stop on the recent Soil Network tour of farms across the province.
The Brodies moved home after creating a partnership in January 2022 with Joel’s parents, who live on the farm next door. In 2022 they grew 60 acres of wheat and 14 acres of soybeans. They grazed cereal rye before the soybeans were planted.
Last year, Brodie says they got about 10 days of grazing for 120 ewes and their lambs. He keeps careful track of returns on his various practices.
Ten grazing days “on paper was likely not enough to justify the feed costs. It still worked as a good cover crop.”
There was a lot of root growth, he says, “so it’s hard to put a dollar on” the overall benefit, including soil health.
He plans to strip graze livestock in the future, and fencing is ongoing. Last year, after wheat, they planted cereal rye and spring triticale, put on 50 pounds of nitrogen and cut it in October.
“It was nice feed, but it ended up being our most expensive feed,” he said. The family has no hay equipment, so they hired someone to bale and wrap it. Buying the hay would have been less expensive.
The rye regrew and they grazed it in this past spring. It cost about $20 per day and that means it was cheaper than feeding the animals in a yard.
The family lambs the ewes annually in two groups, in March and November, which is easier than accelerated lambing, because both Joel and Paula have off-farm jobs.
The Brodies are trying to manage the valuable interactions of livestock with cropland, including grazing cover crops and putting manure back.
Brodie says he hopes they can get to about 200 ewes and 24 cows at some point. Beyond that would take more investment or expansion in land.