Many crop producers in the Panhandle utilize conservation tillage when planting into winter fallow weeds or cover crops. UF/IFAS research data over the years show that cover crops can help prevent erosion and conserve moisture, but may not always increase yields. However, data from the last 20 years of a long-term cotton/peanut rotation show that if winter cover crops are grazed, fields that have often had breakeven yields can be converted into some of the top yielding fields while using less N, K as well other nutrients. In addition, research has proven that 40-70% less irrigation is needed depending on the year, following winter grazing, due to enhanced (almost double) rooting of cotton and other crops in experiment station trials. In fact, in most cases the grazed non-irrigated fields had equal or higher yields than irrigated fields without cattle.
In 2019, many areas of the Florida Panhandle had 70+ days without rain between early August and mid-October. Nothing but irrigation or rain can help crops in a case this extreme. However, the doubled root system following grazing allows you to go about twice as long without irrigation. This practice is beginning to be recognized by many of our crop producers across the Florida Panhandle with cattle producers teaming up with row croppers to make this a mutually beneficial enterprise. We have emphasized to growers to start with their worst fields; and for years, every grower that has tried it has come back with positive stories.
When trying this in a non-irrigated portion of a field, we have seen it take 3-4 weeks for the crop seed to germinate, due to dry soils. On the other hand the crop in the irrigated portion may be 6-8 inches tall if the cattle were removed in mid-April. That will probably make you wonder if you made a mistake. However, be assured that right after the first rain it will germinate, and after the first month, the grazed portion will be a similar height and eventually end up being more robust. So, be patient with the cattle/row crop systems, and know that winter grazing cattle have brought about big improvements in soil health, and it will translate to big benefits to the ensuing crop.
The benefits of the integrated row crop-livestock system is also being recognized by conservation agencies such as USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) who are helping growers get started on these practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds and other conservation programs. Yields can be increased by a minimum of 150 lbs/A of lint, and up to 400lbs/A of raw cotton when planted after winter grazing. We have not seen this kind of yield increase with cover crops alone; even with high residue cover crops, and/or strip tillage. Grazing takes most of the cover crop out, but results in higher yields with lower input costs. This gives farmers an incentive to plant cover crops, which they would otherwise avoid, because of the expense and lack of return in yield in many cases. Likewise, calf gains have been 50-100 lbs per head higher following row crops,as these fields are usually higher in fertility than typical pastures.
I have heard many testimonials about ways cattle and row crop producers are working together to make the system profitable for both parties, while contributing to soil health and other environmental services. At times of low prices for both crops and livestock, it is advisable to take a closer look at the least productive fields and practices on your farm and try something new to increase productivity. Try an integrated cropping/grazing system in those fields. You don’t even have to own or manage the cattle, if you can find make an agreement with a local rancher. Try it, and you will like the results!