Cows and no-till didn't use to go together.
When no-till was in its infancy, most people figured cows would compact the soil, spread weeds and trample the residue making it hard to plant the next crop.
But now experienced no-tillers in the Dakotas are using cows take their systems to new levels.
Gabe Brown, Bismarck, N.D., turns cows out to graze no-till cornfields after they have been harvested. They also eat the forage produced by cover crops, which Brown plants to improve the soil and make use of moisture that falls after the grain crop is harvested.
The cows don't compact the soil, he says. Instead, the hoof action helps break up the residue by forcing it into the soil. The cows also add large amounts of manure to fields, which recycles nutrients.
When the cows aren't being used to graze no-till crop aftermath, they are put to work improving pastures.
Gene Goven, Turtle Lake, N.D., says he has seen a dramatic improvement in the soil health in his pastures since he began using a short-duration intense grazing system. He moves his stock cows through 10-acre pastures every few days in a system that mimics the concentrated grazing patterns of the American bison. Wolves kept bison in tight bunches and forced them to keep moving. Goven uses electric fences to concentrate his cows and force them to eat all the grass in front of them, not just the types they like best. After a few days, when the cows have eaten about half the leaf area, he moves them to the next paddock. He won't put cows back into a paddock for at least 80 days.
The result is significantly more grass; more types of grasses, grass with stronger, deeper roots; and a six-fold increase in the amount of water the soil will hold before it starts running off.
"We're capturing every drop of rain that falls," he says.
He says he's been able to increase stock rates 230% and has produced three times as many pounds of beef compared to his conventional system. Plus there is about a three-fold increase in wildlife.
Neil Dennis, Saskatchewan cattle producer, has a similar grazing system. He crowds as many as 800 yearlings in paddocks as small as a half acre. When they have clipped the grass, he moves them to another paddock.
In addition improving the grass, Dennis says the system has made his cows healthier. Flies have all but disappeared from his pastures.
"My dog food bill is more than my vet bill now," he says.
Trevor Atchison, a Manitoba stockman, extends intensive grazing to winter.
He plants warm season annuals – millet, corn, and sorghum – in fields where he plans to winter cattle. Before the first killing frost, he swaths these crops and leaves them in the field. In early winter, turns the cows into the field. He uses electric fencing to restrict cattle access to about two days of forage at a time. The cows dig through the snow to find the feed. When they have cleaned up the windrow forage, he moves the fence down the field to more windrows.
Swath grazing costs less than feeding hay when the yields are good. The cow manure fertilizes the field, improving the soil organic matter.
Swath grazing also requires less machinery and labor than baling or chopping the forage and feeding cows in a lot.
"The cows do the work," he says.