Sustainable agriculture requires forages, and that means beef. Farmers need a solid cash return on forages if they’re going to regularly incorporate them into their rotations.
There simply are not enough dairy cows and sheep to consume the large volume of forage biomass created by a well-balanced rotation. Chickens and pigs don’t thrive on forages, and humans don’t seem to relish grass. The beef cow is the only viable vehicle for bringing forages to market.
“If I could dream of any sustainable ag, I would say it would be a mixed farming system where there are animals on the land,” says Ann Bybee-Finley, a plant scientist at Cornell University.
She said there’s nothing new or revolutionary about the idea. Pasture and hayland are used to re-plenish the soil and give it a break from annual crops. The intercrop-ping scheme is a mix of grasses and legumes that improve the soil and feed the cow.
“In the big scheme of things, should we be eating less meat? Yes, definitely,” she said. “Is it more sustainable to grow forages rather than grains, even though we lose X amount of energy by feeding it to another animal? Yes.
“Is there some place for people who think that if they do eat beef, it should be grass-fed beef, not from a producer who feeds grain to herbivores? Yes.
“As we look at organic food production, some of the conversation has been about a new idea of grass-fed certification that goes beyond current organic regulations.”
For now, her intercropping research is focused on livestock feed. She said the concept might also apply in the future to grains and oilseeds.
“We can do so much with technology,” she said.
“Perhaps the engineers can devise harvesting equipment that lets us selectively harvest the kernels of different plant species planted in a field.”
The original stands of native grasslands on the Prairies were often blanketed by 200 or more distinct plant species in one small area. The mixture was sustainable, surviving fire, drought, extreme cold and over-grazing by bison. These grasslands survived everything except the plow.
“If you think about creating a cropping system that imitates nature or native grasslands, you would put in a lot of different species, but in terms of a field you manage for commercial a crop, that’s not practical,” she said.
“You have to look at cost and how much biomass you can harvest and how you harvest it.
“Many people are promoting multi-species cover crop cocktails. I don’t think you gain much benefit from having a large number of different plants. That’s why in my research, I have only two grasses and two legumes.”