Farm Transitions: Valuing Sustainable Practices—Perennial Forages and Grazing

Perennial forage plantings are excellent practices for soil and water quality improvement. An established perennial forage stand is like a sponge, soaking up both water and nutrients and allowing very little of either to escape into groundwater or surface water. Land in a perennial forage crop is not tilled, which is beneficial for soil health. Tillage — plowing, disking, or similar operations — destroys both soil structure and soil organic matter; so the more years in a rotation that the soil is in a perennial crop and not tilled, the better for the soil (1).

Legume forage crops are very useful in crop rotations as a way to break weed, pest and disease cycles and add nitrogen to the soil. Forage crops help reduce weed pressure in several ways. The thick ground cover provided by forages reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the soil surface, which prevents some weed seeds from germinating. The forage crop out-competes most weed seedlings that do sprout, and harvest of the forage removes growing weeds before they can produce seeds. Forage crops in a rotation reduce the level of insect pests and diseases because the forage crop is typically not the host plant for insects and diseases that harm cash crops. Having a field planted to something other than the host plant (the grain crop) for at least a year means those insects and disease organisms don’t have the food or shelter they need from the host plant in order to complete their life cycle, so they die off (2) (see Perennial Pastures & Hayfields: What's In Them? text box).

Long-term perennial forage is a reasonable choice to consider on your land’s most productive acres. Alfalfa hay production can be financially competitive with cash grain production. Perennial forage also has potential to generate income and environmental benefits on the more marginal land. Acres that produce less than the farm’s average yield of corn or soybeans might be more profitable in a forage crop. Acres that are difficult to plant to row crops because they are too steep, too wet, too dry, or are in odd-shaped areas that don’t work well with large field equipment are all good candidates for a permanent forage planting.

Many programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service offer incentives for conservation practices such as perennial pastures. Some examples include the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) (see Federal Farm-Level Conservation Programs text box).

The Conservation Stewardship Program is a “working lands” program that provides payments for whole farm plans in which acres in perennials can be harvested, either by machine or by grazing livestock. The other programs are land retirement programs, in which cost-share is available for planting, nothing is harvested, and contract payments substitute for crop sales (see Federal Farm-Level Conservation Programs text box). If having acreage permanently in perennial grasses or legumes is something you want for your legacy on the land, then these programs can be part of the total package that makes it financially feasible for you or future farmers to plant and maintain those acres. Your local NRCS office can explain the details of these programs, the requirements and restrictions associated with them, and the contract payment amounts. Search for your local NRCS office:

Perennial forages combined with contract grazing can be a good entry option for a beginning farmer. If helping a new farmer get started is part of your family’s goal for the land, this is a path to consider. A new farmer can lease or rent acres in perennial forage, get a contract to graze someone else’s cattle on those acres, and only have to invest capital in fencing equipment. This type of farmer is called a “grazier” — a person who manages the grazing of livestock on pastures. Managed grazing can be a profitable, productive, and environmentally beneficial use of land (3) (see Grazing Income text box). Pasture rental agreements or pasture leases should be structured to be fair to the landowner, the livestock owner, and the grazier (two or three of those roles might be held by the same person). In a typical rental or lease agreement, the landowner is responsible for the perimeter fence and the grazier is responsible for the internal, temporary fences needed to move cattle through the pasture in a managed grazing system (4) (see Fencing & Watering Costs text box).

Hay or haylage production requires different planting and harvest equipment than grain production, as well as more labor. Those costs are accounted for in the net income figure for alfalfa, but in spite of those costs being accounted for on paper, they remain a barrier to many farmers who are strapped for time. Dealing with a different set of equipment and a different type of crop adds a level of complexity to a grain farm operation, which requires management effort and knowledge. Those issues are not well captured by traditional accounting methods, but they are costs or barriers that must be considered in a farm transition plan.

If you want to ensure that perennial forages are part of the farming operation on your land in the future, then your expectations for sale, rental, or lease price for your land must match up with what is affordable for a farming operation that includes or is wholly based on perennial forages. For hay crops, leases should be for at least three years to ensure that the farmer gains the benefits from her or his investment in planting a perennial forage crop. The terms of the lease should include a credit to the farm operator for the nitrogen benefit to the next grain crop if a different farmer will have the land after the hay crop is plowed down (see Alfalfa Nitrogen Credit text box). With both pasture and hay, consider including a credit to the farm operator for management efforts that contribute to improved soil health and reduced soil erosion and water runoff.


(1) Organic Matter Management. In The Soil Management Series. Revised 2008. Ann Lewandowski. (accessed 6/11/13).

(2) Rotation. 2010. Kristine Moncada and Craig Sheaffer. In Organic Risk Management. (accessed 8/20/13).

(3) The Basics of Contract Grazing. 2013. Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group. (accessed 8/20/13).

(4) Pasture Rental and Lease Agreements. 2013. Jim Paulson and Richard Cates. Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group. (accessed 8/20/13).

(5) Pasture Rental Agreements for Your Farm. December 2011. North Central Farm Management Extension Committee. (accessed 8/20/13).

(6) Contract for grazing on 320 acres, livestock managed by livestock owner. 2013. Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group. (accessed 8/20/13).

(7) What does it take to earn a living on the farm? April, 2013. Gary Hachfeld, University of Minnesota Extension. (accessed 8/06/13).

Further Resources:

Contract Grazing. 2013. Green Lands Blue Waters, Midwest Perennial Forage Working Group. (accessed 6/11/13).
Series of four fact sheets: Basics of Contract Grazing, Evaluating Land Suitability for Grazing Cattle, Pasture and Rental Lease Agreements, and Rates Charged for Contract Grazing Agreements.

Forages. 2010. Craig Sheaffer. In Organic Risk Management. Editors: Kristine Moncada and Craig Sheaffer. University of Minnesota.
This online manual is intended as a guide for organic and transitioning producers in the Upper Midwest. The Forages section includes a lot of good forage crop production information that is useful for non-organic farmers as well.

Pasture and Rangeland Management During Drought: ATTRA
This PowerPoint presentation illustrates some common-sense guidelines on how to manage livestock during a drought. It also discusses strategies that can be implemented before a drought starts that could make life easier for a rancher when the eventual drought conditions do begin.