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Forage & Grains
Managing For High Quality Forages, Part 1


By Gary Zimmer

Added March 8, 2012. So you want farming to be easy, you want to have fun, and you want to make money. As an organic grazier with those goals, you have to manage for high quality forages.

But what do you need to be successful? Where do you start?

First, you need to examine your soils, and be sure that they are healthy and mineralized. Then you need to look at the plants you are growing and be sure that they fit your management goals. Finally, you need to address the principles of the cow: what does the cow need to produce quality milk and meat?

In this first of a series of three articles, let's take a brief look at the first requirement for high quality forages, which is healthy soils.

The Soil: Growing quality forages starts in the soil.

A healthy soil needs to have enough minerals to grow a good crop, but it also needs to have a good, loose crumbly structure and it needs to be full of biological life. The first step towards understanding where your soil fits on the health spectrum is to take a soil test.

A soil test gives you clues as to how many minerals are in your soil, and your soil's capacity to hold on to those minerals. When you take a soil test, you should look at a range of minerals, not just NPK and pH. There is plenty of evidence of the need for a sufficiency level of the 12 or so minerals I always test for on a complete soil test. A soil test is used to identify limiting nutrients and any excesses. Once you know a soil's strengths and weaknesses, you can start balancing the soil minerals by addressing calcium and phosphorous.

After you balance your soils based on any deficiencies found on the soil test, additional minimum nutrients need to be added to feed the crop. A good place to start is with soluble calcium from a good source along with sulfur and boron. Nitrogen would be helpful, but as organic farmers our options are limited. Pelleted chicken manure from laying hens is the preferred source that I use on my own farm. However, you can have too much of a good thing-- yearly over-use results in lots of extra calcium and phosphorous. There are also questions on the use of manure from conventional hens fed GMO crops, which can have some unwanted things in it. This is certainly a concern that shouldn't be ignored.

Ideally, you should take soil tests every 3 to 5 years to monitor the mineral balance in the soil, using this information to make the soil corrections as dollars allow. It's important to supplement this soil testing with annual plant tissue tests and feed tests in order to see how many of those nutrients in the soil are getting into the crop. If the plants are short of minerals, use balanced crop fertilizer designed to fit the situation, and add soluble calcium.

The soil has a certain ability to dish out minerals, hold water and produce crops. Your fertilizer, besides addressing the limitations of your land, adds nutrients above and beyond sufficiency levels for better yields and quality than your soil can provide on its own.

With the price of fuel and feed, I see no other choice—we can and have to do better! More production and better quality is certainly achievable.

Once you've looked at your soil minerals, now what about other soil issues like compaction, plant root growth, water and air movement in the soil, and nutrient mixing? Can you just dump everything on the surface, like cow manure and fertilizers, and hope it gets to plant roots, or do you need an aeration tool to make holes in the ground, allowing water and nutrients to enter the soil? A deeper sub-soiling tool, such as a Yeoman plow, may also have its place. Managing compaction is very important, and sub-soiling certainly needs to be looked at. Most soils do really benefit from this management approach.

Another management concern is the lack of rotation that is often a problem on pastures. If you do rotate your crops with your pastures every few years, you could avoid doing the aeration-mixing, but then there's the cost associated with having freshly-worked and loose soil which could be more prone to compaction.

Maybe making and feeding some stored feeds or seeding in the field and delaying pasturing cows on recently worked fields can offset these issues. Then there are the concerns with land that is in permanent pasture. Many farms have land with too many stones, or with steep slopes, making it hard to rotate. How do you maintain high quality feed on those pastures?
In hay fields, research shows that after three years in hay there's up to a 30% yield reduction. Can permanent pastures, which are never aerated or rotated, maintain yields? Is the best strategy on those pastures to mob graze in tall, over-mature, lower digestible forages--wasting much but adding to soil organic matter?

Rotations allow you to plant blends of improved varieties in ideal ratios-- starting over, so to speak, when pastures become dominated by just a few species. Working the land while rotating pasture plants also allows soil corrections to be made and allows nutrients that have accumulated on the surface to be mixed into deeper layers of the soil. I know this production system works and yields high quality forage along with tonnage; that's how we do it at Otter Creek Organic Farm.

The question is: can you save money doing it another way and still get good results? You can't skimp on high quality, high yielding forages if you are not supplying grain as a supplement. Is the supplement just adding what's missing? With healthy soils and balanced fertilizers it's possible to change the level and amount of minerals in the forage plants, and minerals in highly digestible forages become highly available to the animal.

How do you do all this without feeding grain? Again, it requires better management; it's more difficult than just "give them a little grain with all the goodies added to it". You need healthy soils with plenty of available minerals in order to get healthy, balanced forages.

It's important to always evaluate your system. Take soil tests so you know your soil's strengths and weakness, and you can address those weaknesses. You need to create an ideal place to grow nutritious, healthy plants. Mineralized healthy plants need to be managed so they won't violate the principles of the cow. That's challenging, but certainly profitable once it's working.

What it all boils down to is basically this: Get soils healthy and mineralized and you will have a solid base to produce the high quality forages you need. In my next article, I'll take a closer look at forage blends and how to manage them for optimal plant growth and optimal livestock nutrition.

Gary Zimmer is a farmer, agri-businessman, author, educator and President of Midwestern Bio Ag. Dedicated to improving farming through restoring and balancing soils, he has written two books and spoken to and worked with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Africa. The Zimmer family's organic farms utilize the ideas Gary has gleaned over a lifetime spent studying agriculture. Otter Creek Organic Farms includes an organic dairy, pastured beef and poultry, vegetables, and other crops on 1,000 acres.


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