3 complementary strategies for raising crops and cattle
Iowa farmer Kelly Garrett is well known for his passion of raising high yielding corn and soybeans. He regularly shares his knowledge on topics like soybean desiccation or reducing crop stress through XtremeAg and speaking on panels around the country.
While row crops may be Garrett’s claim to fame, the family’s herd of crossbred cattle is an important part of the fifth-generation, Crawford County operation. Together with his dad, Gene, and three sons, Connor, Colin, and Cael, Garrett runs 400 to 500 cows and Schaff Angus bulls.
The Garretts aren’t afraid to challenge local norms. Over the years, their cattle business has embraced a wider calving window and began selling some direct-to-consumer beef. Other changes the family has made complement both the crops and cattle.
Earlier cover crops on soybean ground
In 2019, Garrett desiccated his soybeans for the first time. Killing the soybean plants allows him to harvest sooner, and in turn, cover crops are planted on that ground two to three weeks earlier than before.
“We get so much more fall growth out of the cover crop, and what great cattle feed!” he says.
Once cattle are moved from their summer pastures to those cover cropped fields for the winter, they begin accelerating the natural process of returning nutrients to the soil.
Better residue breakdown
“Cattle are going to tromp that into the dirt, eat it, and manage the residue for you,” Kelly says.
When you’re raising 300-bushel corn, accelerating the breakdown of all the residue is critical. If there’s too much, it can be challenging to achieve even soybean emergence the following season.
“You can physically drive down the road and almost know, on our fields, which fields have had cows and which fields did not, because it hinders your soybean stand if you don’t have the cows out there,” he says.
Backgrounding on by-products
After the cows calve in the spring, the calves are weaned, and then the Garretts background them. Their ration is a mixture of silage, DDGs, and soy hulls.
“If you want to talk about sustainable agriculture, I’m hauling corn to the ethanol plant and I’m bringing DDGs back. Or I’m hauling soybeans to Bunge and I’m bringing soy hull pellets back,” says Garrett. This strategy is efficient for both the crop and livestock sides of the operation.
Rounding out the cycle, the manure from the cattle lot is spread on the fields as fertilizer.
Wide calving window
Many farmers with a spring calving season begin in February or March. However, since 2008, Garrett Land and Livestock has had a different approach. Their calves start to drop April 1, and calving continues into summer.
“The first of May, almost every farmer will tell you, ‘I’m done calving.’ Everything that hasn’t calved they take to town and sell,” Garrett says. “Those folks are buying their replacement cattle at replacement cost, which is elevated.”
About 14 years ago, Garrett began buying his replacement cows in May, June, and July instead. “You’re buying them at a salvage cost, which is much less expensive,” he says.
Direct to consumer
This wide calving window supports the Garretts’ strategy, selling some of their Iowa beef directly to their neighbors.
“We want to have some cattle finished every month to be able to process. If we had a tight calving window like a more traditional herd, everything would be ready about the same time,” Kelly explains.