Field to pasture and back again

June 9, 2016

Lisa Young, AgriNews

Researchers in three states, including Minnesota and Iowa, are looking into a whole new way for organic dairy farmers to potentially approach cropping systems.

Scientists at the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University and the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania are cooperatively studying ways dairies can get the benefits of having cover crops and animals on the land without affecting cash crop outcomes, all in an effort to improve organic dairy sustainability.

The project is sponsored by a $1.9-million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Organic Research and Extension Initiative. The lead researcher is ISU's Kathleen Delate, a professor and Extension organic specialist in horticulture and agronomy.

In Minnesota, Brad Heins, an assistant professor and animal scientist with the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), Morris, is the local point person. He said the project is pioneering a new way to look at whole farm systems.

"I think it's a unique way to incorporate livestock and cropping systems," Heins said. "We're trying something new, but it's something farmers may be able to try on their own farms based on what they see we can do."

Grazing is mandated by law for organic dairy producers. Traditionally with grazing dairy operations, there are pastures, and there are fields and the two are separate entities. The UMN/ISU/Rodale research is an attempt to bring those two concepts together in the same fields over a multi-year rotation. This could allow organic producers more options to produce animal feed and soil fertility on-farm rather than purchasing more off-farm inputs.

In all three states, separate areas were planted with winter wheat and winter rye last fall. At the University of Minnesota WCROC, five groups of three steers are grazing on each type of forage, for 30 total. A couple steers from the WCROC were shipped down to a cooperating producer's farm in Iowa to also participate in the experiment. In Pennsylvania, the Rodale Institute is working with a local dairy producer to test outcomes.

Heins hoped for his group to get through three grazings on the winter cover crops, and with the favorable weather, it's looking like they will, he said. After that, as grain heads out, the plan is to harvest the wheat and rye. Next year, the fields will go into either corn or soybeans.

Researchers at all three entities will be looking at a number of factors through this project. One chief factor will be any soil health improvements and, following that, any improvements in cash crop yield. Another area of focus will be cover crop performance and benefits of manure to the cropping system. Food safety, pest management and economic research are also in the mix.

The WCROC steers that are part of the project were born in spring 2015 and were fed hay and corn silage over the winter. This spring, they went from their TMR right onto the winter wheat or winter rye pasture and get no supplemental grain. They will be finished there and go to market in the fall. In addition to animal growth and cover crop intake, Heins and UMN WCROC students will be paying close attention to meat content and quality.

"We're looking at a systems approach to include cover crops, livestock and cash crops in organic dairy," Heins said. "Basically, nobody's ever done this before."

Both being involved with organic agriculture aspects at their universities, Heins and Delate have had several organic conversations in the past, so it was a natural partnership when the idea of integrating livestock into cropping systems started to come together, Heins said. The project itself has taken a couple years to come into being. Now, the research partners will be able to take a closer look at their unique system for four years through the USDA grant. The first cover crops for the project were planted in August 2015.

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