Converting marginal cropland to perennials strengthens soil and profitability

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When Casey and Lacey Coulter took over the family ranch near Brusett, Montana in 2010, they followed the production patterns that had sustained it for decades. “I didn’t want to rock the boat; I just wanted to do what they managed to do,” says Casey Coulter.

That’s why the couple first grew wheat. But red flags warned that high production costs and yield slowdowns were undermining profitability. In 2011, they experimented with planting a mix of downy wheatgrass and alfalfa on some of the most marginal land.

“Forage growth has been phenomenal,” says Coulter.

This led to more changes. Over time, the ranch’s 1,500 acres of cropland was converted to mixed-species grasses and legumes. Given the extra forage, they doubled the grazing herd and reduced winter feed costs by extending the grazing season. Profitability has returned. The quality of life for the Coulters and their three children has improved. Soil organic matter is also better.

From annual crops to perennials

Poor soil health has played a role in increasing input costs. Although the Coulters switched to no-till to conserve soil before converting to grass, erosion from decades of tillage had already lowered soil organic matter levels to 1% and 2% , requiring increasing fertilizer applications to maintain yields.

The need to build up the soil was one of the reasons the Coulters considered switching from annual crops to perennials. They were emboldened by their early success with a conversion from crops to grass in 2011. Their experience grazing cover crops also factored into the decision, which suggested that a large-scale switch to grazing perennials could be more profitable than growing cereals.

“We had a contract with the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program that provided us with cost sharing to grow cover crops throughout the season in the fallow year of our wheat/fallow rotation,” says Coulter. “The contract allowed us to graze cover crops in late summer. We discovered that we could make more money grazing cover crops than growing wheat. We decided that if we converted all the land to perennials, we could reduce many machinery costs and expenses for inputs and labor. »

In the years that followed, the Coulters converted cropland to a wide range of perennials by a variety of seeding methods at various times of the year.

“We planted perennials every month except December, January, and February,” says Coulter. “The best forage response we’ve had was seeding a field after a weed crop in April. We burned the weeds with herbicide and planted perennials right behind the spray operation. The forage took off and overpowered the later weed growth.

They have successfully sown grass mixtures with a hoe seeder in wheat stubble or chemical fallow. But they had their best success with a John Deere 1590 no-till drill.

Perennial species in plantations include legumes as well as cultivated grasses in some fields and native grasses in others. Grass species grown include meadow bromegrass, orchardgrass, timothy, downy wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass and tall fescue. The cost of seed for the cultivated grass mixtures was $45 per acre.

Native grass species include western wheatgrass, bluestem, green needle, sandberg’s bluegrass, and blue-cropped wheatgrass, as well as native herbaceous plants such as prairie coneflower and native flax. The cost of seed for native grass mixtures was $60 per acre.




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USDA NRCS

The transition from crops to perennials allowed Casey and Lacey Coulter (holding Garrett and Poppy) to double their grazing herd.

Alfalfa, Sainfoin in the Mix

While the Coulters want grasses to be the dominant species in the fields, all plantings include alfalfa. “We planted a lot of alfalfa at half a pound per acre, but if we planted more, I would reduce the seeding rate to a quarter pound per acre,” says Coulter. “When we got a good grip at the higher seeding rate, it looked like we planted the field with solid alfalfa.” Planting alfalfa at a reduced rate gives the grasses a better chance to compete.

The Coulters also included sainfoin in some plantings. Sainfoin is a non-bloat legume that can be used for both haymaking and grazing. It is suited to the Coulters average annual rainfall of just 15 inches. They also discovered that it will grow alongside alfalfa.

“It’s not as durable as alfalfa, but the cattle really like it,” says Coulter. “As it is a short-lived perennial, we delay grazing it every two years until it has set seed. It tends to reseed itself afterwards.

Over the years, the diversity of species in the plantations has increased. “We learned that the more species we have in the mixes, the better off we are,” he says. “Our goal is to graze 365 days of the year, and we try to set a feed budget for winter grazing that allows us to do that if the ground isn’t frozen or the snow doesn’t fall. doesn’t get too deep.

“By having a diverse mix of plants of different heights, we can fill every layer of the plant canopy,” he says. “We try to build as large a solar panel as possible with plants, which creates a lot of food availability during the growing and dormant seasons. Since we stopped haymaking in 2016, we now graze all our meadows, including the old hay meadows. We decided we were removing too much carbon from the system through haymaking. We now buy the hay we need when the weather prevents grazing.

Pasture models

Coulters graze new perennial plantings at the end of a full growing season. “If we plant in April, we’ll be grazing a newly seeded field after the first killing frost,” says Coulter. “With a plantation sown in the fall, we will wait to graze until next fall. After that, we treat plantations like any other pasture.

Weeds grew with grasses and legumes in the first growing season, but forage perennials will outgrow weeds in later growing seasons, says Coulter.

Plantations of tame grasses produced more forage per acre than plantations of native species, and the Coulters will stock these fields at a higher density than fields of native species. However, they found that tame grass plantations are less palatable than native species when left ungrazed during the summer to provide fodder for winter grazing. “Tamed herbs become woody and unpalatable when left to mature,” says Coulter. “We try to graze tame plantings at least once at the start of the growing season so that the regrowth will be more palatable during the dormant season.”

The pair also found that tame species are more vulnerable to grasshopper damage than native species.

They received cost-sharing for seeds, fencing, and water features through an Environmental Quality Incentive Program grant from Natural Resource Conservation Services and wildlife organizations.

Converting all of their cropland to perennials allowed the Coulters to double their pasture herd. “Before, we were raising 250 cow-calf pairs,” he says. “Now we are able to breed 300 pairs in addition to grazing 300 to 500 yearlings.” They buy feeder cattle in years when they have enough forage for the extra yearlings.

Beyond doubling grazing capacity, switching to perennials has improved soil health. “One of our fields tested for 2.3% organic matter in 2011,” says Coulter. “After sowing it to tame grasses and legumes, it had grown to 3.7% organic matter by 2017.” Recognizing the Coulters’ work in improving soil health, the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts named them Soil Health Champions.

Altogether, the benefits of converting from crops to grass have given the Coulters a life aligned with their goals.

“We operate on the three Ps – people, planet and profit,” says Coulter. “We want to be stewards of what has been billed to us. We want a profitable business and a good quality of life for the land and for the people who live and work on it. All of these things have happened since we converted our cropland to grassland.

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