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How to Work With Neighbors to Graze Their Cover Crops and Crop Residue

One of the ways that graziers can extend their season is by working with neighboring crop farmers to graze their cover crops and crop residue. So in this month’s Grazier’s Focus, we’re giving you some tools to help with the challenge of actually speaking to your neighbors and working out an agreement that’s beneficial to everyone. There’s a summary at the end to recap what we’ve learned.

The Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) is Canada’s national industry-led funding agency for beef research. The BCRC is funded through a portion of a producer-paid national levy as well as government and industry funding, and is directed by a committee of beef producers from across the country. Click to visit their website.

Let’s start with these examples provided by the Beef Cattle Research Council of Canada.

From Saskatchewan to Manitoba and Ontario these graziers have had success with grazing cattle on neighboring crop land.

Leanne Thompson and Tannis Axten are neighbors in southeastern Saskatchewan. The Thompsons own and operate a cow-calf and backgrounding operation with 500-800 head of mother cows as well as backgrounding cattle. The Axten family owns and operates a 6,000 acre grain farm that is highly diverse, focusing heavily on soil health and intercropping. Both operations have experienced mutual benefits by arranging to have the Thompsons’ cattle graze stubble and cover crops on the Axtens’ landbase.

Joey Bootsman and family (Submitted Photo)

Joey Bootsman is a cow-calf producer near Brandon, Manitoba where, along with his family, he calves 600-700 cows, as well as manages backgrounding and grass cattle, and raises bred heifers for sale. The Bootsmans grow most of their own feed but will send cattle to community co-op pastures or other rented pastures in the summer. Bootsman works with his neighbors to graze his cows on their stubble fields when they come home from summer pasture to carry cattle through the fall.

Adam Shea and his family have a beef, sheep, and cash crop operation in east central Ontario. They are located in a very diverse agricultural area that includes ideal cash crop acreage next to hilly areas that are suitable only for grazing cattle. Shea really liked the idea of grazing cover crops but his uncle and father who run the cash crop side of their operation were not so sure. Shea was able to work out a deal with his neighbor to graze cover crops after winter wheat was harvested.

Although all of these producers have a unique story when it comes to working with their neighbors, some common themes emerged.

Communication is Key

All four producers reiterated that clear communication up front was key. While some sit down together and draw up an official contract, others keep things more informal with verbal communications. All agree that making sure everything is talked about early on makes the partnership much smoother.  It is important to leave no assumptions on the table. Even things as simple as who will be looking after the cows, fence, and water should be discussed to make sure both parties are on the same page.

Infrastructure is a key communication piece, and often where things get a little tricky.  Farmers don’t need or often want permanent water and fencing but having access to those is needed to graze cattle on cropland. Shea and Bootsman combatted this by using temporary electric fence and water troughs and maintaining clear communication about when it would be taken down. It was also important to identify who is responsible for setting it up and taking it down by the agreed upon date.

“It really comes down to trust,” says Axten. “Once you have communicated clearly and the cattle are out on the land you have to trust both parties will make the right decisions.” Axten also recognizes that although it’s easy to want different things than your neighbors, such as more frequent cattle moves, there is also a practical limit to their ability, so it is important to reach a compromise that is manageable for both parties.

Shea Cover Crop

For Shea, since he is relying on cover crops as a source of feed, he says it is necessary to treat them like a forage crop, and in his area that means ensuring nitrogen fertilizer is applied. The discussion of who is seeding cover crops, who is paying for them, when they are being seeded, when nitrogen is applied, and who is paying for nitrogen application is all discussed the previous year.

When it comes to convincing cropping neighbors it is a good idea to graze cattle on their land, doing it right the first year is key. “You can usually find someone willing to try it once,” says Bootsman. “If you communicate well and continue to be a good steward of the land, they are more likely to want to work with you in the future.”

Things to Talk About:

What is the value of the forage?

