This month, I would like to talk about nutrient recycling and how important it is to our overall biodiversity and soil health, but I would like to look at it from a different angle. If we let go of some of our paradigms, then we can sometimes see that change is a good thing.
Did you know that 80 per cent of what goes into the cow comes out the back end? Why would Mother Nature make such an inefficient critter? I will tell you right now if man made the cow, or at least a machine to replace the cow, we would make her 95 per cent efficient. We would get as much out of that machine as we could because we don’t want any waste. I know this because we have already built one.
Maybe Mother Nature made the cow inefficient for another reason. Maybe it was not for the benefit of the cow but for the benefit of nature, to ensure sustainability. In any environment that has a dormant season, like our winter, Mother Nature placed ruminant animals. In a rainforest, there is no need for ruminants as the soil is always alive with microbiological life that can break down plant material and recycle nutrients year round. In an environment with a dormant season, soil life goes dormant and the nutrient recycling activity of the soil bugs comes to a standstill. However, the ruminant gives the microbiological life an environment where they can survive and still do their job.
The cow provides the bugs with a place to work, inside her rumen. The plant material is recycled. The cow just gets her 20 per cent off the top, 80 per cent goes back to nature. The problem in agriculture is we see the cow as the be all and end all of our operations. She is our moneymaker. In reality, she is only a tool in the big picture and until we wrap our head around that, we will not be sustainable.
Now I told you that man has already built a replica of the cow and we try to make her as efficient as possible. We call this device a combine. We harvest the plant material by removing about 80-90 per cent of the nutrients and then we export them off our land. We only leave about 10-20 per cent to be recycled. We try to get as much out of her as we can because we sure don’t want to waste anything. Is this sustainable?
Now grain farmers don’t get your tail in a knot, but let’s look at this from a sustainable point of view. In a grazing operation 80 per cent of the nutrients are recycled through the cow. Even on a grain land, I have heard it stated many times that after about four years of swath grazing on the same field, very little if any fertilizer is needed. This is because most of the nutrients put into the soil are recycled back into the soil through the cattle.
I know I’ve had swath-grazed fields side by side where one has better fertility only because it was owned by a mixed farmer who ran cattle on the grain land for years. Is the price of fertilizer getting cheaper? I don’t think so. To make grain farms sustainable for generations, should we not be thinking a little more about recycling our nutrients today?
Let’s exaggerate a little and say we close up the sieves and let 80 per cent go out the back end of the combine. We harvest 20 per cent for grain, the rest we allow the cattle to graze during the winter months. If we are only after 20 per cent, would we need to worry quite as much about weed control? Those weeds are sometimes quite nutritious. After about four years of recycling 80 per cent of our crop, I would assume that the soil would need very little fertilizer.
Would our costs go down? We probably would not need to invest quite as much on the newest and best combine either. That second crop off the field each year would give some excellent winter grazing for a herd of cattle. Maybe we look into some poly-cultures that would provide three or four crops. We might even try back-grounding or finishing out there after the combine. Let the cattle do the work each winter and save a bundle on yardage costs.
It does come down to profitability and that means we would have to do some experimentation with this idea. I know that we are born and bred to worry about efficiencies so maybe my example is too extreme for most folks. How about something in the middle?
Chaff bunching is a fantastic concept that more grain producers need to take a look at. We have a very economical feed source right at our fingertips and only a handful of producers are utilizing chaff bunching. There are many benefits to the grain land in this. In our environment, the land needs ruminants on it. I believe all grain farmers need to somehow incorporate winter grazing strategies on their land. If you don’t have cattle, find someone who does and have them manage it. It is great for the land.
There are many young producers out there who would jump at the chance to manage some cattle. My point is simple. Do what will make your operation sustainable. We need to think about nutrient recycling in all our production practices. I know that this is a tough sell to diehard grain farmers but we need to think long term. We need to push aside our paradigms and think economic sustainability for generations.
So when you are next planning your field rotation, think about trying to get a second crop from your efforts by utilizing crop aftermath with some cattle. You might just find your profitability goes up, even though your efficiency goes down. I realize I risk offending some producers with this idea, but when I see the benefits my land receives from the great recycling job my cattle do, it just gets me to thinking about the sustainability of all our agricultural practices.
All grain farmers need to somehow incorporate winter grazing strategies on their land