Gabe Brown and son Paul have a breakeven cost on corn of $1.18 per bushel — thanks to their innovative use of no-till, cover crops and cattle.“Cattle so improve cropland that we want to get cattle on every acre we farm,” Gabe says.
The Browns’ production costs are so low partly because they’ve been able to achieve high yields without the use of commercial fertilizer. The Browns operate a 4,500-acre ranch east of Bismarck, N.D., and have approximately 2,000 acres of cropland.
To get cattle on cropland, they are using several grazing methods:
• They plant cover crops before or after cash crops and graze the cover crops in the fall or spring.
• Sometimes they leave a cover crop on cropland the whole growing season and mob-graze it.
• The cattle graze crop residue in the fall and graze on bales in the winter.
“Our goal is to graze 365 days a year,” Gabe says.
• Cattle, cover crops and no-till lower corn production costs.
• System relies on soil microbes to break down carbon.
• Ranch aims to graze cattle on every cropland acre.
Organic matter has risen from approximately 1.7% to 4.5% on some fields. Soil structure is better. More water is absorbed by the soil than ever before. Macro- and microorganism populations are high. The carbon-eating bugs are so active that they mineralize enough organic matter each year to produce high corn yields.
Now, the Browns’ goal is to produce as much cover-crop residue and stubble as possible. The more they can produce, the more nitrogen the microbes produce for the following year’s crop.
Cattle add manure and urine to the soil, of course, but they also trample plants and residue into the soil. In the mob-grazing paddocks, the Browns let the cattle eat about 33% of plant material. The rest is intentionally trampled into the soil to feed the soil organisms.
“We’re trying to feed the creatures belowground, too,” Gabe says.
The Browns put 325 yearlings on one-third of an acre and move them five to eight times a day, in order to get the removal-to-trampled ratio right.
Bale grazing works the same way as mob grazing, but it happens in the winter. Rather than confining stock cows to a winter feedyard and hauling bales to them, the Browns placed round bales in a pasture and fenced off the number of bales the cows needed for seven to 10 days. To “feed” cows, they rolled up an electric fence to allow access to a new set of bales.
Most of the cows ate snow for water. Some walked about a half mile back to the farmyard to a water tank.
Plant growth the following spring was denser and more vigorous where they bale-grazed.
Gabe says the difference is likely due to the manure and urine, and the extra carbon trampled into the soil.
Bale grazing for 42 days cost the Browns $3,000 less than feeding 250 cows in a yard. They didn’t have to start up a chore tractor each day and didn’t have to haul out manure and spread it.
“The easiest money you make is the money that you don’t spend,” Gabe says. One disadvantage to bale grazing is that some cows don’t graze or eat snow.
“We sold those and are building our herd on the ones that do,” Gabe says. “There’s no reason we have to work for the cows. They can work for us.”
While what the Browns do may not fit your farm or ranch, Gabe says it’s at least worth considering.
“If you don’t look at it, you could be ignoring some income potential and the opportunity to enjoy farming even more. My family is a lot happier.”
Corn council endows chair
HAPPIER NOW: Gabe Brown smiles as he explains how cover crops, no-till and cattle have reduced costs and increased yields.
HUNGRY MOB: Yearlings mob-graze a cover crop. They eat 30% to 40% of the forage. The rest is trampled, providing a food source for soil microbes.
SET UP: Bales are spread out for winter grazing. Electric fence divides the field so that there are seven to 10 days worth of bales in each pasture.
WINTER GRAZing: Cows spread out to eat the hay and graze the residue. Most of the cattle eat the snow for water.
This article published in the August, 2010 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.