By Terry Forst, Yates Adcock and Travis Isbell
Edited by John Dobberstein, Senior Editor
These three farmers and ranchers from Oklahoma and Texas, who spoke at the Southern Soil Health Conference in Ardmore, Okla., earlier this year, share how they've implemented no-till practices, cover crops and rotational grazing into their operations to improve animal nutrition and soil health.
Terry Forst — Waurika, Okla.
I manage the Stuart Ranch, which has been in my family since 1868. We ranch on both sides of I-35 —in Jefferson and Stephens County in western Oklahoma, and Bryan and Atoka counties in eastern Oklahoma. And it’s night and day on both sides. I’m going to talk about the ranch in Jefferson County.
We’re very diverse. We have a cow/calf operation and we calf in February/March, as well as September and October. We run yearlings, we have a quarter horse operation, we show horses and we have a breeding herd of mares. We also have a wildlife and hunting operation.
When we came over to Jefferson County our cropland had all been tilled. Basically, everybody in Jefferson County believes that you cannot no-till. In 2009, I’d been looking at no-till, but was still reluctant to do it. I’m a native grass rancher — period. I don’t know anything about farming: just cows, horses, and grass.
We’re also surface water dependent in our country. We have no groundwater. So this creates a lot of limitations on what we’re going to do. I’m not a farmer but I’m responsible for about 3,500 acres of crop ground. So we’ve tilled it, we put it into wheat, our spring calves go to wheat. We sell them off wheat. I run a lot of pairs on wheat. We run our replacement heifers on wheat.
In 2009, the man that was helping me with the farm had a heart attack. And I thought, ‘Okay. This might be the year to switch.’ So we switched to no-till cold turkey on the whole cotton-pickin’ ranch. I sell the tractor and buy a no-till drill, and we no-tilled everything. On Nov. 5 I had my calves on wheat and had 8 inches of wheat, and I thought I was the smartest person in Oklahoma. It was a great year, phenomenal.
And then 2010 rolled around, things started getting dry. 2010 wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t as good as it was. Then comes 2011 and we’re running out of water. Our grass wasn’t our limiting factor that year: it became tank water — and it was going fast. What tanks we did have were drying up or too boggy to put cattle in.
My point being in all this is probably since we started to no-till, I’ve had the worst conditions known to man on trying to do something like that. We’re a straight grazing operation, so you can imagine the compaction I have. In 2007, we actually bought a disc ripper and ripped the entire country, trying to get our compaction broken up. And probably it worked for a little bit, but it didn’t solve our problems.
In 2013 we decided to try to do some cover crops, as we actually had a little moisture in the ground and thought it would work. I owned a drill, but not a tractor, and I had a gentleman that was going to help me get everything farmed.
Talked with Jim Johnson at the Noble Foundation, who’s been instrumental in helping us no-till, and also Keith Berns from Green Cover Seed, and we decided to do some cover crops. We actually had a field day at the ranch that year. And we dug down and we got roots going sideways and all which ways so we definitely had compaction problems. So we will address that as we go on.
I’m a firm believer in no-till. I believe it will work. I think we’ve had really extreme conditions to try to get started. I think as a grazing-only operation, I’m a little bit challenged. Because if I see grass, stuff laying down on the ground, it was driving me nuts. You need cows. I’ve got to work through the residue issue. I like to see cows eat it. But we did some more cover crops this year.
As our goal is to graze and increase soil health, we have been rotating crops through fields and using quite a few mixes. In 2015 we planted a durable residue after ryegrass — sunnhemp, pearl millet, grazing corn and sunflowers on more than 300 acres.
In March we planted an early spring mix on 300 acres that didn’t get planted to wheat. The mix was comprised of common vetch, spring lentils and peas, red, crimson and yellow clover, oats, triticale, barley, flax, turnips, radish and safflower. We grazed steers here. We had a late ryegrass crop and I feel like it hurt our cover crop.
In May we planted another 500 acres to a late summer mix to put our spring calves on as we start weaning Aug. 22 for 6 weeks. This mix did fantastic — left some fall steers on it for 2 weeks and they did over 2 pounds per day. This mix was cowpeas, soybeans, sunnhemp, guar, sorghum sudangrass, German millet, brown top millet, grazing corn, rapeseed, buckwheat, sunflowers, collards, flax and okra.
