Cattle return to row crop agriculture

Mikey Taylor felt like a slave to soil testing. In a battle against hard ground and poor soil quality on some of his east Arkansas farmland, he turned to soil testing and the NPK gospel. But instead of answers, he found contradiction. Soil samples sent to multiple labs across the U.S. produced different results—separate and entirely unequal. Salvation in a soil sample? Not for Taylor.

He was chasing a remedy that put him on the trail of a cover crop solution. Initially planting cover crops solely for erosion protection, Taylor transitioned to soil health covers, and recently to grazing covers in tandem with cattle rotation. On Taylor’s ground in Phillips County, Ark., livestock are the vehicle to building  higher potential soils.

Taylor farms with his father, Mike, at Long Lake Plantation, a family operation dating to 1938. Taylor’s standard crop roster includes corn, cotton, grain sorghum, peanuts and soybeans. In 2010, he got an unexpected surprise after planting corn and soybeans on 250 acres of cleared high-ground hardwood in three blocks. The dryland corn yielded more than 200 bu. per acre and dryland soybeans tallied more than 80 bu. per acre. Across the road on old farming ground, the yields weren’t as high.

The first producers to clear ground at Long Lake followed the contours of soil types. The high ground never flooded and was presumed inferior. When Taylor first cleared the 250 acres, he planned to replant in hardwood. But safe from flooding, he planted corn and soybeans. When yields jumped, he suspected the formerly wooded acreage was reaping the benefits of nature’s cover crop.

Taylor had already put the ground in cover crops for several years, initially planting cereal rye to stem soil erosion during winter rains and spring winds. His cover crop usage progressed to building organic matter and maintaining soil health. 

In 2014, Taylor’s growing interest in cover crop benefits pushed him to seek out Doug Peterson, a National Resources Conservation Service soil health specialist for Iowa and Missouri. “I came home from the meeting with Doug and sat down with a plan to implement a cattle and cover crop to  soybean system,” Taylor says.

Grazing cover crops with cattle is an old practice. Cows have faded out of the row crop picture, but with the integration of cover crops, cattle are returning. “You’re essentially turning the cover crops into a cash crop,” Peterson explains. “In this system, cover crops offer soil health benefits and manure that add a financial incentive to row crops, and they also turn into cash as livestock fodder.”

On June 16, 2015, the day after he began cutting wheat, Taylor planted a 13-way-blend cover of legumes and grasses into the stubble. The cover combination grew phenomenally fast, and 45 days later it was head-high and ready for cattle rotation. 

Taylor runs 100 head of cattle per acre, moving the herd each day. Once grazed, an acre is typically ready for rotation again in 40 days. “Keeping the cows on a single acre is key and spreads the manure evenly,” Taylor explains. “Turn 100 head loose on 150 acres and they’ll graze in patches. The ground will get uneven manure distribution.”

On a single acre, cattle eat in a concentrated pattern, making a 150-acre checkerboard field. Taylor moves cattle acre by acre until October, and then to the opposite side of Long Lake to graze winter cover crops planted behind grain sorghum. On the land the herd has exited, Taylor plants cereal rye as a winter cover. He kills the cereal rye in spring and plants soybeans into the mat in April. The system constantly shifts ground over multiple years. 

On fresh ground, the cattle transition from a warm-season summer cover to a cool-season winter cover. Because the cycle is longer and the grass doesn’t last as long, Taylor breaks the system into 15-acre paddocks every three days. “Some of it may be my laziness, but you don’t have to move them each day,” he says.

The daily effort to move fence to accommodate cattle rotation would seem to be a logistical nightmare. Not so, Taylor says. The cows, anticipating fresh grass, are waiting at the gate for the next pasture. He runs a high-tensile electric fence around the block perimeter. The acreage cutoffs are done with temporary highly visible polytape fencing on 660' spools. “The white polytape spins off a big fishing reel and connects to posts 50' apart. It takes two men a couple of hours each day,” Taylor says.

Once infrastructure and water are in place, labor is time-consistent regardless of herd size, explains Peterson, who maintains a grazing operation in northern Missouri. “Most of this ground hasn’t had a livestock presence in decades, so water and fence systems have to be put in,” he says. “But fencing technology has changed and polywire’s braided conductivity and easy visibility make it simple to contain livestock.”

In the off-season, the cover crop and cattle system increases organic matter and the potential for stronger row crops. The soil builds nutrients instead of lying idle and dormant. In Taylor’s case, crop fields have been exposed to years of tillage, resulting in reduced biological activity. But cattle manure is packed with biological organisms and evenly spread due to the fencing system. In tandem with manure, cattle saliva releases biological activity into the ground as cows feed, Peterson says. 

“This system is beneficial to the soil but also to the animals. Giving the cattle a fresh plate of grass every day ensures they’re at the highest level of health,” he adds. “Some farmers move them twice daily, enhancing health even more.”

Prior to rotating with cattle, Taylor was planting cool-season covers at roughly $20 per acre. “We added to the quality and it’s now costing $35 to $40 for a winter-graze mix,” he says. 

For warm-season covers, Taylor’s seed company devised a mix specifically for Long Lake’s rotation. During the summer, Taylor waters the warm-season covers with pivots and polypipe. In fall 2015, he also watered his winter cover with pivots during an eight-week drought. 

Livestock is a new facet of the Long Lake operation. Taylor buys cattle from Clayton Zeerschke, Batesville, Miss., who purchases the calves at auction and conditions them, before delivery to Taylor 38 to 45 days later. “I couldn’t manage my cattle without Clayton,” Taylor says. “I’m blessed with tremendous help. I’m also blessed to farm and involve my children in farming on a daily basis.”

Taylor’s cover journey has moved from erosion control and soil health to cash crop. “Livestock are the ultimate means to building high-potential soils,” he adds. “I treat my covers like row crops because my cows depend on them and so does my ground.”