Organic grain, cattle production can make good partners

Grain and livestock production go well together. It works both ways: introducing organic grain production onto the ranch can provide a valuable market stream. Integration of cattle into grain farming can improve sustainability.

For a livestock producer considering pasture renovation, or re-seeding of hay land, organic grain production can be a valuable interlude between hay fields.

Demand for organic grain is high, as are organic prices.

Hay land is generally not treated with chemical inputs, so it usually transitions quickly.

Two points are key during the transition. First, terminate the hay with tillage, not chemistry. Second, have the field inspected in the year in which the hay is plowed down.

Land must be under organic management for a full 12 months before the first harvest of organic products. This means it is necessary to contact a certifier, develop an organic plan, and have an inspection before harvest time in the plow-down year. This way, the field can qualify for certified organic production in its first grain year.

After a few years of organic grain production, the field can be reseeded to hay, if that is desirable. Organic production can be rotated through the hay fields, as they need rejuvenation.

Alternately, including cattle on a grain farm increases the range of weed management options, and improves nutrient cycling.

One of the primary benefits of cattle is that they provide top-notch fertilizer. Urine is an ideal form of nitrogen, with excellent biological availability. Solid waste is phosphorus rich, and again biologically available. And of course, with appropriate management, cattle will spread these fertilizers where they are needed.

In addition, cattle greatly increase the options for economic weed management. Cattle eat weeds, which can be highly nutritious. They also eat crops that change the dynamics of weed management, making it more effective.

Basically, I see five ways that cattle can be introduced into the grain farm:

  • Manure application. Manure can be brought onto an organic farm, if the farm does not produce its own. Not all forms are acceptable. For instance sewage sludge and products from caged animals or those permanently kept in the dark are prohibited. There are rules for application, so that it does not contaminate crops or water systems. In general, it should be applied on biologically active land (not too cold, not too dry), no later than 90 days from the harvest of an above ground food crop.
  • Green manure incorporation. Grain producers consider green manure as a necessary input cost. Allowing cattle to graze the green manure can change it from a cost to an income stream. Most of the nutrients of the green manure will pass through the cow, and are then applied in a form that is highly plant available. If animal density is high enough, what is not eaten will be trampled into a weed suppressing, soil moisture retaining mulch.
  • Inclusion of forages and feed. Perennial forages are excellent for building organic matter, and feeding soil biology. Livestock increase the chances that a farm will produce forages. Options for annual forages go far beyond those for annual grains, because seed production is not necessary. Warm-season crops can be seeded well into mid summer, so even late emerging weeds can be controlled first. When fields are extremely weedy, it can be useful to cut them before the weeds set seeds. This is usually done at a loss for the producer, but again, livestock can turn that loss to profit. Livestock can make it more cost effective to cut weed patches as well.
  • Stubble grazing. Cattle grazing after harvest can clean up grain that was blown through the combine and reappear as volunteers. Cattle can clean up weeds as well, especially winter annuals and perennials.
  • Bale grazing. If nutrients such as phosphorus, are low on an organic farm, bringing in bales is one way to bring in nutrients. By grazing those bales in low nutrient regions, especially knolls, nutrients can be returned in a more biologically effective way than with mined minerals.

Often grain producers don’t feel they have the skills, resources or interest for cattle production, however, the price of moveable electric fencing may be low relative to the nutrient and weed benefits in the field. Some innovative grain producers have partnered with neighbouring cattle producers in a way that benefits both.

Finding a balance of plant and animal production increases the diversity of management options, and is can improve both ecological and economical sustainability.

Brenda Frick, Ph.D., P.Ag. is an extension agrologist and researcher in organic agriculture. She welcomes your comments at 306-260-0663 or email organic@usask.ca.

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