Soil Health Academy Workshop

Last week a few members of the Prairie Creek Seed attended a Soil Health Academy workshop centered around increasing profitability through regenerative agriculture, here are some of their thoughts on the event!

                The workshop took place in Hays, Kansas. Topics covered included soil health, cover crops, managing the farm as an ecosystem, as well as adaptive grazing. The entire event was filled with questions and answers about all related topics and specific scenarios that attending producers have encountered. The group also traveled to a local farmer’s field to look at his cover crop stand and analyze the benefits and possibilities.

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                One of the more all encompassing topic discussed was the 6 Principles of Soil Health which are as follows:

  1. Know your context – Consider your farm’s specific environment and goals when working to improve soil health. This includes choosing the correct cash crops and management for your area as well as picking a cover crop that supports your resource concerns.
  2. Minimize disturbance – Utilize chemical and mechanical disturbance wisely as tools in your tool belt. As your soil health improves, the use of these can lessen over time.
  3. Cover and build soil armor – Having something on the soil’s surface to serve as a “skin” will be drastically beneficial to soil moisture and biology.
  4. Diversity – Looking at your farm as an ecosystem requires diversity to be incorporated to your rotation, pasture stand, or cover crop blend.
  5. Keep living roots in the soil – These will feed your underground livestock who will make nutrients available to your plants as well as improve soil structure over time.
  6. Incorporate livestock – Grazing any kind of livestock throughout your operation can be a quantum leap in your soil health.

              Those principles were expounded upon in many different ways like lessons on what soil biology is capable of as far as making nutrients available. This was the section of the event that stood out the most to me (Amanda). There is always more to learn about the life within the soil. The beauty of is it the more you have a healthy, functioning soil that is making nutrients available, the less inputs your farm will eventually need (saving $$$). A healthy soil also lends itself to healthier plants that can have less disease and pest issues.

              After the event Kyle said “the Soil Health Academy is a road map to understanding, enhancing and monitoring soil life and productivity.” Dawn’s response to the event was “I love how Understanding Ag looks at the big picture.  Soil health, the plant’s health, our livestock’s health and our own health - they’re all tied together.  We can have an impact on all of these things simply by changing some of our practices.”

This is just a snippit of information about the event because one post cannot fit it all. There will be more to come with related topics on soil health. If you ever get a chance to attend an event like this near you, we say go for it!

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Broccoli and Candy - Forage Quality

We know the detriments to pastures when overgrazed but what kind of diet does a set stock pasture provide for your livestock?

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Quality Decline

                When livestock are rotationally grazed, they enter a new paddock of high-quality forage after a certain amount of time. This means that they have a consistent diet of the highest possible quality of forage frequently. Conversely, set stock pastures never improve to a higher quality than the first day livestock enter. The quality will only decline leading to low protein and basically no fiber in the overgrazed forage. With this quality decline comes production decline which means less forage for livestock to consume. This can be especially detrimental to dairy cattle as rumen fill is vital to high milk production.

Rumen Fluctuation

                Speaking of the rumen, the lack of consistency that comes with lack of rotation really does a number on a cow’s gut health. After grazing where the quality has dwindled to low protein and fiber, then being switched to a higher protein and higher fiber area, the rumen can take a real shock. This is hard on the digestive system compared to the consistency of rotating to similar forage daily or multiple times a day.

Selectivity

                Livestock are naturally selective in what they graze. In a set stock situation cattle have a space that is too large to sway them from being selective. This leads to them eating the “good stuff” first (candy) and leaving behind the plants that are not as fresh and lush (broccoli). This only leads to the “broccoli” forages to getting more mature, heading out, and, if those mature seeds are eaten by the cattle, they are reseeding the exact species they do not prefer! Not to mention that these stiff seed heads, if left unclipped or eaten, can cause other problems such as pink eye or mouth ulcers when cattle try to get down to new growth.

All of this to say, lack of rotation can be very hard on livestock’s diet and digestive system. Consistency is key.

