For Soil Health, Extra Reps in the Offseason Can Pay Off

Brennan Hafner

When I was playing basketball growing up, my dad would wake up early with me during the offseason to do unconventional “farm workouts”— think Rocky 5. He would have me flip old tractor tires, swing a sledge hammer, and carry buckets full of corn. He would always stress to me the importance of the offseason as an essential time for rest and building up muscle. The more work put in during the offseason, the more successful a season.

My dad understood athletes don’t rack up points by just playing during the season. The same is true for the fields that grow our food. As a farmer, my dad, Jeff Hafner, owner of Early Morning Harvest in central Iowa, stresses the same importance of the offseason for his fields. When winter hits, it’s an essential time to prepare his fields to rack up yields during the major harvest season.

Just as my dad experimented with unconventional workouts, he experiments with different ways to build up his soil health during the winter and increase his bottom line.

Last year, he grazed his cattle on a field planted with winter cover crops. This past fall, he harvested the highest yield counts he’d ever had from that field. This winter, he is trying the offseason regimen again.

He planted a cover crop seed mix with buckwheat, field peas, tillage radish, turnips, sudangrass, sunn hemp, and crimson clover that grew with volunteer wheat from the field on Aug. 2 - Aug. 4. When he let his cattle on the field, the crops were knee high.

Because he farms organically, he can’t use chemicals to get rid of the residue that would be left over at the start of planting season. To combat this, he specifically selects cover crops the frost will kill and then grazes his cattle on the field. The cattle will still eat the frosted forage (like the turnip with a huge bite out of it in the picture above), and anything left over breaks down easier for next year’s organic crop.

 The below chart compares feeding his 75-head herd for 50 days in a lot during the winter versus having them graze winter cover crops for those 50 days.

Feeding in a lot

Grazing cover crops

Cover crop seed

$0

$11,246 ($80.33/acre)

Bales

$8,000 (100 bales at $80/bale – feeding 2 bales per day)

$0

Silage

$3,000 (150,000lbs at $0.02/lb. – feeding 3,000lbs per day)

$0

Total for 50 days

$11,000

$11,246

Total per head per day (75 head herd)

$2.93

$3.00

According to his quick calculations, for a 75-head herd over 50 days, my dad was only spending $0.07 more per head per day. He said he is happy with that result because there are several factors he didn’t include in his calculations that would shoot the financial and long-term benefits of grazing his cows on winter cover crops way above feeding in a lot, including:

  • time and fuel that would have been spent bringing hay and silage to the cows every day
  • the seed mix he used was more expensive than he would normally use because he was experimenting (a mix that didn’t include radishes, turnips, and hemp seed would be less expensive)
  • the overall health of his cattle
  • the fuel and time saved not having to haul as much manure out to the field before planting (Cow waste returns 80 percent of the good stuff back to the soil)

If he had left his fields bare for the winter and fed his cattle in a lot, my dad would have missed out on not only immediate financial benefits, but also a long-term soil health building opportunity.

My dad said grazing cattle on winter cover crops helps build soil health that will benefit his farm and bottom line long-term. The cover crops he planted take up nutrients and help store them for next year’s crop while holding the soil in place to reduce runoff. Overtime, this “offseason” practice will help build soil health that will result in higher yields in future harvest seasons.

My dad’s offseason regime demonstrates the kind of soil-building practices we at American Farmland Trust find so important, recognizing the soil beneath farmers’ feet as the foundation of their success.

We also recognize one barrier to wider use of soil health practices that improve water, save soil, protect climate, and often increase profit has been limited quantitative data proving their benefits.

My dad’s calculations showed his experiment to build his soil health paid off economically; however, without prior data to refer to, it can be tough to prioritize soil health when impact on bottom line is not certain.

To give farmers and landowners the quantitative evidence they need to confidently make better conservation decisions, AFT launched the Conservation Innovation Grant funded project “Accelerating Soil Health Adoption by Quantifying Economic and Environmental Outcomes & Overcoming Barriers on Rented Land.”

AFT is working in six watersheds across five states (California, Illinois, Ohio, New York, and Virginia) to quantify the benefits experienced by 24 farmers who have already implemented soil health practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, nutrient management, crop rotation, and more.

In July, we will release economic case studies that include soil health, water quality, and greenhouse gas outcomes experienced by the successful soil health farmers. The case studies will be used to encourage other farmers and non-operating landowners to implement environmentally sound farming practices more quickly and in greater numbers.

The more farmers implementing environmentally sound farming practices, during the offseason and every season, the more farmland we can save by the inch as well as by the acre.