With proper planning ranchers and farmers can work together to provide a mutually beneficial system. Crop farmers can use cows to terminate fall cover crops, receive some post-harvest income, and positively impact soil health, while beef producers can get additional grazing without buying or renting land.

Feed isn’t free,” says Thompson. “It’s important to assign value to services provided by both sides even if no money is actually changing hands.” Assigning value to all aspects of the partnership, whether it is grazing time, soil health, or fence construction, allows both parties to understand what they are getting out of the deal. Thompson was clear that cattlemen can’t approach the arrangement with an attitude that the farmer wasn’t using it anyway so there is no value. Having a value assigned assures both parties are comfortable with what is happening and that everyone gets the most out of the arrangement.

Shea is upfront with his neighbor to make sure both parties see value from the outset. “This only works if they feel they are getting something out of it as well.”

For Bootsman the valuation is also clear up front. In his area he pays $500-$1,000 per quarter section for grazing land. Since it is revenue the farmer would not have otherwise received at that time it helps to ensure that he has stubble to graze.

What kind of fencing and water will work?

Infrastructure like fencing and water is necessary to graze cattle on crop land and often must be installed before grazing can take place. Adequate fencing will ensure cattle stay where they are supposed to which is crucial for success and a better chance of being invited back to graze again in future years.

For Bootsman and Shea, temporary electric fencing is the solution. Both use a single wire fence (Bootsman uses two wires near a highway) but both emphasize that this only works when cattle have already been trained to an electric fence. Both then remove the electric fence shortly after grazing so it isn’t in the farmer’s way.

The Axtens had some permanent fencing, but it needed repairs and rebuilding. They worked out an agreement with Thompsons where they purchased the supplies and Thompsons provided the labour to put it up.

Portable watering systems have been used by all producers. Shea says being flexible is key, since he only grazes on cover crops after winter wheat has been harvested and he rotates the fields he uses every year. In some years he has been close enough to the yard to simply run a hose and in other years has had to haul water.

Thompsons have also relied on portable watering systems, but occasionally get lucky and are able to tie on to water lines from their own property if grazing land is nearby. For fall and winter grazing, they tend to rely on dugouts or snow for a water source while cattle are on Axten’s cropland.

How will grazing management be adjusted when conditions on the ground change?

Understanding the conditions and knowing when it is time to move cattle, or not put cattle out at all, is important to prevent damaging the crop land.

Where Bootsman is located, wet fields tend to be a problem, and being flexible helps to avoid damage in the fields. He tries to manage his cattle according to the conditions. In a high rainfall year, they may have to remove cattle, adjust grazing to later in the season, or not put cattle out at all. Later season grazing often allows cattle to help clean up farmer’s fields by removing regrowth.

Bootsman has noticed that heifers pace more than cows, so they may cause more damage along fence lines. In those cases, he works with the farmer and is willing to  help pay for any extra tilling or working the land that is required to reduce any damage that is done but finds that by spring, most evidence of cattle grazing is gone.

Photo courtesy of Dean Manning

Although wet conditions are often not the main problem for Axtens, they do like to see cattle graze after the ground has frozen. They feel that grazing at this time helps prevent damage and compaction of the soil. Axtens also like to see cattle only remove about 50% of the residue meaning that cattle are moved according to the amount of residue that is left over.

For Shea he also tries to alter his grazing plan to do minimal damage to fields. If he knows that specific fields have low or wet spots, he tries to graze those first so that they have the most time to recover. He has grazed wet fields before and finds that with good management and quick cattle moves, he can usually prevent any long-term damage.

For the Grazier – Does This Meet Your Livestock’s Nutritional Needs?

It is important to match the nutritional needs of the cattle that will be grazing to the quality of feed that is available. Although supplementation is often an option it is typically harder to do on land that isn’t owned by the producer. A feed test can help determine which classes of cattle are best suited for the feed source available.

Find out more here about nutritional value and estimating how much is available.

