Grazing, Cover Crops, Climate Change & Resilience

The best farming system in the world means little if it isn't resilient enough to bounce back from all the nastiness nature can toss its way. That's become painfully clear in recent years as extreme weather events increase in frequency. Two upcoming Land Stewardship Project field days will focus on how diverse farming systems can return us to resilience in a brave new world of climate change.

On Saturday, Aug. 17, a field day at Early Boots Farm in Sauk Centre, Minn., will focus on using grass-fed beef to mitigate the effects of a changing climate. During the field day, Farm Beginnings graduate Tyler Carlson will discuss how he has recently launched a grass-based beef production operation that integrates rotationally grazed pastures with tree plantings. Pasture improvement, animal husbandry and direct marketing will be the focus of the first half of the field day.

The latter half of the program will feature Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition giving a presentation on the “Soil Carbon Challenge,” an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter. Part of Donovan’s focus is promoting the use of livestock on well-managed pastures as tools for sequestering carbon. Tyler Carlson’s Early Boots Farm is participating in this initiative.

As the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation has reported, the type of managed rotational grazing systems operations like Early Boots are utilizing can play a key role in sequestering greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide. In addition, Carlson's integration of tree plantings and grazing promises to trap even more carbon.

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On Monday, Aug. 19, the focus will be on building soil health with cover crops. This field day will be at the Jerry Morical farm in Garfield, Minn. Farmers and soil scientists will discuss how to integrate cover crops into corn and the basics of interseeding into standing row crops. Optimal varieties and planting basics as well as soil and yield benefits of integrating cover crops into corn will be the focus.

The Morical field day comes at an exciting time for cover cropping. For one thing, the innovative work farmers, scientists and conservationists are doing in North Dakota's Burleigh County to integrate cover crops, no-till production and livestock is gaining significant prominence here and abroad.

And in July, the USDA and Conservation Technology Information Center released the results of a farmer survey showing that cover crops planted in the Upper Mississippi River watershed more than paid for themselves during the drought of 2012:

• Corn and soybeans planted in 2012 after cover crops had a 9.6 percent and 11.6 percent yield increase, respectively, when compared with fields that had no cover crops.

• In the parts of the Corn Belt that were hit hardest by the drought, the yield gain from using cover crops was even greater: 11 percent for corn and 14.3 percent for soybeans.

• The 750 Upper Mississippi River watershed farmers who were surveyed identified improved soil health as a key benefit of cover cropping. They also noticed less soil compaction, improved nutrient management and less soil erosion.

Agronomists say when cover crops are planted year-after-year, soil organic matter increases, which improves rainfall infiltration and the ability of that soil profile to retain precious moisture. That's key when water is as hard to come by as it was in 2012. By the way, the folks in Burleigh County have also discovered that when you plant multiple species of cover crops in one field, the drought tolerance of that soil increases significantly as a result of all that diversity created beneath the surface.

In the more short term, cover crops can help a field be more resilient under dry conditions by improving the root structure of the cash crop and providing a moisture-preserving residue cover.

These survey results come on the heels of Iowa State University's Marsden Farm study, which is showing that using cover crops and other plantings to diversify the typical corn-soybean system can not only reduce the use of chemical inputs, but produce impressive profits.

And that's the bottom line: whether we're talking about sequestering carbon, making our land more resilient in the face of extreme weather or reducing the use of environmentally harmful chemical inputs, the system in question has to make sense economically and practically on the farm level. And that's why field days on farms that are actually trying out such innovations are so critical.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.