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Broccoli and Candy - Overgrazing

       Picture this: For a week, you are given the option to eat your favorite sweet treat or broccoli (without any thought of which is healthier). When there is a steady supply of that sweet treat that you love, why would you choose the broccoli if you didn’t have to?

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       This is a way to imagine the life of a cow in a set stocked pasture. When given free-rein to a large area, the first thing that cattle will eat is the most succulent, digestible grass they can find. This includes young and mid-maturity grasses. They will leave behind any roughage that is more mature and less palatable. What is grazed first will come back again highly palatable and digestible, so that is what the cattle will go for right away again. This cycle leaves room for problems...

Wimpy Plants

Overgrazing of the individual grass plant induces a detrimental chain of events...

Young succulent plant is grazed very low to the ground – very little leaf surface area is left for the grass to photosynthesize and regrow – plant is forced to pull from any root reserves it may have to spark above ground growth – new root growth is put on hold because of this – above ground growth increases enough for cow to notice again – young succulent plant is grazed very low to the ground

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       This cycle is extremely hard on the plant. All of the stressors combined make the plant vulnerable to disease, drought, and pests. Eventually, this all ends with the tragic death of the plant, which leads to the next point!

Diminished Diversity

       The death of these species that cattle overgraze, lessens the diversity throughout that pasture. Surely you don’t want the diverse mix that you seeded to go from a 7-way blend to a 2-way blend. Diversity in a pasture is important not only for forage quality, but also soil health. Varying root and growth types improve the soil, increasing the longevity of your pastures.

Thin Stand

       Where there is a will, there is a way for weeds. Overgrazed pastures that become less diverse create a thin stand that makes weeds’ job easy. Thin stands leave room for bare soil. With the addition of moisture and heat, that bare soil will quickly fill in with weeds from the seed bank that have been patiently waiting for their time in the spotlight. These undesirable species can be difficult to rid from your pastures and take up space that could be producing valuable forage.

       Aside from the detriments to the pasture itself, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the ding to forage quality for the cattle’s diet, but that is a different topic in itself... So, what is the solution for this unproductive cycle? A grazing rotation that fits your operation. This can look different for many, but see the tips for getting started here!

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The One Where the Nitrogen is Released

So, you know how legumes fix nitrogen into their tissues, but how does that nitrogen get back into your soil? That takes other friends in the soil known as the microbes...

 The Terminator -

        When the nitrogen that your legumes fix leaves the soil and enters plant tissues, imagine it saying “I’ll be back.” (Come on, do the voice.) When your cover crop is terminated, whether that be from winterkill, chemical, or tillage, it is then exposed to soil microbes. Those critters go to work on the residue and break it down into inorganic N for the plant. The peak time that this occurs is 5-6 week after termination. This is why it is beneficial to seed legumes the season before a grass crop (hence, the usual corn and bean rotation).

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Maximizing Nitrogen -

       We know we need to terminate the legume, but when is the best time to do that? Minnesota State studies have found that when the plants are at 50% flowering, the nitrogen content is the highest. Any earlier than that, and we have not reached the peak. Any later than that, and the legume will be more mature and have a negative effect on nitrogen increase because it will use some up to be able to break down in the soil.

How much nitrogen will my legume supply?

       This can be estimated by getting a biomass measurement and popping some numbers into a formula, or you can use this Nitrogen Calculator and it’s even easier. When we get our pounds of biomass per acre, we can multiply that times a constant to get an estimate of how much nitrogen those plants created for us per acre. The amount of this that we actually capture in the soil depends if it is incorporated or not. We retain 50% of this fixed nitrogen when the cover crop is incorporated, we hold on to 40% of it when the cover crop remains on the soil surface. This is mainly to volatilization from the surface of the cover crop exposed to the air and sunlight.

Moral of the story is consider using legumes to grow your nitrogen! 

Visuals created by Associate Professor Julie Grossman and her team of grad students at the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture Science.

