For the last 10 years, I have been raising a herd of cattle and making hay on our small farm in Wisconsin. During that time, the only crop we were ever successful at producing was hay. After all, its not that hard to do, or at least I thought so in the early years of my farming career. Turns out good hay is harder to make than one may think.
When we bought the farm we purchased 20 acres and partnered with our neighbors at the time to farm another 20. The entire 40 acres that we worked had been planted in a corn, soybean rotation for an extended period of time. I had a farmer friend plant the whole thing to an alfalfa, clover and timothy grass perennial mix in the first year we worked the land. I have only frost seeded it with red clover alfalfa, and drilled in some annual rye into the existing sod since. I did attempt to grow a corn patch on 1 acre once, but for the most part, the land has been largely covered with a diverse mix of wild grasses and legumes over the last 10 years. It has not been tilled. It has however been exposed to pastured chicken and hog operations. More on that in future blogs.
Half of the land had been grazed with cattle and the other half had not. On the non grazed side, I had applied some fertilizers early on to increase my hay yields, and it had some success. I applied fertilizers to the fields twice. It was expensive and I did not like the idea of applying fertilizers. After all I want no culpability in sustaining the dead zone in the Gulf. Fertilizers have a tendency to run off and seep into places they should not be. They are also very concentrated. My alternative solution was to compost barley with wood chips and spread it over all of the fields in the fall. I have done that for the last 4 years. I wish I had taken pictures of the land when we bought it. It was red, silty and lifeless.It was hard to find a worm. I recall the soil being hard and difficult to dig through.
in 2019 , the farm across the street had been purchased by a new owner and they are currently in the process of building a house. Two weeks ago, I decided to walk across the street and have a look at the soil that had been managed conventionally for the last 10 years, and maybe longer. The photo below shows what I found there.
This farm had been rented by a farmer who had kept the land in a corn, soybean and barley rotation. It has been fertilized and had no real natural inputs such as manure or compost spread on it. He used herbicides to control weeds and uses no till technology to plant the crops through the remaining fodder on the field. Chemical fertilizers were the only source of nutrients. On an annual basis most of the fodder was chopped and baled and used for animal bedding for his herd of replacement heifers for the dairy industry. No manure from that facility was placed back onto the land. in the winter the land remained uncovered and was subject to wind and rain erosion. This soil reminded me of where our soil started. Barren and void of life to the naked eye.
Down the hill there is a corn field that has been planted in a corn, soybean rotation for as long I can remember. I have taken a picture of it at the left. This field has no cover and has no plants between the rows. This picture was taken just after the snow melted off. There is no real residue left on the soil and it is exposed to the elements. The soil is fine textured and muddy. The land is degraded and erodible.
The Affect of 10 Years of Grassland Management
Walking back across the road, I turned to look at the field that I had managed through the use of a diverse hay / natural grass mix. For the last 10 years this field was cropped for hay. As mentioned above, I applied a fall spreading of brewers waste compost over the last four years. This was my attempt at trying to replace the hay I was taking off of the fields. I viewed hay fields a a zero sum game. Every bale you take off must be replaced. The brewers waste, when mixed with wood chips from the township, is a complete composting solution upon which tons of organic matter could be recycled and distributed back onto the fields. It was like recycling carbon and sunshine from many seasons past. Each year I spread two tons per acre of this compost as I assumed I was easily taking that much off in dry matter. In this way I felt like i was not depleting the nutrient base.
The brewers grain compost was made with spent brewers grain from a brewery in Milwaukee Wisconsin. The grain acts like a nitrogen component in the compost pile. This is offset by adding carbon in the form of wood chips to the pile, and turning the pile in the summer and early fall. The aerobic decay and composting process caused heating as high as 150 degrees. Red wigglers could be found in certain spots in the compost. In the field grass was grown from July through spring and left to overwinter. This allowed the the grass to recover and set deep roots for winter..
The photo to the right is a picture of the soil after turning over a shovel full on the same day as the picture of the depleted soil was taken from across the road. This soil is dark and rich, has roots and has the dark and crumbly characteristics of living soil. The increase in carbon from both the compost applications, the associated biological exchange of nutrients, and the carbon exchange that occurs as a result of photosynthesis is evident in the color of the soil. The soil has been darkening and there is an abundance of organic root matter in the soil. This is a recovery that was accomplished in 10 years without livestock grazing the pastures. I suspect to some extent grazing was emulated through the spreading of compost. Hay pack and horse manure was also mixed into the compost pile. These were waste steams that were generated on our farm from feeding hay and as a waste product from some of my friends who keep horses. I mixed this into the brewers waste and wood chips as well. As long as I kept the C:N ratio right, the piles keep cooking. I am impressed by the level of soil recovery thus far.
My sister in law bought the farm next door, so this year we fenced the land and intend to graze it in addition to the compost additions. We will be using a rotational grazing strategy and a grazing stick. That will be a future post. Moreover, I have purchased a no till drill capable of planting seed mixes with varied seed sizes. you guessed it, I'll write another blog on that later. I want to encourage plant diversity, which is one of the four principles of soil health according to several articles written in the Soil Health Guide published and offered for free from Green Cover Seed . This year I purchased my pasture seed from these folks. They have some great information on regenerating and maintaining a regenerative farm.
I always knew that I did not want to farm with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. I wanted to produce healthy food, and chemicals and herbicides just didn't seem to fit that model. I also knew that plant diversity and livestock could work in concert to heal the land. This is the way my great grandpa farmed. He spent his whole life farming this way. This has led me on a journey over the last year to try to understand what the right things are that should be done with crop rotations, cash crops, soil health, and grazing. I can tell you with certainty, spraying it with herbicide and planting corn is not the answer. I am tracking and testing ideas on my farm and I want to share them with you. What works for me may or may not work for you. I intend to share a lot of that in these blogs. Your positive questions, comments and feedback are always welcomed.