Meeks Farm: Growing more grass, no hay and more cattle – Post Register


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Ranchers in the West have typically grazed cattle on summer pastures—often in the mountains or desert rangelands near their ranch, on BLM or Forest Service allotments—while growing hay at home, to feed the cows during winter. The largest single expense for most stockman is for winter feed, either purchased or put up as hay on the home acres, which involves a lot of time, labor and expensive machinery. The more time that cattle can graze without needing hay, the more profitable they will be. Today there are new forage varieties and “cover crops” that can fill some gaps in the grazing calendar, enabling cattle to graze for more of the year and sometimes year-round.Twenty years ago, Jim and Diane Meeks decided to quit running cattle on public lands for summer grazing and keep them all home at their farm near Jerome, Idaho. “We started developing our own pastures, to grow more forage, and have been improving pastures and increasing our cattle numbers ever since,” Jim said.On dry years like this one, when the native pastures on rangelands are short on forage and low in quality (dried up too soon), Jim and Diane are glad their cattle are at home on irrigated pastures. In order to have enough good pasture, they have been experimenting with cover crops as well as new varieties of permanent pasture grasses.COVER CROPS – Jed Bateman of AgriSource (headquartered in Burley, Idaho as a distributer for Barenbrug Seed) has been assisting them with selection of species for perennial forages and cover crops. “In 2019 we planted perennial grass (a mix called Stockmaster) underneath the grazing corn. This mix included perennial ryegrass, orchardgrass and soft-leaf tall fescue, and we planted it a few days after we planted the corn,” Jim said.Last year, the goal was a little more diversity. “On some of our corn acres, we added broadleaf forages and put in several different brassicas (turnips), two legumes (clover and hairy vetch) and the corn,” Jed said.In comparing the two years, the grass mix (from the year before) was probably a little better, with less competition from weeds, but the diverse mix grew very well. The cattle utilized that cover crop mix for winter grazing. This year they planted more grass again, but added some clover and other legumes. “As far as tonnage, the perennial grass mix we planted in 2020 did the best, so we wanted to go back to doing more of that,” he said. It’s been interesting to try different mixes to see what works best in certain soils and intensified grazing management.SOIL AND CROP HEALTH – Cameron Stauffer is a part-owner of the cattle on the farm and also a crop consultant with Hillier Consulting Corporation. “Cam is our soil guru, and he also runs his cattle with our herd. We hired him as a crop consultant,” Jim said. During the summer he helps with irrigation management and decision-making regarding the crops.Irrigation is with center pivot sprinklers. In the past, some commercial fertilizer was purchased, but now so much cattle impact on all the ground, there is less need forpurchased fertilizer. “This is the only farm I consult for that’s doing it this way, so it’s been a learning experience for me as well,” said Cam.Where the cattle graze on cover crops, manure and plant litter serve as natural fertilizer. “We’re trying to get to the point where this is adequate—with good pasture management and cover crop management—getting the cows across every acre of our farm, with good animal impact,” he said. With more intensive grazing, every part is more likely to be covered.“The pivots we’ve grazed have been covered very intensively. The natural fertilizer is much more viable and the effects last longer,” Cam said. The crops and the animals have a symbiotic relationship.“The more diverse our plants are, and the more animals we can get on the ground, the more positive effects we see,” he said. Following intensive grazing, the pivot areas respond the next year with vigorous growth and better water retention.“We were worried at first that on these heavier soils without mechanical tillage it might be a struggle, but we were pleasantly surprised with how the crop responded the following year after intensive grazing. We were able to water it effectively and it worked very well,” he said.Steven Hines (University of Idaho Jerome County Extension Educator specializing in crops) said that in 2013 the NRCS was trying to help improve soil health on farms. “One concern was wind erosion,” Steven said. This can be a major problem in the Magic Valley, especially in the spring when farmers are working their fields.“We have turbulent weather transitioning from winter, and blowing dust was so bad in some areas that the Department of Transportation came to NRCS and asked if they could do something about this because they wouldn’t have to keep closing highways.”Blowing dust made visibility poor and drifts of dirt accumulated on highways and filled the borrow pits along the edges. “A couple places here in Jerome County they had to use snowplows to remove soil drifts from the road. This was a problem for the highways and also for the farmers who were losing valuable topsoil,” Steven said.