Multi-crop rotation offers benefits for livestock and crops
At the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center, one focus is improving crop and beef cattle production efficiency. Douglas Landblom, a beef cattle specialist, has found that multi-crop rotations with beef cattle can increase efficiency while decreasing inputs.
Landblom’s research consists of studying the comparison of spring wheat grown continuously on the same land compared to spring wheat grown in a multi-crop rotation consisting of spring wheat, dual cover crop, silage corn, field pea-barley mix and sunflowers. Yearling steers grazed three of the rotation crops and the deposited manure and urine contributed to soil organic matter, providing a food source for soil microorganisms.
According to Landblom, the principles of regenerative agriculture are based in the context of improving soil health. Systems like expanded crop rotations allow soil biota, microorganisms, and fungi the opportunity to function at a higher level of efficiency. “Managing crops in a way that gives soil organisms the food necessary to perform is extremely beneficial,” says Landblom.
During the first few years of the multi-crop rotation study, both spring wheat yields were 40 and 41 bushels per acre. However, Landblom found that by discontinuing fertilizer application on the spring wheat rotation reduced the cost for fertilizer and, when combined with an increase in soil-derived nitrogen, resulted in a $15 per acre greater net return for spring wheat grown in the crop rotation that included livestock grazing.
“Increasing soil health results in greater biodiversity, while grazing reduces carbon dioxide emission, improves water cycles, and increases plant-available nitrogen,” says Landblom. The research conducted by Larry Cihacek, Songul Senturklu, and Landblom found that for every one percent increase in field soil organic matter content there is potentially 16 pounds of nitrogen mineralized by soil microbes and available for plant growth.
“Replacing fertilizer with nitrogen produced by soil microbial processes is water-dependent,” Landblom says. “Integrating crop and livestock systems increases soil organic matter and aggregation, which subsequently contribute to a soil’s water-holding capacity and offers an opportunity to support better yields during moderate drought in semi-arid regions.”
Winter crops like triticale, hairy vetch and winter rye seeded in the fall make excellent grazing crops the next spring for yearling steers, feeder heifers, cows and calves, or cull cows. Designing a grazing system that incorporates native range, when annual forages need time to grow, and a sequence of annual forages for grazing throughout the summer provides a measure of grazing flexibility.
Landblom found that yearling steers that grazed native range and multi-crop rotations gained 495 pounds after grazing 211 days. After that, the grazing steers were in the feedlot for 82 days and then slaughtered, “Feedlot average daily gain was 4.7 pounds per day and required 6.23 pounds of feed per pound of gain,” Landblom says. “Compared to control steers that were finished in the feedlot, net return was greater for the extended forage grazing steers by $61 per steer.”
In the past, producers have focused on the maximum yield that they can get from a field. However, Landblom explains that regenerative agricultural thinking still focuses on the need to produce, but also looks at more alternative ways to achieve maximum economic yield while also relying less on purchased inputs, like fuel, fertilizer, chemical, and labor, plus reducing environmental impact.
The multi-crop rotation was originally designed for grazing yearling steers, however, it can be manipulated for producers without livestock as well. Producers can substitute the appropriate crop such as grain corn for forage corn and the pea-barley mix produces excellent hay. In addition, the pea-barley mix can be replaced with low-water use legumes such as peas, lentils, canola, and chickpeas, which are known to be financially rewarding.
For producers that are interested in implementing an integrated crop and livestock system, Landblom suggests beginning with a plan that fits the available farm labor, machinery and infrastructure, and is agreeable with other farm members with a vested interest in the farm business. Additional consultation with property owners, lenders, tax consultants and spouses is also important to keep in mind whenever changes in a farm business plan are made.
Producers also need to determine the class of livestock and the way livestock will fit into their cropping system. “Begin with a goal to produce a sequence of crops that provide for a diversity of crop types using a combination of cool- and warm-season grasses and broadleaf crops for cash grain, oilseed and forage production,” Landblom says. “I cannot over-emphasize the necessity for diversity, which can have a significant impact on soil fertility, weed, and pest management.”
“Multi-crop diversity is very important, and every farm may have different goals and crop sequences to achieve those goals,” Landblom says. It is important for producers to seek individuals with experience when first planning a multi-crop and grazing rotation. These individuals can help design a cropping system to fit specific farm objectives and also facilitate expertise for placement of crops within the cropping sequence.
“Experience has shown that producers who begin alternative production methods begin to see greater residual nitrogen the third or fourth year after initiation and, therefore, can begin reducing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied and subsequently increase their efficiency of the cropping and cattle systems while lowering their inputs,” Landblom says.
For more information on the research done at the NDSU Dickinson Extension Center or to learn more about improving cattle production system efficiency contact Douglas Landblom at 701-456-1109, 701-690-8245, firstname.lastname@example.org.