For Thompsons and Axtens, choosing the right class of cattle was important. Once Axtens decided what pieces of land they wanted grazed and when they wanted to graze it, Thompsons could then select the appropriate class of cattle to meet those requirements.

Bootsman says stubble can work well for maintaining body condition but stubble alone won’t work for lactating cows or growing steers or heifers without additional supplementation, he adds.

For the first few years Shea brought his spring calving (March/April) herd home from pasture in the fall and put both cows and calves out on to the cover crops. Although both the cows and calves came back in great condition, they had to bring them home before they had grazed all the cover crop to wean and market calves. Last year Shea sent the cows to the cover crops after weaning and backgrounded the calves. Turning just the cows out onto the cover crop meant that they were able to graze until early December.

Shea was originally concerned about both cows and calves being at risk for nitrate poisoning and bloat but has had no concerns with either. The cover crop mixture includes a cash crop base (usually oats), purple top turnip, and daikon radish for soil improvement, and some type of legume, although he hasn’t found a legume that works well in his area yet. He turns the cattle straight out from pasture onto the cover crop and has yet to have a problem with bloat.

What about grazing for soil health?

Check out this article for answers to a common concern for crop farmers

Livestock grazing crop residue do good things for the crop farmer including removing vegetation so that new crops can be planted, and leaving manure and urine behind as nutrients to increase soil health and fertility for the next growing season.

But…this kind of grazing is no different than grazing a pasture. All the basic soil health principles still apply. That means you can’t graze it down to the ground. Leaving residue is critical because, just like in pasture, residues provides the soil with nutrients, acts as cover to prevent erosion, traps snow and holds in moisture.

But HOW do I talk to my neighbor?

For that let’s check in with Brendon Rockey, a potato farmer in the San Luis Valley of southwest Colorado. Brendon wanted cattle to graze off his cover crop before he planted potatoes. In this 1:57 video, he describes his philosophy of deal making and how he and the grazier worked out an agreement, saying:

“The only way it was going to work is if it  was going to work for both of us. Otherwise it was only going to work for one year, if one guy was getting all the gain and it was hurting the other guy. So we just sat down and I just kind of had my list of goals. I said, “Here’s what I need to accomplish as far the crop production.” Dealing from the farmer’s side, “I need these goals accomplished.”

“He said, “OK, here’s what I need.”

“And so we had to sit there, and that was the hardest part – was figuring out timing. You know, my ideal time I would have had them in and out of here already. If they could come through one day, that would be great for me, but that’s not realistic.

“So, he had to figure out, “Well you have this many acres. If I do this many head, we can cycle through this many days.” And then we had to negotiate a little bit.

“He’s paying me some pasture rent for it. So he had kind of his idea on what he should pay. I kind of had my idea in the back of my head. I said, “Let’s just try it this first year, let’s see what we come up with.” He wrote me a check a at the end of the year and I said, “That’s almost exactly what I was thinking.”

“And for me, we’re not making a lot of money off of having the livestock off there. But what it is doing is it’s enough to offset my expense of growing that cover crop. I’m going to grow the cover crop no matter what, so if i can bring the livestock out there and he takes care of the expense of growing that cover crop, that’s still supports me economically. And it supports him too. Because he’s going to have to go get that feed from somewhere anyways. I’d rather do that than to harvest the crop, take it to his cows, then he ends up with a pile of manure that we have to ship back.”

Recapping it All

Communicate!
Be clear about goals for both parties.
Discuss fencing, water, timing of grazing, what happens when it’s too wet or too dry, and what it should look like when the animals leave.
It’s helpful to get to know each other to build a level of trust. Don’t forget to touch base from time to time during the grazing season to cover anything that comes up, or just to continue building your relationships.

Put a value on the forage.
Does it meet your livestock nutritional needs? How much is out there?
What does the crop farmer need to make it worth his while?

Agree on who pays for what and how much.
In the Canadian example, fertilizer was an important part of success for the grazier. Knowing who is going to pay for that is important going in.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Vothhttps://onpasture.com
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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