Robbing the Farm or Enriching the Farm: Which is the Better Way?

Ross Cooper and his family raise canning and grain crops on their Century Farm in Spring Valley in southeastern Minnesota. Shortly after his son was born, Ross converted to no-till to cut down on the amount of time he was spending in the tractor. More recently, he has begun integrating cover crops into the farming system. In addition to crop farming, they graze cattle on perennial pastures and cover crops.

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During my recent visit with Ross at his farm, he mentioned that he had found a pamphlet from the early 1900s in a drawer at his great uncle’s house. The Farmer’s Red Book, published by the Albert Dickinson Company, presents average annual prices and yields for wheat, oats, corn, hay, barley, and flax from 1898-1907.

While that in itself offers up a fascinating peek into the agriculture of the past, what really caught Ross’s attention was a sketch, seen below, which asks “Which is the Better Way? Robbing the Farm (By hauling grain crop to market) or Enriching the Farm (By growing grass and grain and feeding stock)."

Though this booklet was printed in the early 1900s, Ross finds this question just as relevant today as it was over 100 years ago. He links it back to the way his great aunt and uncle farmed—they kept 24 milk cows, 10 pasture-farrowed sows, 100 ewes to lamb and finish, plus chickens and a very large garden. They grew a rotation of corn, alfalfa, red clover, and wheat, which they fed to their hogs and chickens. Everything they raised they fed to their own livestock, selling only milk and meat off the farm.

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Closing the nutrient loop was so important to Ross’s great aunt and great uncle that they even had the whole farm fenced with netting so they could turn their sheep out into the corn once it was mature enough. The sheep would eat the weeds and leaves off the corn, but leave most of the ears of corn since they were out of reach.

“When they harvested the corn, they found the lambs,” Ross says, adding that he would like to try this someday, but he’s not quite ready to take on another species of livestock just yet.

The way Ross sees it, “If you can take your own crop and put it through your own livestock, you’re not just selling commodities, but adding value back to your land.”

That added value, in the form of healthier soils, is a driving force behind Ross’s efforts to reintegrate livestock into his farming system, including on crop ground. Crops and livestock complement each other, not just ecologically, but also financially, and Ross is looking for ways to earn multiple income streams from each acre of land. Once canning crops are harvested, he seeds multi-species cover crops for the cattle to graze. This adds carbon back to the soil and improves soil tilth, he says.

The farmer converted to no-till 20 years ago, and it worked. But after he saw a plateauing of benefits from no-till, he began dabbling with cover-cropping a dozen years ago. Ross has been planting soybeans into standing rye, sometimes three, four, or five feet tall, which, he says, “Works phenomenally.” This year he made baleage with the rye, planted soybeans right away, and then sprayed the rye resprouts. It’s the best looking field of beans he’s got.

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With commodity prices so low, Ross has seeded down 20 acres of tillable land to alfalfa and grass. He plans to hay that land until the alfalfa thins out and then to interseed clovers, fence it off, and bring the cattle on to graze. If that works well, he may expand this to another 18 acres of his great uncle’s land, maybe even teaching the calves to "creep graze" (allowing nursing calves access to additional pasture through a gap in the fence large enough for them to pass through, but too small for the cows) during mid-summer to provide them forage when the cows' milk production drops.

Referring back to the question of enriching the farm or robbing the farm, he says, “It’s one of those things that just is timeless. They say history repeats itself, so there you go.”

Ross notes other examples of history repeating itself on the landscape around him. While hemp may be on the brink of a larger resurgence across the nation, remnants of hemp from the WW II era pop up in pastures and windbreaks around the farm. And reassuringly, photos of the farm from the early 1970s show that much of the land Ross is putting back into pasture was pasture 40-some years ago.

Ross is hoping that re-diversifying the operation will allow him to pass the farm down to his son, just as his great uncle and dad were able to do for him. Ross tells his son, who is “usually knee-deep in cattle,” that although he’s spent the past 30 years tearing fence out, they’ll be putting it back in for the next 30. Looking forward, the Coopers hope to get cattle back on land that “hasn’t seen a cow pie in 100 years.”

Liana Nichols is an LSP Bridge to Soil Health Organizer. She can be reached at 507-523-3366 or via e-mail.