Converting marginal cropland to perennials builds soil and profitability
When Casey and Lacey Coulter took over the family ranch near Brusett, Montana, in 2010, they followed the production models that had sustained it for decades. “I didn’t want to rock the boat; I just wanted to do what they’d been successful doing,” says Casey Coulter.
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It’s why the couple initially grew wheat. But red flags warned that high production costs and yield drags undermined profitability. In 2011, they experimented by planting a mix of pubescent wheatgrass and alfalfa on some of the most marginal land.
“The forage growth was phenomenal,” Coulter says.
That led to more changes. Over time, the ranch’s 1,500 acres of cropland were converted to mixed-species grasses and legumes. Given the extra forage, they doubled the grazing herd and reduced winter feed costs by lengthening the grazing season. Profitability has returned. Quality of life for the Coulters and their three children has improved. Soil organic matter is better, too.
From Annual Crops to Perennials
Poor soil health had played a role in driving input costs higher. Though the Coulters had switched to no-till to conserve soil before they converted to grass, erosion from decades of tillage had already lowered levels of soil organic matter to 1% and 2%, requiring increasing applications of fertilizer to sustain yields.
The need to build soil was among the reasons the Coulters considered switching from annual crops to perennials. They were emboldened by their early success with a crops-to-grass conversion in 2011. Also factoring into the decision was their experience grazing cover crops, which suggested that a full-scale switch to grazing perennials could be more profitable than growing grain.
“We had received an NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program contract providing cost sharing for us to grow season-long cover crops in the fallow year of our wheat/fallow rotation,” Coulter says. “The contract allowed us to graze the cover crops late in the summer. We found we could make more money grazing cover crops than by growing wheat. We decided that if we converted all the land to perennials, we could cut out a lot of machinery costs and expenses for inputs and labor.”
In the years since, the Coulters have converted cropland to a wide range of perennials by a variety of seeding methods at diverse times of the year.
“We’ve planted perennials in every month except December, January, and February,” Coulter says. “The best forage response we’ve had was seeding a field after a weed flush in April. We burned down the weeds with herbicide and planted perennials right behind the spraying operation. The forage took off and outcompeted subsequent weed growth.”
They have had success seeding grass mixes with a hoe drill planting into wheat stubble or chemical fallow. But they’ve had their best success with a John Deere 1590 no-till drill.
Perennial species in the plantings include legumes along with tame grasses in some fields and native grasses in others. Tame-grass species include meadow brome, orchard grass, timothy, pubescent wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass, and tall fescue. Seed costs for tame-grass mixes have run $45 an acre.
Native-grass species include western wheatgrass, big bluestem, green needlegrass, Sandberg bluegrass, and blue bunch wheatgrass, as well as native forbs like prairie coneflower and native flax. Seed costs for the native-grass mixes have come to $60 an acre.
Transitioning from crops to perennials allowed Casey and Lacey Coulter (holding Garrett and Poppy) to double their grazing herd.
Alfalfa, Sainfoin in the Mix
While the Coulters want grasses to be the dominant species in the fields, all plantings do include alfalfa. “We planted a lot of the alfalfa at a rate of a half a pound per acre, but if we were doing more plantings, I would decrease the seeding rate to a quarter of a pound per acre,” Coulter says. “When we got a good catch at the higher seeding rate, it looked like we had planted the field to solid alfalfa.” Planting alfalfa at a reduced rate gives grasses a better chance to compete.
The Coulters have also included sainfoin in some plantings. Sainfoin is a non-bloat-causing legume that can be used for both haying and grazing. It is adapted to the Coulters’ average annual precipitation of just 15 inches. They have also found it will grow in companionship with alfalfa.
“It’s not as durable as alfalfa, but livestock really like it,” Coulter says. “Because it’s a short-lived perennial, we delay grazing it every couple of years until after it has set seed. It tends to reseed itself after that.”
Through the years, the diversity of species in the plantings has increased. “We’ve learned that the more species we have in the mixes, the better off we are,” he says. “Our goal is to graze 365 days of the year, and we try to build a feed budget for winter grazing that lets us do that if the ground doesn’t get iced over or if the snow doesn’t get too deep.
“By having a diverse mix of plants of varying heights, we can fill every layer of the plant canopy,” he says. “We try to build as big a solar panel as possible with plants, and that creates a lot of feed availability in the growing and dormant seasons. Since we quit haying in 2016, we now graze all our grasslands, including former hay ground. We decided we were removing too much carbon from the system through haying. We now buy the hay we need when weather prevents grazing.”
The Coulters graze the new perennial plantings at the end of a full growing season. “If we plant in April, we’ll graze a newly seeded field after the first killing frost,” Coulter says. “With a fall-seeded planting, we’ll wait to graze until the next fall. After that, we treat the plantings like any other pasture.”
Weeds have grown along with the grasses and legumes in the first growing season, but the forage perennials will outcompete weeds in later growing seasons, Coulter says.
The tame-grass plantings have produced more forage per acre than the native-species plantings, and the Coulters will stock these fields at a higher density than the fields of native species. However, they have found that tame-grass plantings are less palatable than native species when left ungrazed over the summer in order to provide forage for winter grazing. “The tame grasses get woody and unpalatable when left to mature,” Coulter says. “We try to graze tame plantings at least once early in the growing season so the regrowth is more palatable in the dormant season.”
The couple has also discovered the tame species are more vulnerable to grasshopper damage than are the native species.
They received cost sharing for seed, fencing, and water developments through a Natural Resources Conservation Services Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant and wildlife organizations.
Converting all their cropland to perennials has let the Coulters double their grazing herd. “We used to run 250 cow-calf pairs,” he says. “Now we’re able to run 300 pairs in addition to grazing 300 to 500 yearlings.” They buy stocker cattle in years when they have sufficient forage for the extra yearlings.
Beyond doubling grazing capacity, the switch to perennials has boosted soil health. “One of our fields tested 2.3% in organic matter in 2011,” Coulter says. “After we seeded it to tame grasses and legumes, it had increased to 3.7% organic matter by 2017.” Recognizing the Coulters’ work in improving soil health, the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts named them Soil Health Champions.
All told, the benefits of converting from crops to grass have given the Coulters a life aligned with their goals.
“We operate by the three Ps – people, planet, and profit,” Coulter says. “We want to be stewards of what has been charged to us. We want a profitable business and good quality of life for the land and for the people who live and work on it. All those things have happened since we converted our cropland into grassland.”