Finding cattle feed with less pasture

It's the Cain and Abel conflict of agriculture: you farm or you ranch. Very few do both. But with the push for more sustainable farming practices, livestock's potential in impacting soil health and benefitting cropland is becoming a topic of inte...

An evolving aspect of soil health is partnering livestock grazing with cropland. In order to bring diversity back into the farming landscape and also capitalize on feed resources, some producers are bringing their cattle back onto crop ground to graze cover crops and corn residue. (Erin Beck/For SD Farm & Ranch)

It's the Cain and Abel conflict of agriculture: you farm or you ranch. Very few do both.

But with the push for more sustainable farming practices, livestock's potential in impacting soil health and benefitting cropland is becoming a topic of interest. Beef extension specialist Julie Walker believes it's time to reunite the two practices into one.

"It's about creating a holistic system," Walker said. "Cattle and crops work together instead of being two separate enterprises."

In an evolving landscape that has seen many acres of grassland converted into cropland, livestock producers are required to find different ways to feed cattle with less pasture. Producers already have an abundance of crop residue available for stubble grazing. Walker says that producers also have the opportunity to pack high-quality nutrients into a grazing program as cover crops gain momentum across the Midwest. Just because grassland is disappearing from agriculture doesn't mean that grazing has to subside as well.

"I watched fences go out, and now we're seeing a need for them to go back in," Walker said. "That ground can have potential multi-uses."


Jim Kopriva runs registered Angus cattle and manages a small grains operation near Raymond. As a winner of the South Dakota 2012 Leopold Conservation Award, Kopriva is committed to being a steward of both his land and livestock.

"People assume either you farm or you ranch," Kopriva said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Kopriva has been diligent in learning how his cattle have impacted his soil and crops. By grazing cover crops Kopriva has been able to rest his pastures and create a dual-purpose role for his cropland. He's noted that the manure has acted as a catalyst for microbial activity around plant roots.

"Roots fed with synthetic fertilizers are a lot less developed than roots fed with organic matter," Kopriva said.

From Kopriva's experience, manure is an effective long-term fertilizer. Although the breakdown of nutrients isn't immediate, it has long-term benefits for soil health as nutrients slowly become available for plant uptake.

Rangeland extension specialist Sandy Smart also points out that with cattle grazing crop ground, farmers save some of the expense of spreading manure or fertilizer when grazing is managed properly. Cattle cycle the nutrients from stubble and cover crops without farmers having to bale off excess residue.

Many farmers are skeptical of the impacts that livestock grazing will have on crop ground, especially where compaction and subsequent yields are concerned. Smart admits that more research needs to be done to understand how cover crop water and nutrient budgets, soil type, organic matter processes, and grazing affect these issues.

"We're trying to find the win-win," Smart said.


Although not a scientist, Kopriva has seen the benefits from grazing livestock on his crop ground, and he believes it has positive impacts on his soil. The hoof action and grazing influence activate the plant roots to release exudates into the soil that stimulate further soil activity. And by moving the cattle periodically to prevent them from creating paths, Kopriva has had very few issues with compaction in his fields. With cattle managed properly on no-till fields, he sees less compaction compared to semis and tractors packing down conventionally-tilled soil.

"Compaction is an issue we need to debunk," Kopriva said.

NRCS resource conservationist Jason Hermann has worked with Kopriva to develop more sustainable practices in his farming and ranching operation. Hermann stresses the importance in developing diversity within the farming landscape. He believes that cover crops and livestock are a couple methods that can mimic nature's original system.

"We can still make a profit and still do the right thing," Hermann said.

Kopriva and Hermann both agree that a diversified, low-input farming system will generate a more sustainable income than conventional crop farming. Kopriva doesn't see the benefits of gaining a top dollar net income when it's fueled by top dollar expenses. However, he admits that creating a diversified system by integrating livestock into a farming operation is labor intensive. Kopriva sees the need for the younger generation to become more involved in agriculture to resolve the labor issue. Walker points out that trying to connect the two worlds of agronomy and animal science will not happen overnight.

"It's really difficult to be an expert in both areas," Walker said.

Walker doesn't think that producers need to become well-versed across all spectrums of agriculture. She's a proponent of bringing farmers and ranchers together to discuss working towards more sustainable farming goals together.

"The number one thing is education and awareness," Walker said. "We need to focus on the benefits to both the soil and livestock."


In Kopriva's opinion, it is vital to find ways to encourage producers to bring cattle back to the land. With the conversion of grassland to cropland, Kopriva sees cover crops as a way to keep cattle in South Dakota.

"We really need to get them on the land," Kopriva said. "Otherwise they'll leave because there's no place for them to go."

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