• Daniel Sparrowhawk

The Next Agriculture Revolution – Regenerative Agriculture using Grazing and Cover Crops.

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the air drill.

An essential piece of modern seeding equipment that has enabled no till or minimum till farming. Equipment that has provided a significant shift in farming efficiencies and soil management. Over the past 25 years there have been upgrades to the equipment of course – better soil openers, better metering, larger grain tanks, and with auto steer tractors the ability to put seed into straight rows, and then seed between last years rows.

The basic concept remains the same as 25 years ago. More organic matter left on the soil surface and less soil disturbance which in turn means less disturbance to beneficial soil microorganisms.

We are now starting to witness the next agriculture revolution – the use of a cocktail cover crop/grazing rotation mixed in with regular crop rotations. It may be cover crop/cattle one year – then 3 or 4 years of regular grain production, then back to cover crop/grazing.

As one soil scientist put it in very approximate terms – if regular tillage is at this base level – then no till farming is roughly twice that– then cover crop/grazing may be five times what no till provides. A staggering increase. So, what makes the difference.

More litter on the soil surface from cover crops can help increase water infiltration – the rainfall that falls on your farm stays on your farm. Yes, it can look like it rains more on your farm.

Higher soil water storage – the combination of more soil microbes, including mycorrhizal fungi, provide excellent water holding capacity to the soil.

More mycorrhizal fungi means more nutrients available for the crop, which means less fertilizer.

Less tillage means less soil disturbance, less disturbance to mycorrhizal fungi, and less drying out of the soil.

Why use grazing animals?

You could of course plant cover crop, then roll/crimp the crop putting it onto the soil surface and then seed into the litter. Maybe not quite as easy as that, but you could do it from your tractor seat. Grazing animals on the other hand, with managed intensive grazing, will do the work for you. They eat, trample, and dung and urinate on the soil. This in turn yields more organic matter on the soil surface, nutrients provided by grazing stay in place, and even more important, some of the nutrients produced in dung and urine feed the soil microbes, which in turn helps feed the plants for the next crop.

Yes, when the grazing animals leave the field, there will be a mix of standing plants, trampled plants and dung scattered everywhere. Not the beautiful monoculture field that the neighbors look at on the way to town, but from a soil microbes’ point of view – pure heaven.

I can hear the collective groans from the farming crowd. The innovative farmer that bought the first air drill when he was 40 years old is probably the same guy farming today. The same guy that took all the grazing infrastructure away – no more fence to hit with the 80-foot sprayer, no more corrals and water infrastructure, and no more calving, out of season, when its 40 below. A perfect scenario – except for the soil.

Just as the air drill propelled the last Agriculture revolution, portable electric fence and portable water is providing the means for the next revolution. Remember, it may not be the 65-year-old crop farmer that has the grazing animals, it can be the custom grazing contractor that supplies the animals, the portable fence and the water. Just like the custom operator that supplies seeding, spraying or combining, this custom operator supplies grazing animals. They may graze 320 acres on your farm, then move on and graze at another farm, or maybe there is enough land in one operation to provide a grazing rotation for 4-5 months. Grazing at higher intensities – say at 100,000lb or more of grazing animal per acre, provides the means for increased soil health and greater soil water storage.

Pie is the sky? Perhaps, but some operations over a period of 8-10 years have reduced their fertilizer bill by as much as 80%, increased soil water storage and increased crop yields, all with less inputs. And if you are the farmer that owns the grazing animals, you have the income from that too. If you have a grazing contractor come in, then you still have the crop rent, plus the increased water and nutrient benefits for the following crops. A win, win, win situation.

The best part is the increase in soil health. And that is good for everyone.

If you are one of the next generation of innovative, regenerative agriculture farmers, give Range Ward a call. We have the tools that can help get you there.

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