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Resilient crops and greater profits follow better soil health

Some 20 years ago, row crop and cattle producers Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz realized that high input costs, decreasing yields, and declining cattle health were nearly driving them out of business on their farm near Redwood Falls, Minnesota.

“We would have more bad years than good ones,” says Grant Breitkreutz. “We’d have one good year followed by five or six when we just barely broke even. Prices and yields played a big role, and of course yields are affected by weather.” 

They saw a need for change but didn’t have a game plan. It was their trial-and-error response to problems that showed the way to the eventual healing of their soils, crops, cattle, and profitability.


Extra Turnip Benefit

The first eye-opener came in the late 1990s, when the Breitkreutzes began planting late-summer crops as a means of producing more feed for their beef cows. 

They were growing corn, soybeans, and small grains as cash crops. After harvesting corn for silage, they had enough growing season left to plant triticale for fall grazing. They planted turnips, also for grazing, after harvesting spring wheat in midsummer.

The turnips did more than provide forage for the cattle. The Breitkreutzes noticed that in the soybean crop following the turnips, the soybeans weren’t affected by soybean cyst nematode. 

“It took us awhile to really figure out what was happening,” says Breitkreutz. “But we eventually began to see that the cyst nematode was no problem in the former turnip ground, while the pest really affected soybean fields on other parts of the farm.” 

Their positive experiences with forage crops eventually led to a whole farm adoption of cover crops. Before that transpired, a second major eye-opener led to the conversion of their tillage system to no-till. 

The beginning of the transition unfolded one fall in the late 1990s when they didn’t get their cornstalks worked before freeze-up. To plant soybeans into the residue the following spring, they bought a no-till planter. That worked so well, they bought a drill to no-till small grains and then started no-tilling corn. 

“The last 10 years we’ve planted all the crops by no-till,” says Breitkreutz. “We expanded the no-till because we were getting respectable crops while using a lot less fuel and a lot less labor in the process.”


Cover Crops Addition

Their whole-farm adoption of cover crops came after they researched the effect the cover crops might have on soil temperature in spring.

“Dawn set up side-by-side research plots with cover crops and no cover crops,” says Breitkreutz, who along with Dawn serves as a mentor for the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition. “She monitored soil temperature in the spring and found that the soil temperature under the cover crops was about 1.5°F. warmer than the temperature of the bare soil. And the soil temperature under the cover crops stayed more constant.”

Armed with their own mounting on-farm evidence that weaving cover crops into their farming system was beneficial, the Breitkreutzes evolved the production system they have today for their 950 acres of cropland.

“Every acre on the farm grows a cover crop,” says Breitkreutz. “After harvesting soybeans and corn, we plant cereal rye as a cover crop. We just need the rye to sprout in the fall, and we typically get some greening in the field, too, from the rye growth.

“After harvesting small grains like spring wheat or oats, we’ll plant a diverse cover crop mix of at least nine species, including both cool- and warm-season species,” he says. “That cover crop will grow knee-high to waist-high by the end of October, and we graze cattle on it from late fall through early winter.”

The cereal rye cover crops provide grazing in the spring, and 650 acres of native grass provide summer grazing for the cattle.

“The most money we make in our cow-calf operation is when the cows are harvesting their own feed,” says Breitkreutz. The cattle herd includes some 100 cow-calf pairs as well as 220 to 300 yearlings; some are purchased.

When grazing the cattle on cover crops, the Breitkreutzes use temporary cross fencing to give the livestock access to only one area of a field at a time. They match stocking density and length of the grazing period with the amount of forage that’s available.

“We move the cattle every one to three days,” he says. “We like to leave 30% to 40% of the cover crop on the surface to provide a protective armor for the soil.”

The cover crops and the adaptive grazing system keep the cattle “on a high plane of nutrition,” Breitkreutz adds.

This contributes to greater health in the livestock year-round. “We just don’t see the health issues in the cattle like we used to have,” he says.

Better nutrition and moving spring calving back into the warmer weather of May have removed the scours problems in calves they once had. Also, they no longer have the respiratory illnesses they previously had in calves in the fall. As a result, they avoid the drug costs for treating the diseases, he says.

Making Room for Partners
As Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz have increased both profitability and farm size, they’ve been able to make room in the operation for their daughter and son-in-law, Karlie and Cody Wellnitz. The younger farm partners have built a direct-marketing business on the farm. They sell beef to individual consumers, channeling as many as 20 to 30 head of cattle through their on-farm enterprise. They also sell pork and eggs from 300 pastured laying hens.

Soil Biology Benefits

While the cover crops benefit the cattle, the cattle in turn help the soil. W “What we have seen is that the fastest way to improve soil health is by cattle grazing,” he says. “We try to have cattle going over every acre at some point in the year. We just get a lot more biological response in the soil by having cattle go over it.”

The biological life in the soil contributes to the building of soil organic matter. “Before we started changing our system, our soil organic matter on the lighter soil was down to 1.6% to 1.9%,” says Breitkreutz. “We’ve built it back up to 4.6% to 5%. As our organic matter increases, we know we’re sequestering carbon in the soil, and along with that, water infiltration is eight to 10 times what it used to be.”

The increasing soil health and the protective layer of surface residue on the soil have nearly eliminated the wind and water erosion they once had on their farm.

Monitoring surface residue guides the Breitkreutzes in their management decisions. “What we’ve seen with biological life in the soil is that it can get high enough to consume the residue cover on top of the soil,” he says. “If we see that happening, we go to a high-carbon cover crop to hold more carbon on top of the soil.”


Fewer Inputs, Lower Production Costs

As soil health increases, their use of synthetic inputs has dropped.

“When we grow a cover crop before corn, we can get by with applying 60% of the nitrogen we would normally put on,” says Breitkreutz. “We’ve also reduced herbicide applications by 30%. Keeping the soil covered reduces the weed pressure.” They also use no fungicide.

As inputs have decreased and as the whole-farm production system supplies more of its own needs, cost of production on corn has dropped to as low as $2.59 per bushel in some years.

Hand-in-hand with the healing of the soil and with the Breitkreutzes’ shift to more natural systems of production has come greater crop resilience to extreme weather. Greater profitability has resulted.

“Since we quit fighting with Mother Nature and instead began trying to work with her, the production of crops and cattle has all gotten easier,” says Breitkreutz. “It’s fun again.”

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