Quality pastures provide increased productivity
“An increasing trend in America is to raise grass-fed, grass-finished or organic livestock,” says Kevin Schilthuis of Fort Causeway, a company that focuses on pasture renovation. “There is also a focus on the ethical treatment of animals and environmentally-responsible farming. An animal on grass or forage accomplishes all of that.”
Turf-based systems, offers Schilthuis, provide many benefits, especially in light of new regulatory requirements seen across the country.
“Turf-based systems help to control our costs,” says Schilthuis. “Too often, we are plowing under rangelands and pasture – both flood irrigated and dryland. We plow to increase aeration and yield and spray to control weeds, but many of us never learned we can renovate these pastures at far lower costs with more long-term benefits.”
At the same time, Schilthuis notes that with the Environmental Protection Agency dictating new regulations ranging from water quality in streams and rivers to the quality of runoff from fields, turf-based systems provide cleaner runoff, reducing total maximum daily loads and offering options to sell our water quality rights to corporations downstream.
To accomplish those goals, Schilthuis comments that pasture renovation becomes a multi-faceted process to match producer’s goals with their budgets and individual land considerations.
Much of the recently propagated soil tilth, health and cover cropping talk across the country leaves the western alkaline soil desert producer without tools or information to make good decisions.
But many of the principles are the same, even in our harsh climate where organic matter is in short supply.
“A large reason we don’t get the quality of forage we desire is because of tilth,” Schilthuis says. “Tilth is the percentage of air, water and soil. The ideal tilth is 50 percent soil, 50 percent water and air.”
In flood irrigating or grazing, soils become compacted. Often, farmers and ranchers utilize a moldboard plow to increase the air, water and soil ratios.
“We have to increase tilth,” he says. “There is no use seeding into a concrete parking lot. We run into the problem in Wyoming that we are too compacted to use no-till. Then we moldboard plow, resulting in more wind and water erosion, and it is hard to irrigate, as well.”
Pasture renovation, as detailed in Natural Resources Conservation Service code 548 “Mechanical Treatment of Grazing Lands,” incorporates mechanical sub-soiling to allow root growth with minimal surface disturbance.
“Any time we disturb the surface of the ground, we are actually germinating weed seed,” Schilthuis adds. “Reducing noxious weeds is high on our list of priorities.”
At Fort Causeway, Schilthuis notes that they utilize specialized aeration equipment to break compaction and re-corrugate lands to allow consistent water flow in the rangelands and flood irrigated farmlands across the state.
“As we break compaction, we allow water to move downward through the soil profiles,” he comments. “Moving water is the key to reducing sodicity, alkalinity and salinity.”
“Renovating and reinvigorating those root systems is a no-brainer, as it allows pasture owners to utilize their resources better,” Schilthuis says.
“There are a few of us lucky enough to be stewards of land in Wyoming, and many of us wish to have forage-based systems with low heavy equipment usage and chemical inputs,” says Schilthuis. “It appears that some routine maintenance tillage of our pastures and hay ground is an option to evaluate, or our productivity will deteriorate.”
Utilizing a good mix of legumes allows pastures will pull nitrogen from the air and feed the grasses in pastures, he explains.
“It is our thinking that one can purchase chemical nitrogen fertilizer or legume seed to do much of the same thing,” he says.
Fort Causeway aspires to provide producers with those fresh options for their pastures, increasing yields and stocking rates.
“We have found that applying fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides just leaves us with empty jugs and empty wallets,” Schilthuis says. “We’d rather cut all the forage – even weeds – before it goes to seed and put it in a bale, if necessary, instead of having dead spots from chemicals.”
“Revitalizing the soil is an investment worth making,” Schilthuis comments. “Minimum residue mechanical pasture tillage and no-till seeding is a scratch we feel worth leaving on the earth.”