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Soil Rejuvenation Is A Top Goal For This North Dakota Rancher

By: Troy Smith

It has often been said that failure should be viewed as a learning experience, and an opportunity to try a different and better way. Gabe Brown offers a hearty “Amen” to that. The North Dakotan’s own learning experiences are byproducts of more than 30 years in farming and ranching. And some of those experiences certainly qualify as failures – like the four consecutive years that Brown Ranch’s cash crops were lost to either hail or drought.

“At one point, we were so broke that the banker knew when we bought toilet paper,” quips Gabe. “It forced us to consider different ways of doing things. Now, I think it was the best thing that could have happened.”

Unable to afford the ever greater inputs required to just maintain production
of grain and forage, Gabe Brown had no choice but to break with convention. His search for answers led to a new focus on management practices that regenerate the land, biologically, because they enhance soil health. The desire for healthy soils has guided adoption of Brown Ranch production practices for the last two decades. It started with a shift to notill farming. Then came diversification of crops, including an array of cover-crops, and the integration of livestock grazing on crop acres, as well as on native range and pasture.

Gabe began to think more and more in terms of integrated production systems. He transitioned to holistic management, believing that no one part of his operation could be managed independently of the others. All were connected. To become sustainable, all its parts and the whole operation needed healthy soils. The countless forms of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, worms and insects living in the soil are important to plant residue decomposition and nutrient cycling. They affect soil structure, water infiltration rate and moisture-holding capacity.

The answers to improved soil biology, says Gabe, are found in the original Northern Plains prairie ecosystem. The native prairie supported no monocultures. Instead, it included a diversity of plants and plant types, and a diversity of animals and insects. Large, migrating herds of bison and elk impacted plants and the soil, through grazing hoof action and deposition of urine and dung. What happened above and below ground worked together, biologically, to maintain healthy soils.

“Because we have adopted a biologically driven production system,” states Gabe, “our ranch became profitable.”

To appreciate how things have changed, it helps to understand how it all began. In 1984, Gabe and his wife, Shelly, moved onto her parents’ operation. Located near the outskirts of Bismarck, in south-central North Dakota, the operation was fairly typical of the region. Cash crops included cool-season small grains, livestock consisted of a cow-calf operation.

“My in-laws had a small commercial cow herd, but my father-in-law was more interested in farming,” tells Gabe, noting his predecessor’s adherence to conventional tillage methods. “He believed in recreational tillage. He just liked it.”

By the time Gabe and Shelly purchased the place in 1991 some changes had been introduced. The commercial cows had been replaced by a registered herd and the Browns were marketing Balancer (Gelbvieh-Angus hybrid) seedstock. To shift from season-long to rotational grazing, the original three pastures had been cross-fenced. That allowed for better utilization of grazed forage by the cow herd plus a few yearlings, but the cattle received harvested feed for six months of the year. More pronounced changes to cattle and grazing management would come as the farming side of the operation evolved.

According to Gabe, 1993 was the year that all tillage equipment was sold and all cropland came under zero-tillage methods. Over time, monoculture crops and simple crop rotations were replaced by more complex systems involving an increasing diversity of crops. Having living roots in the ground during as much of the year as possible became a key objective to improve soil health.

PLENTY OF TRIAL AND ERROR
Gabe still grew small grains, mainly wheat, oats, triticale and barley, but more cash crops were added, such as corn, sunflowers and peas. At the same time, he experimented with various combinations of plant species that could be used as cover-crops or companion-crops. These have included pearl millet and proso millet, sorghum-sudangrass, hairy vetch, buckwheat, radishes, turnips, ryegrass, canola, soybeans, sugarbeets, red clover, sweetclover, kale and more. To date, over 70 different plant species have been used in cover- and companion-crop combinations, with up to 20 species included in a given mixture.

“We’ve gone through a long period of trial and error. Now, some kind of cover-crop is planted either before or after a cash crop, or a companion-crop is plantedwith the cash-crop,” explains Gabe.

“This diversity provides the food that feeds soil life. Soil life, in turn, supplies the nutrients needed for the crops.”

Some combinations can serve multiple purposes, affording more management options. For example, Gabe frequently fall-seeds a mixture of triticale (wheat-rye hybrid) and hairy vetch which is a winter-annual legume. Options for its use include terminating the triticale and planting corn into the living hairy vetch, whose canopy protects the soil surface and slows moisture evaporation. It also fixes nitrogen in the soil, and thus feeds the corn. And after corn harvest, the cover crop remains as forage for livestock.

A viable alternative is to make the cover-crop a cash-crop by harvesting seed from a triticale-vetch stand. According to Gabe, the growing market for cover-crop seed has returned as much as $780 per acre. Another option is to graze the triticale-vetch. Gabe says the grass-legume mix makes good forage for cows, just prior to and during his late-spring calving season, but also works well for grazing yearlings.

In Gabe’s opinion, grazing by livestock is an important component of the soil-building process. He has learned that the process of taking each mouthful from a growing plant actually stimulates the release of plant root exudates into the soil. The tugging at the plant that occurs during grazing is part of the trigger mechanism, Gabe emphasizes, so mowing the forage won’t have the same effect. So the act of grazing, along with deposition of animal waste, recycles nutrients. Livestock grazing complements the diverse cropping strategy and has helped remedy symptoms of declining soil health, such as low organic matter content and slow water infiltration rate, as well as the growing crop pest and disease problems Gabe had experienced.