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The One Where the Nitrogen is Fixed

                You probably read our post about cool season legumes and how they can fix you nitrogen, but how do legumes actually give you a nitrogen credit? Is it their leaves? Roots? Magic? Kind of! It is actually a symbiotic relationship that legumes can form with rhizobia in the soil. Let see how that works…

It starts with the air -

      The air we breathe is around 78% nitrogen. Wouldn’t you save a lot on fertilizer costs if plants could use that atmospheric nitrogen? The reason they can’t is atmospheric nitrogen is tightly connected by a triple bond that can only be disconnected by high pressure and heat or... Bacteria! 

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      Remember those rhizobia that I mentioned? Those are the happy little bacteria that legumes allow to attach to their roots and make a trade (see below). The deal is, the rhizobia take nitrogen from the air in the soil and break it apart to make it useable for the plant to uptake into leaves and stems. In exchange, the plant provides the other means of life that the rhizobia need. Pretty good deal, right?

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When the deal is done -

      So, your rhizobia have attached and your legume is full of nitrogen. It is a common misconception that at this point your legumes are directly feeding your grasses and broadleaves that may be growing nearby. Unfortunately, the amount of this that happens is very small. I repeat, legumes do not feed your grasses a large amount in season. That being said, they can feed a grass that is planted after the legume is terminated, but Beyond Agronomy will get into that in the next post; Come back on Thursday for The One where the Nitrogen is Released to see how this atmospheric nitrogen truly gets back into you soil!

Visuals created by Associate Professor Julie Grossman and her team of grad students at the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture Science.

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How to Estimate Nitrogen from Cover Crops

 At Prairie Creek Seed, we know the value of continually learning and sharing information. The following methodology comes from Associate Professor Julie Grossman and her team of grad students at the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture Science. We love the way this process was put together and look forward to seeing what estimates you can all get from your cover crops!

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1.  Sample your biomass

          1.  Create a square to measure a known area

          2.  Take off the above ground growth in that area a few times throughout the field.

          3.  Dry the sample until it is crunchy and weigh it

2. Convert to biomass lbs per acre

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3. Calculate how much nitrogen is in that material using this table: 

  

Cover Crop

Examples

%N

Legumes

Hairy Vetch, Clovers, Peas

4% at flowering

3% as seeds are maturing

Non-Legume Grasses

Cereal Rye, Oats, Sudangrass

3% at flowering

2% as seeds are maturing

Non-Legume Broadleaves

Buckwheat, Radish, Turnip

Similar or less than grasses

 

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4. Estimate how much will be available in 1 year. We retain 50% of available N when residue is incorporated and 40% when unincorporated.

Incorporated

Unincorporated

Lbs N  0.50 = Lbs available in 1 Year

Lbs N  0.40 = Lbs available in 1 Year

        You can also skip the last three steps and get an estimate using our Nitrogen Calculator Tool. All you need there is your dry sample weight and area measured! Do keep in mind that these are estimates and many factors go into to N fixation and release including variety, weather, nitrogen applications, and geographical location.

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Top Three Reasons New Seedings Fail

 

Laid out here are the top 3 (but not the only) reasons new pasture seedings can fail. Pastures are a long-term investment and getting them established is the biggest hurdle. Let’s see how to jump it…

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Competition –

       Like many people, small grass seedlings do not like crowds. They strongly dislike shade when trying to establish. Desirable or undesirable species that grow faster than newly planted grass can cause too much shade for the seedling to overcoming. Having just formed, the seedling will not have enough root reserves to pull from to outgrow lack of sunlight for an extended period of time.

      When interseeding into existing pasture, a similar problem can occur with the already established species. This is why our recommended formula for interseeding into an existing stand is: Graze/Cut → Drill in new species → Graze/Cut when established stand begins to fill in. This sequence gives new seedlings the highest amount of light to establish and boost your pasture stand.

Seed Bed Prep –

       Not giving a proper seed bed for new plants to establish in is a great way to start your new seeding off poorly. Treat it like the cash crop it is! No one would broadcast their corn, would they? Even in no-till situations, shattering a small section of that topsoil where the seed is places is crucial for giving that plant a strong start. That seed needs a tilthy soil area to send new roots down and healthy shoots up.