We’ll use a winter mix for cows and a gain mixture on 400 acres. The remainder of the cropland will go to wheat.
I need a lot more information on cover crops. We’re going to be users of them. My problem right now is probably the cost, and I think there are ways to work through that. I would like to work through some of the ideas because my goals would be to not have to run the fertilizer or sprayer truck. I want to eliminate those kind of costs to our operation.
My grandson was born recently. That’s the sixth generation on our ranch, and for me to leave this place in a much better way than what I found it is a big goal of mine. And I believe we can do it this way.
Yates Adcock, Dustin, Okla.
We ranch in Hughes and McIntosh Counties in Oklahoma and pretty well just fully graze cattle. We’re a cow/calf stocker deal and we raise our own replacement heifers.
We strive to utilize standing forage resources to meet the nutritional requirements of our beef cattle. We’ve done that by implementing rotational grazing, and through strip grazing of the forages we’re able greatly increase utilization and greatly limit the amount of purchased supplemental feed.
Year-around grazing is practiced using no-tilling of small grains and turnips, and by stockpiling warm-season forages, which greatly reduces the dependency on hay.
Being able to grow forage is of utmost importance to us. I don’t like to buy fertilizer and I don’t like to run the spray rigs. I like to graze cattle and I really like to just stretch electric fence and move herds. And I like the sounds of large mobs of cattle going into a new paddock and biting that grass off.
We have very seasonal forage diversity in our operations. We are heavily balanced towards warm-season forages, as it meets the protein and TDN requirements of a lactating cow until the fall. And we have a fall glut. We have a winter deficit, and we kind of rely on introducing small grains and turnips. We subdivide pastures and we have rotational grazed for several years with pretty large herds of cattle.
We experimented with some summer cover crops and that’s how we first kind of started, when we droughted out on some sandy soils that had some Bermudagrass monocultures.
These Bermudagrass monocultures in our area are a problem. They came to be because a lot of the cropping ground came out of peanuts and row crops in our area, and there was a lot of very aggressive promotion through the soil conservation agencies in our counties that put these in.
On sandy soils, it just would not hold up to those drought conditions. So that was our first experience with a summer cover crop, and I was utterly amazed at how that crop yielded with no inputs.
Water points are an issue. For the electric fences, we use an old four-wheeler and put it up as we’re driving. You get those urine and manure piles scattered out, and we have some residue left.
We really don’t have very many people in our area that we can have discussions with about no-till. When you talk to them about, ‘Well now, what can I expect going through that kind of residue?’ I’ve heard all kinds of stories from, ‘Oh, it will flip your seeds out of the ground,’ or ‘You know, competition’s going to get you. You won’t get any sunlight,’ or ‘You’re not going to have good germination.’
I don’t worry about it, and I am thankful to have that residue. But nobody told me that.
On our paddock setups, I used to calculate how much grass was standing, what kind of animals I had there, what their requirement was, what kind of residue I wanted left, and go at it at that angle. And you know what works probably far superior? Go out there and look at those cattle. Look at the fill on them. See how content they are. See what they’re biting off first. And then change it tomorrow to make it better. It’s not rocket science.
We’ve placed some cool-season cover crops on some acres. It’s not a summerfallow because we just don’t have bare ground. We want something on that soil all the time. If not, it will turn to crabgrass if we have enough moisture, and then turn to foxtail — and nothing in my world eats a foxtail. I will use glyphosate on some acres and run a no-till drill to seed cool-season cover crops.
Grazing animals is what we do. You cannot graze them if you don’t have forage. We’re spread out over a lot of country and we have a lot of different kinds of forages, and we’ve kind of tried to put together a forage bridge that, through a calendar year, lets us arrive at annual grazing.
We have some native grass country that we rotate through with spring calving pairs. We’ve grazed groups as large as 1,800 head in one herd. It would be a combined group of calves, yearlings and bred heifers. We do have some fall calvers starting last year. We usually merchandise those. But the Lord blessed us with, as you know, lots of stock water last year — and because of that, lots of grass.
So we kind of hung onto some inventory and managed our culled cows a little bit differently. Those are a pretty good revenue source, and in our country probably the thing that brings you the least amount of value is a thin, sucked-down cow in the fall. And we kind of manage those cows. We carry them on over, graze them and we send them out to Hereford, Texas, and sell them across the scale, hang them on the rail and sell them that way, on our cull program.
