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Using Cattle and Forages to Build Topsoil

Cattle play a key role in rebuilding soil at Nichols Farms Ltd. in Bridgewater, Iowa. Livestock grazing and forage production work hand in hand to renew organic matter, to double yields from cash crops, and to increase beef production.

“By treating grass and hay as crops, we’ve ended erosion, improved soil, and maximized the amount of beef our cows produce off a given acreage,” says Dave Nichols, who owns the farm in partnership with his wife, Phyllis, and his sister-in-law, Lillian.

In 2014, Nichols Farms received a regional National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Environmental Stewardship Award.

Private-treaty bull sales from 1,500 purebred Angus and composite cows comprise their production focus. The farm includes 2,780 owned acres and 2,676 rented acres; 1,000 acres are in permanent pasture. The rich bottomlands are in continuous no-till corn-soybean production, while the balance of the acreage is in a no-till rotation of corn-soybeans-corn followed by grass and alfalfa.

legacy shapes present-day practices

The family’s present production practices evolved from a system shaped by Dave Nichols’ father, Merrill. “In 1946, my dad bought a 320-acre farm that had been badly abused,” says Nichols. “It had been intensively farmed from 1860 until the 1930s growing corn and oats. It had suffered so much soil erosion that the hill slopes were bare, and the poorest 160 acres had sat idle for 10 years because no one would rent it for one half of the crop.”

Merrill terraced the fields to stop water erosion. He also managed to get sweet clover started.

For the next seven years, they cut the clover but did not harvest it for hay. Instead, they let the clover lie on top of the soil, serving as sheet compost. Because they cut the clover after seed had set, it reseeded the next year’s clover crop. The clover added nitrogen and organic matter to the soil.

They also applied manure from a feedlot on the farm. In addition to manure, they put down lime, potash, and phosphate commercial fertilizers as these became available.

By the early 1950s, soil conditions on eroded land had improved enough to permit the planting of alfalfa and orchard grass. From this, they harvested hay for the next 10 years.

Following the years of hay production, they began a crop rotation of corn followed by oats as a nurse crop for grass and alfalfa. Two years of hay production followed, with two years of grazing behind that. Today, the formerly eroded land has a proven yield of 189 bushels of corn per acre.

“Of the 2,600 acres we purchased over the years, all of the farms except one were really abused,” says Nichols. “We have been working at improving the land and building soil for the future. The best way we’ve found to build topsoil is with ruminants and forages.”

The present rotation for formerly eroded fields in a crop-forage production cycle includes corn-beans-corn. After corn, the Nicholses plant alfalfa and orchard grass along with a nurse crop of oats. These fields stay in forage production for three years.

“We take two cuttings of hay the first year, harvesting about 3 tons per acre,” says Nichols. “The next two years, these fields yield 6 tons per acre.”

The forage sequence of the production system enhances the soil fertility, contributing to high crop yields. “Our corn and soybean yields are the highest in our area,” he says.

Production on pastureland has steadily improved, too, over time. 

“We’re running one cow-calf pair per 1.8 acres from the first of May through the first of October,” says Nichols. “Our county’s average carrying capacity for pasture is almost 3 acres per cow-calf pair.”

With creep feeding starting in July, the average weaning weight for calves is 660 pounds. “Our goal is to breed cattle that grow faster and produce more beef on fewer acres,” he says. “With cash crops and cattle, we’re producing twice as much per acre as my father did in 1940, and we’re improving soil along with that.”

Soil tests verify that the cattle-crop system pays off in improved soil health. Soil organic matter runs as high as 7%, which is nearly double the county average.

manure kick start

While growing forages for grazing or haying is central to the Nicholses’ success with soil building, livestock manure intensifies the process. A recent field renovation took less than five years to implement after heavy applications of poultry manure.

“Four years ago, we bought a farm that was very eroded,” says Nichols. “It had a lot of gullies and grew nothing but bluegrass with some fescue. It was supporting six horses on 80 acres.”

After buying the land, they repaired existing ponds and terraces to stop water erosion, and they applied 3 tons per acre of poultry manure.

“We didn’t graze it very hard the first couple of years,” he says. “Four years later, the field is supporting one cow-calf pair per 2.2 acres,” he says. “The manure really gave the grass the kick start it needed. Manure provides a slow release of nutrients over time.”

To ensure an ongoing supply of manure, in addition to that resulting from the cleaning of pens where bulls and replacement females are developed, the Nicholses have sold two 3-acre parcels of land to a hog producer.

“He built three hog confinement buildings on our farm, and the agreement states that our farm gets the hog manure into perpetuity,” says Nichols. “Because we use swine, poultry, and cattle manure, we buy less commercial fertilizer.”

Having witnessed the hard-scrabble starting point of the farm, Nichols sees the fields now abounding in wealth.

“Today when I drive by our pastures filled with black cows with big, soggy calves at their sides grazing in fields where people couldn’t make a living 40 years ago, seeing the transformation of the land is almost unbelievable,” he says.

LIFETIME lessons

Over a lifetime of raising cattle and growing crops, 76-year-old Angus breeder Dave Nichols has held true to the core of his father’s guidance: Raise all you can, and feed all you raise.

By Nichols’ own estimation, his life has been spent using livestock to harvest crops and to add value to the harvest. It’s a self-sustaining system that serves soil and fuels the economy of the farm.

“The strongest lesson I’ve learned in life is, if I take care of the soil, it will take care of me,” he says. “What we leave to future generations is critical.”

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