       Use the drill, coulters, and seed depth that are right for the conditions you are seeding into and type of pasture species that you are planting.

Nature –

      Heavy rain, no rain, cold snap, hot streak. All of these situations can be detrimental to your new seedlings trying to germinate, root down, and produce above ground growth. At the end of the day, there really is no way to foresee some of these conditions unless you have a really good weather reporter or have a direct phone line to the Big Guy – if that’s the case, we would love to do a conference call before every planting season! (563-852-3192)

Keep following Beyond Agronomy for more take-away tips on how to successfully establish pastures!

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The Beauty of Compromise - With Blends

Compromise happens everywhere in life from picking where to have dinner to how long you want to stay at the in-law's place. Compromises also happen in cover crop and forage blends... 

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Rate

       While it may seem great to plant the full rate of everything in a mix to get as much in as possible, that often is not realistic agronomically or economically. Creating a balance of rates in a blend will ensure that nothing competes and everything shows up. This is especially important in pasture blends when it comes to that desired ratio of grasses and legumes. For cover crop and forage blends, we like to use our Cover Crop Calculator to put together a mix for you based on rate or budget needs to get the best of both worlds. Contact the office or your dealer for them to put one together for you! (Here are some guidelines for cover crop planting rates)

Depth

       In general, large seeds are happier planted deeper and small seeds prefer to be kept shallower. In a blend of various species this can be difficult. The answer is compromise. In a blend planted too deep, only the larger seeded plants will establish. Planted to shallow, a stand will only consist of the smaller seeded plants.  We like to pick a mid-range depth based off of what is in the mix. This ensures that everyone will show up to the party. (Check out our Perennial seed depth tool and annual seed depth tool)

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Timing

      When to seed and when to terminate are two very important questions when making decisions about your blends. With blends that are all cool season or all warm season, the timing of planting is generally unanimous and no compromise is needed. For blends with both, you have to find mid-ground. Deciding when to terminate a cover crop or forage blend may take more discussion. Do you terminate when the grass components are young and lush so that they break down quickly? Or do you let the blend continue to grow so that the legume component can fix you as much nitrogen as possible? Again, a balance is best. In the case of crops like cereal rye, you have to look at forage quality and tonnage when deciding termination timing.

      The answer to most questions when balancing these compromises is usually is “it depends.” Stay true to the goals of your cover crop or forage blend and you can achieve the balance that is right for your operation.

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Karl's Comments - Beginning Rotational Grazing

We know the benefits of rotational grazing. We know what it does for the pasture productivity, soil health and forage quality. Now, we need to start! So, I asked Karl “What is your advice for beginning rotational grazing?” 

       The day the decision to begin rotational grazing is made go out and document what is there. Get counts and photos of plant stands and various species. Dig around and get an idea of your soil structure across pastures. (This will be important in five years because you won’t remember what it was like when you first started.) There are multiple ways to accomplish rotational grazing, but not a one size fits all method. Determine what will be best for you, and start there. The physical items you need are polywire, a reel, and some step-in posts (plus some grass and livestock, of course). Bonus: Do not spend a lot on interior fencing and infrastructure. With polywire and step-in posts you can be creative. 

       The next step is figuring out what forage you have and how much you need:

1.  Pasture sticks can be used to measure pasture height and a different side of the stick gives us a table that can be used to estimate the density of various pastures by counting visible dots.

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       For the 4 dots visible in this mixed pasture, the table gives a range of 150-250 lbs DM lbs per inch, so we will use 200#/Inch to estimate. We know they will graze the 10-inch grass to a 4-inch stubble with 6 inches eaten. (Stubble height can change and vary, and sometimes getting too specific can overcomplicate things.)