“Over time, we reduced and then eliminated the use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides,” he adds. “We still use a little pre-emergence herbicide, but we’re working toward elimination of that too.”

Crop yields remain respectable. For example, Brown Ranch dryland corn yields have exceeded 170 bushels per acre. His average is 127 bushels, and that is higher than the county average. In 2012, the cost of production was $1.44 per bushel of corn. That was the last year Brown planted corn as a cash crop, however, because other crops promised higher returns.

STRETCHING OUT THE GRAZING SEASON

The Brown Ranch has grown to include about 5,000 acres of deeded and leased land. Of that, some 3,000 acres is either native range or “tame” pastures. The latter consist of cool-season grasses to which interseeded legumes have been added. Permanent pasture acreage has been divided into over 100 paddocks. Pipeline-fed watering sites have been added to aid rotational grazing and reduce dependence on stock dams. All but about 300 acres of the crop-land is managed under crop rotations that allow for periodic grazing of fields. These additional grazing resources help provide for a longer grazing season, while allowing long periods of rest for permanent pastures. They also provide for increased livestock carrying capacity. The ranch now runs about 350 brood cows and from 300 to 800 yearlings.

On average, cows are moved daily to a different paddock or field. Groups of yearlings may be moved once a day or up to six times when managed under mob-grazing (very high stocking rate). Lower stocking rates are used when targeting rapid weight gain, but it also depends on the desired impact to the grazing resource. “We’ve learned that animal impact can be used to address most if not all invasive plant species problems on native range and pasture,” offers Gabe.

“Using high stock densities at the appropriate time can be a good tool for weed control.”

Maintaining a yearling enterprise allows for more efficient use of the ranch’s varied forage resources.

Yearling numbers can vary, according to year-to-year fluctuations in forage supply. During drought, for example, fewer yearlings are grazed. This leaves more forage available for the cow herd, whose numbers remain relatively constant.

Instead of March, calving now occurs in late-May and June, and calves aren’t weaned until the following March.

Later calving matches the period of the cows’ highest nutrient requirements (late-gestation through rebreeding) with the availability of grazed forages capable of meeting those requirements.

Calving occurs in a different place every year. Generally, cows calve on fields of triticale and hairy vetch, or on native range saved for that purpose, or on tame grass pastures which are expired CRP lands. During calving, rotations to new paddocks are made every two or
three days.

With emphasis on year-round grazing, winter feeding has been kept to a minimum. Hay is seldom fed in a traditional
sense, but bale-grazing is regular practice. Gabe says it has worked particularly well for newly weaned calves.

After fence-line weaning, behind a hotwire, calves are moved to a pasture or field where bales were placed the previous fall. Again using electric fence, the calves are allowed access to enough bales to last a week or so. Then the calves are moved to another set of bales, and another, until they are sorted by sex and put on pasture.

“We control access to bales, but we don’t mind if cattle don’t eat all of the hay. It isn’t wasted. Hay not eaten is residue that, along with the animal urine and manure, helps feed soil biology. Subsequent production on that ground is improved,” says Gabe.

“We bale-graze in places that need a jump-start for recycling nutrients, especially on hay-ground. We’ve seen dry matter production triple after a field is bale-grazed in winter, and both protein and energy levels of the next crop improved,” he adds. “We don’t bale-graze on the same ground in consecutive years and I don’t like to do it on native range, just on cool-season tame pastures and some crop-land.”

With the shift to holistic management, Brown Ranch returned to commercial cattle production, and genetic selection targets a biological type suited to the Brown Ranch’s environment and management. Most all of the bulls and replacement females are produced on the ranch. “We emphasize low maintenance and high levels of reproduction. Those are profit drivers,” states Gabe. “To a large degree, the cattle select themselves.”

Nearly all heifers have an opportunity to become replacements. Using natural service, heifers are exposed to a short breeding season – 30 to 35 days. Any that do not breed will go into the grass-fed program. A large portion of Brown Ranch cattle wind up wearing the ranch’s own grass-finished beef label, and the remainder are sold through channels targeting all-natural beef markets. Gabe says mature cows must also conceive within a short breeding season, and all open cows are sold in late spring, when profit potential is the highest. “Our home-raised cattle fit our system. Frame size is very moderate. They are thick and very easy-fleshing. The females calve on their own, and we lose far fewer calves than when we calved in late-winter,” says Gabe.

Gabe’s son, Paul, returned to the operation in 2010 and has embraced holistic management. As a plan for the gradual transition of ownership, Paul receives a steady five percent share of the operation each year. Gabe also challenged Paul to grow the operation by adding enterprises. For each added revenue stream, the younger Brown receives 100 percent of each new enterprise’s net profit. To date, he has introduced poultry, sheep and pastured hogs.

“The added livestock enterprises help better utilize our existing resources and also help with our goal of regenerating the land,” explains Paul.

“We direct-market products from all of them. By stacking enterprises, we’re increasing net profit per acre while regenerating our natural resources.” Increasingly called upon to share their story, both Browns warn other producers that their operation is not a prescription for success. It is the result of considering alternatives to conventional methods, trying and sometimes failing, and trying again. Both father and son believe their integrated management of crops and livestock does illustrate that focusing on regeneration of the land can be profitable, long-term.

“The best part is that it’s enjoyable, profitable and extremely low-stress,” grins Gabe. “I find a lot of joy in what we’re doing. We’re good financially, and I feel good about what we’re doing for the resource and where we’re headed.”

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