“In the region where Meeks farm is located, there isn’t much topsoil to begin with. A group of us with Extension wrote a grant for the NRCS to try to address the problem. At that time cover crops were uncommon. Only a few farmers in the Magic Valley utilized them,” he said.“We talked to Jim and asked if he’d be interested in doing a demonstration plot. We wanted several demonstration areas across the Magic Valley from west to east, on both sides of the river and with various types of irrigation and following different crops. When you start innovating with something new, most people are hesitant to try it. They say, ‘that works over there, but it won’t work here.’ So we set out a number of 6 to 10-acre demonstration plots on farms across the Magic Valley. Jim and Diane Meeks were some of the folks who let us play on their farm. We in NRCS and Extension were new to cover crops, too, so we were learning right along with them,” said Steven.Jim and Diane embraced this idea, became innovative with cover crops and worked on practicing the 5 soil health principles: soil armor (continual cover), minimizing soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live root (plants feeding carbon into the soil during the entire growing season), and livestock (to stimulate regrowth by grazing, and reducing nutrient export from cropland and hayfields--recycling nutrients, minerals, and carbon back onto the land).“The most important thing is getting livestock back to the land,” Steven said. The Meeks farm already had livestock, but were still farming intensively and feeding theircattle a lot of hay. They were already trying to keep their cows home on their own land (no longer using BLM range) so growing more forage with cover crops seemed like a great idea.“Now, 9 years later, they’ve quit farming with heavy tillage and rotational crop systems. I do a lot of work with cover crops but also work with many farmers who still do intensive tillage and crop rotations. Here in southern Idaho we’ve farmed these soils to death. I grew up on a farm in the Boise valley and everyone in that area also did a lot of tilling,” Steven said.Some farmers are starting to move away from that, since tilling the soil and leaving it open and exposed all winter kills the soil biology. There are no live roots in it and by the time they get a crop established in the spring there’s already been some heat. The soil sits there and bakes all summer, which further hinders the soil biology.“I’m not criticizing folks who raise potatoes and sugar beets because those crops are hugely important in our crop economy, but they have to fumigate to control pests, and use herbicides and pesticides, which also kill the soil biology,” Steven explained. Without healthy soil, it needs additional fertilizer, so chemical fertilizer is added. Every year, farmers are replacing biology with chemistry.“The Meeks farm has concentrated on the 5 basic soil principles. What they are doing is not for everyone; many farmers don’t want to deal with cattle or move fences. But when you see what this farm has done in improving the soil, it all works. There are roots in the soil year-round. Even when it’s cold, the biology in the soil has nutrients to survive. They haven’t plowed it all out.”Steven points out that when soil is plowed, you lose about 3800 pounds of carbon per acre, and it is difficult to put carbon back without animals. “These desert soils have very little organic matter to begin with, even before you start farming them--and they don’t hold much moisture. To build organic matter in these soils takes a major effort, and a long time,” he said.Many of the farmers who try cover crops just dabble in it for a while. “They try it for a year and then think it didn’t work or that their yields went down a little, so they go back to doing things the old way. But the Meeks farm stuck with it and are now seeing the results. It takes a few years,” Steven said.“Research shows it takes 4 or 5 years to start seeing some of the benefits. The guys who bail out early never see those benefits. The Meeks farm is one of the innovators in cover crops in this valley, and their soil is showing it. Their soils are utilizing water better, and don’t have runoff issues. When they do get rain, instead of the moisture running off, it goes down into the ground,” he said. Organic matter and roots soak it up and hold it.On the economic side, to be able to keep their cattle home (and not have to use federal land for summer pasture) and then quit feeding them hay in winter, is a major advantage. “It takes a different mindset. If a person used to raise beans, corn, barley, sugar beets, etc. and now is just raising cattle, this takes quite a change. Jim told me they sold most of their machinery,” Steven said. The cattle can do their own feed harvesting, do it more efficiently and with benefits to soil health at the same time.“This is the way Nature intended, having animals do the harvesting, and recycle all those nutrients. There are many pieces to this—the soil health, the healthy cattle, etc.”

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