Want to talk to you a little bit about a new day. The cost of operation drives everything: the cost of supplements, the cost of cover crops. But it’s a little different in my application and I’ll tell you why — I have choices as to how I can utilize that land and what that land produces. And I need to make those choices wisely, as to not spend too much in certain areas I don’t need to spend on.
Now, I have a nutritional deficit in the winter, and we could feed cubes and hay, or feed cubes and leave cows out on native range. We’re blessed to be a part for multiple years with an internship program through the Noble Foundation and have had some wonderful young people come through there. We have no problem finding something for them to do.
Last year, I asked one of our interns to evaluate, from an economic standpoint, what would be the most economically feasible way for us to winter cows? And I gave him some constraints. One, we could think about a cover-crop scenario to where we limit grazing, moving cows on and off; we could think of a hay-and-cube deal; or we could think of a protein supplement/range/cube program out on native range.
What we found was the cover crop deal was not the cheapest. But it’s me and my wife, Nancy, and one other employee and our kids helping, spread over about 15,000 deeded acres. Last winter, we wintered 1,500 cows. I would have rather grazed cows and moved them from one paddock to the next, as I had a mechanic, and fight the mud and start tractors and feed trucks and put the miles on those things. Then it just works a whole lot better for us. Quality of life.
We had one beautiful field that was a mature season cover-crop mix, late in the winter/early in the spring that Jim Johnson at the Noble Foundation helped us design. We rotated through that with a nice set of replacement heifers all winter, did excellent on that.
With cool-season small grains, we like to leave some of that wheat and rye and come back to it for a second grazing or a third grazing. It’s just kind of like having money in the bank. We’ve done this very successfully in the past, when we baled a lot more hay. And it was easier managing it.
But this year, we’re using adjacent stockpiled forage for their roughage. And when we fed hay in those areas, we would just unroll however many pounds you wanted to feed for that size of herd and they would go out and graze for a couple hours on the green stuff and come into that. And they would just almost move themselves and it was just really easy.
Travis Isbell — Florence, Texas
I’m a fourth-generation rancher/farmer and we ranch at Florence, Texas, operating a cow-calf and stocker operation. The farm includes small grains and hay production.
One problem we’re finding is we’re losing lots of land. Even though we lease a lot of country, doctors and lawyers from Austin are coming in and buying 200-300 acres. So luckily for right now, we’re getting to lease some land. But our struggle is trying to figure out how to keep our numbers up with decreasing land all the time.
I’m 100% no-till for 5 years and have used cover crops for 4 years. We run a John Deere 1590 drill. I think it’s the best thing that I can do for my operation. I like the single disc openers on it, less damage. When I was starting my no-till process, there was no one around for me to talk to about it. All the old timers I’d ask, they’d say, ‘Son, you’re wasting your time. No-till won’t work. Just leave it at that.’
So I finally just jumped off the cliff, and bought a drill. I was talking to all these companies about how big of a tractor do I need to pull it, and they were telling me you probably need a 150-horsepower tractor to pull a 1590. Today I’m pulling it with a 90-horsepower, two-wheel drive Deere 7210 tractor, and I get along just fine.
On one coastal Bermuda field that I thought had droughted out, I was playing with cover crops and one day I was just sitting there thinking, ‘You know what? I’m going to try alfalfa.’ I live in central Texas and thought it surely it will never work. But I bought enough seed to do 50 acres and I got it growing pretty good using cool-season mix with sweet clover, alfalfa and triticale.
I think I had some wheat in there, but the sweet clover and alfalfa pretty much dominated. There was a lot of Bermudagrass coming up through there with the nitrogen that the sweet clover and alfalfa produced, and I was getting quite a bit of grazing out of it.
I remember walking through one pasture last year, just checking things out, and saw some hair vetch coming through the native grass. Five years ago, we never would have seen that. We sprayed every acre we could, because we thought that was the way to grow more grass. And then trying to leave the fertilizer in the spray truck and seeing some more diversity in our warm-season grasses there.
On another abandoned coastal field I used a cool-season mix with oats, sweet clover and alfalfa.
A few years ago when I started out my no-till adventure, I thought you needed to shred everything right before you come in and plant. After I went to a few seminars and learned a little bit, I learned that was probably the worst thing I could be doing. So now I’m leaving that standing cover and planting right through it and not having any problems at all.