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We can calculate our forage amount using those measurements:

(200# Density/Inch x 6 Inches) = 1200# DM/Acre

2.  Now, take a look at your livestock and get rough idea of dry matter intake per day. An example is a 1000# cow eating 3% of her body weight in dry matter forage (30#/day). Calculate the need for your entire herd:

50 Cows x 30#/Day = 1500# DM Need/Day 

3.  How many acres will give them 1500# of forage? Use the Dry Matter/Acre estimate and the DM Need/Day that we found:

1500# DM need/day / 1200# dm per acre = 1.25 acres needed/day

       Knowing this, Karl recommends giving them enough for 2 days, so 2.5 acres (accurate acre measurement is important). The reason for two days when starting is it gives you wiggle room. If you underestimated, it won’t be grazed to the dirt before the next time you check on them. If there is more that 2 days’ worth, it can be adjusted to leave them on that longer or tighten that paddock. Eventually you will get an eye for what your cattle will eat and how long it will take them. Some may say that overgrazing at the beginning by accident will wreck pastures forever, but it won’t. If that does happen, it’s okay. It’s just the beginning and you will perfect it over time.

       With your forage estimates made, walk all your pastures and see how much you have to get a big picture idea of your grazing plan. Parts of the pasture will all be at different stages, so some estimating will be needed. There are many opinions on the timing of when cattle should be moved, but this can be flexible. Generally, as long as they are not left for longer that 4-5 days, the pasture will not be damaged. With cow calf pairs, Karl has his cattle in the same paddock for 2-3 days. If his schedule allows, he will move more often, but the system has to work with your lifestyle to an extent.

       Dairy and grass finished beef are a different story. Both need the best forage quality to be highly productive, so they would need moved as often as possible. Karl has finished cattle on grass and would move them 1-2 times per day. The movement encourages higher forage intake and the lack of fluctuations in forage quality throughout the time they are in paddocks will improve performance.

       Your final task is determining a water source. One central location can require creativity in how they get there. You want to avoid creating a permanent lane where the cattle will form trails and dead areas in the pasture. Karl has been there done that and those areas can be difficult to heal. A hydrant at a high point of the operation can serve well as a water source with the addition of a garden hose or water pipe to start. The initial expense of that option will be made up for in being able to make the paddocks wherever you want and having that improved management. 

The main point of beginning rotational grazing is improving soil health, plant health and animal performance. Get basic skills in place then look at what additional improvements you can make in seed options, genetics, and infrastructure.

 

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Managing Warm Season Annuals After Killing Frost

If you or anyone you know has used warm season annuals for forage, you made a very good choice! But you have also probably heard of the concern of prussic acid. What is prussic acid and why is it a topic of discussion this time of year?

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What is Prussic Acid?

                Prussic Acid is a compound that exists in warm season forage plants such as forage sorghum, sorghum sudangrass, and sudangrass. While these are often harvested and grazed during the summer, this time of year can also be common. The concerns with prussic acid arise when we start having killing and non-killing frosts. When these types of plants are killed from a frost, the cells rupture releasing the prussic acid as a gas that will be harmful to livestock. Here are some procedural guidelines to follow this time of year if you have these crops:

Grazing:  After a killing frost, keep livestock from grazing for 10-12 days

Mechanical Harvest: At, or before, a killing frost, the forage can be chopped or baled at any time the moisture is correct for the harvest type; however, do not feed forage for 30-40 days after harvesting.

What happens during those wait times?

                Since it is released as a gas, the forage dries and the prussic acid dissipates through volatilization. This makes the concentration levels in the tissue safe for livestock consumption. It is important that the killing frost we are speaking of is truly killing to the entire plant. If the frost only kills part of the plant, it can attempt to regrow by sending out new shoots that can also higher prussic acid concentrations.

Still have concerns?

                Forage samples can be sent in and tested for prussic acid concentrations at most forage sampling facilities. The cost of these can range from $50-$60, but can serve as insurance and be helpful in relieving worries about what you are feeding. Simply ask for a Prussic Acid Test. Keep in mind that since prussic acid volatizes as a gas, this is a time sensitive test that often needs overnight shipping to the testing facility.

Overall, the likelihood of prussic acid poisoning is very controllable by using the guidelines above. Feel free to give the office a call if you would like any additional information!

Bean, Brent, and Kim McCuistion. "Avoiding Prussic Acid." Sorghum Checkoff, 1 Nov. 2017.

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