Cows graze in native pastures at Thompson Farms, managed by Osage City, Kan., no-tillers Keith and Ben Thompson. The Thompson cow herd is comprised of crossbreeds that are bred to calve in April and May. During calving season Ben runs them on cover crops, and likes rye the best for cows that are due in late spring.

By Rhonda McCurry, Writer for No-till on the Plains

The Thompson family can speak volumes about no-till practices and soil health. But what they focus on now is affectionately referred to as “regenerative farming” through a rotation of perennial grazing.

For the past 5 years, Osage City, Kan., no-tillers Keith and Ben Thompson have used cows, clovers, vetch and chicory to grow the best yielding fields of soybeans on their family farm.

Keith and Ben are in year 5 of a perennial grazing and crop rotation. They utilize their cow-calf herd to graze perennial mixes custom-made by Green Cover Seed.

The mixes include orchardgrass, fescue and metric brome as highly productive grasses that keep costs down; and perennial clovers, vetch and birdsfoot trefoil to add diversity and put nitrogen back into the soil. They also use a mix of plantain and chicory, both forbs that will pull minerals out of the soil when grazed.

The father-son team has worked together all their lives and Keith says he has farmed since he was 12 years old. The Thompsons began no-tilling in 1991 and since then, have never tilled their farm acreage. They attend continuing education as much as possible, including the No-till on the Plains Winter Conference, state and regional field days and traveling as far as Argentina in 1999 to learn more about soil health.

Better Rotations

In 1997 the Thompsons went on a bus trip and farm tour to Dakota Lakes Research farm in Pierre, S.D. Keith and Ben heard Dwayne Beck speak and Keith says the lessons they learned from Beck changed their operation entirely.

“I told my son that if half of what Dwayne is saying is true we’ll make twice as much money as we have in our lives,” Keith says. “He was so far ahead in sustainability that it was unbelievable.”

The Thompsons had considered a grazing rotation but most people, Keith says, consider a 1-year cycle before planting it back to a cash crop. After hearing Beck’s speech, Keith went on a trip to Argentina and witnessed a farm that used the ground to graze cattle for 3-5 years, then planted soybeans or corn for 2 years, all in a rotation.

The grazed pasture was full of thistles, Keith says, so he questioned the Argentinian farmer about that and he calmly replied the weeds bothering this pasture didn’t bother the crop. So when the weeds became a problem the farmer planted beans or corn. Then he rotated again for weed control. 

“He called it long-term breaks,” Keith says. “It was all we could think about then was how to set up that flexible rotation. What we’ve learned is that the concept of soil health works everywhere, but it’s how you put it together for your farm that changes your income.”

Benefits of Perennial Grazing Rotations

Using perennial grazing on cover crops has helped the Thompsons solve the problem of not having enough pasture. Because they rotate cows over cover crops they now have plenty of feed for late spring and early fall.

Ben is in charge of the cow-calf operation and can attest to the benefits of perennial grazing rotations on growing his cows. He currently has cows in a section of pasture and rolls out hay to them to build a manure-fertilizer base and to leave a hay residue on the ground.

Ben moves the cows constantly as they calve and are sorted into groups. Steers are sold off and Ben sits with the heifers in a small pen to calm them down, hand feed them, teach them to be around people and get to know the order of things.

Ben moves them to pasture with an annual mix and grazes the multi-paddock system for as long as necessary, then moves them again. This extra effort calms the cattle to be moved, hauled and maneuvered.

“Now whenever the cows see me they think of candy bars and feel good about my boys and I being in the play pen with them,” Ben says. “This also makes it easy to put cows into electric fences. I do have to haul water there, move the fence and make it work. This is a very flexible system and we are reacting to the day, the pasture and the cows.”

Ben says he has a fair amount of hay on hand all the time, especially in December through March. At one time he thought he could graze all the time and feed no hay but he’s learned to put hay up on rented ground, as a way of putting those nutrients on his farm.

“I feed my cows more hay than they’ll eat every day,” Ben says. “I want to build up nutrients. My goal is to have no hay leftover. Changing my feed site this way means whatever they eat returns to the Earth as manure or residue.”

Green Cover Seed created a custom grazing mixture for the Thompsons consisting of perennials, cool season grasses, warm season grasses and cool season broadleaves. The diversity paid off during severe drought 4 years ago. Ben says even during that difficult time he never worried about having enough grass for his cows to eat.

“We had grass that showed wear so we moved the cows and brought cattle back to graze it again in 3-4 weeks when the pasture recovered,” Ben says. “The diverse mixture got us out of having to plant twice a year. Using what we do from Green Cover Seed we can plant one time and graze it 3 years. We saw it work in South America as the right mix and the right timing. We tweaked it for our farm and we think we got it right.”

Staying Flexible

In 2012 the Thompsons faced a severe drought, and because Ben had created his cow herd as desired, he chose to keep his cows and haul water for them to drink. He says people thought he was crazy but Ben was not interested in selling his cows. So he changed the way his system works.

“I had planted a lot of stuff to graze but it didn’t rain,” Ben says. “There wasn’t enough water in the ponds so I hauled water from mid-June that year to May of the next year. I’d worked through my cows, saved heifers I liked and these cows were mine, so selling them was not an option.

“As a result of hauling water I can control where my cows are grazing. Some people say you can’t haul water, but for me it’s just what I do. I get up, brush my teeth and haul water. It’s not that big of a deal if you just do it.”

Keith and Ben also believe in being flexible and adaptive in their rotations, a concept presented at the Beginning No-till Producers Workshop preceding the No-till on the Plains Winter Conference in January 2017.

Keith says diversity and flexibility are necessary because even the best plan can be affected by rainfall and weather. If a farmer can adapt to current conditions then they can determine how much diversity and intensity their farm can handle.

The Thompson cow herd is comprised of crossbreeds that are bred to calve in April and May. During calving season Ben runs them on cover crops, and likes rye the best for cows that are due in late spring. They focus on docility in their herd and use red bulls with Brangus influence for heat tolerance and to ensure the cows will breed back. Bull calves are made into steers and sold at the local sale barn. Keith says his son’s steers bring top dollar because of his reputation for quality beef.

The Thompsons have actually grazed cows on winter annuals for 10 years but began implementing perennial grazing 5 years ago, with the concept of a 3-year on, 3-year off rotation. The paddock that was planted to soybeans had been a marginal field 2 years ago, but after the first 3-year grazing cycle Keith says it yielded 35% higher, in the top third of all beans on his farm.

It was the highest yield of soybeans on that 120-acre tract in 60 years. The field was also clean, he says, with no weeds in it all season long.

“We focus on soil health because we believe in trying to work with nature to do things rather than force nature,” Keith says. “I saw perennial grazing rotations happening on my trip to South America but I didn’t catch on and I remember thinking to myself, ‘They’re not using that much fertilizer, how in the world are they getting 120-bushel soybeans?’ But it’s the cattle. It’s just something they do. They are the answer.”

When people ask the Thompsons how much they make raising cattle on grazing rotations, Keith replies that it’s just part of his system. They don’t break the profit margin down into 3 years of pasture, 3 years of cash crop. To the Thompsons, farming and ranching is holistic.

“When you start to break it out you make the wrong decision on farming,” Keith says.