Better Than Bushels: Growing a Grazing Crop
As do most farmers around Okarche, Oklahoma, Matt Alig once grew hard red winter wheat. He'd graze stocker cattle on the wheat over winter. He'd pull the cattle in March and harvest the wheat in midsummer.
Then came 1995, hand in hand with drought. "That year was my last wheat crop," he says. "The wheat ran 9 bushels to the acre. My limiting factors here are MPR: moisture, precipitation, and rainfall."
Alig overcame limitations by putting a new spin on the grazing of stocker cattle on cropland. Abandoning any intent to harvest grain, he now grows cover crops in spring and midsummer, then he no-till plants a multispecies grazing crop in late summer.
Summer Secret Weapon
Stocker cattle start grazing fields in early November and stay until early May. The cattle tip the scales at 900 pounds by the time they graze off the plant material.
The heavy weight of the cattle pays off, persisting even in drought. "Last year, it was awful, awful dry," says Alig. "Most farmers around here harvested a 15- to 20-bushel wheat crop. On my fields, the gain on the cattle was the equivalent of a 35-bushel crop of wheat."
Abundant forage production is key to getting good gain on the cattle. Summer-grown cover crops are the secret to getting the abundant forage.
"The cover crops keep the sun and wind off the ground, and that makes a huge difference in my area," says Alig. "Because of the cover crops, the soil temperature is much cooler. Where soil is not protected, soil temperature can be 130°F. at a depth of 4 inches below the surface. Nothing will germinate in that kind of heat."
Since the cover crop residue keeps the soil cool, Alig can plant his main grazing crops as early as late August. "I can get more growth early in the season and have lots of forage by the time the cattle come in," he says.
Alig no-till plants cover crops of sunn hemp and cowpeas the second week in May, after the cattle leave. "The sunn hemp is a tropical legume that has the potential to grow 6 feet tall," he says. "The cowpeas vine around the stalks of the hemp. Both crops fix nitrogen in the soil.”
After burning down the cover, he no-till plants the grazing crop in late August or the first of September. He seeds rye or triticale along with turnips, radishes, and two varieties of rapeseed. "Rye and triticale will produce more forage than wheat," he says.
By the time fields are ready to be grazed in early November, the rye or triticale will be 8 to 10 inches tall, and the radishes will reach a height of 18 inches.
The forage mix will test about 31% crude protein.
To stock both owned and rented fields, Alig sources 1,000 to 1,200 weanlings weighing 450 to 550 pounds. Cattle are typically backgrounded for 30 to 45 days and come from larger northern and western producers whose management practices tend to be predictable.
"Getting healthy calves plays an important role in being able to average 2½ pounds per day of gain,” he explains.
He owns some of the cattle and also custom-grazes a portion of the herd. "Custom grazing earns less profit than owning the cattle,” he says. "Because cattle prices are astronomical, the custom grazing reduces risk, and it generates cash flow.”
Upon arrival, Alig acclimates the calves by holding them in a small area where they can graze and get accustomed to the tubs of liquid supplement he sets out on pasture. The supplement helps the cattle adjust to the lush, high-protein pasture.
"I feed a molasses-base supplement that seems to help reduce bloat,” he says. "It slows down the calves' digestion of forage and makes their stools more solid.” The supplement contains 8% fat and 22% protein, of which 12% is urea.
Field pastures range in size from 120 to 160 acres. Alig stocks them at initial stocking rates, ranging from 500 to 800 pounds per acre. Stocking at these rates lets the calves fully develop to their end weight without being rotated to new pastures, which saves labor in the long run.
Before leaving in May, the cattle consume most of the standing forage. The rye and triticale will begin to regrow in March.
Large amounts of plant residue along with no-till planting of crops stabilize the soil surface, especially during wet conditions. "Because the cattle are never tramping in the mud, I don't have soil and plant degradation during wet weather," he says.
While Alig pays cash-rental rates commensurate with his area's market rate for cropland, other production costs are reduced from those of his previous system. For example, intensive grazing of cattle and continuous growth of summer cover crops have reduced the amount of nitrogen he applies by 25%.
Without the harvesting of a wheat crop, his payments for crop insurance are eliminated.
Equipment needs are reduced, as well. "I own a drill, a sprayer, and an unloading chute," he says. "I also own a truck for feeding cattle when snow covers the ground."
Over time, fields that have a long history of being grazed and of growing cover crops are showing greater productivity.
"Instead of bushels, I'm taking pounds of gain off the fields," says Alig. "The cattle return nutrients to the land, and because of better soil health, forage production has been increasing over time. This all results from building healthy soil.”
Better Soil Health
Conventional wisdom holds that Matt Alig's system of grazing cattle on his Okarche, Oklahoma, fields that have been no-tilled will lead to soil compaction from the trampling of the cattle.
The reverse has been true.
"A soil scientist did a lot of testing in my fields, and he concluded that the soil profile was among the best he'd seen,” says Alig.
Further improvements in soil health result from an apparent increase in beneficial insects that act as a check for predatory insects.
"I have not sprayed for aphids since I switched to no-till,” he says. "Along with the no-till, the diverse crops and the grazing of the cattle seem to be providing a habitat for good insects."
Matt Alig | 405/863-2544
A soil scientist tested Matt Alig's fields and concluded the soil profile was among the best he'd seen despite cattle grazing on no-tilled fields.