INTEGRATING LIVESTOCK IN A NO-TILL CROPPING SYSTEM
Gabe and Shelly Brown’s Gelbvieh Ranch is a purebred cow/calf operation located adjacent to I-94 in central North Dakota, two miles east of Bismarck. Gabe, Shelly, and their children, Kelly and Paul, have an open-minded philosophy, a willingness to try innovative practices and a dedication to being good land stewards. These qualities have earned the Browns the respect of their fellow cattlemen.
After purchasing the ranch, Gabe and Shelly decided their first priority would be to improve soil health. Gabe is adamant that a successful ranch starts with healthy soils. He has practiced zero-till farming since 1994 and is a strong advocate, crediting zero-till for improving soil health, thus increasing yields while enabling him to decrease inputs. This, along with increased organic matter and litter on the soil surface, improves soil health, water infiltration and utilization for a positive impact on the environment. Wildlife species have increased, both in diversity and population, since Gabe began the zero-till cropping system.
The Browns have worked hard to develop a planned grazing system that has both increased the bottom line of the ranch and paid great dividends to the environment. Gabe says it is a labor of love though; it gives his family great satisfaction to know that they are having a positive impact on the environment.
The Browns have increased their total number of pastures from the original three to thirty-eight. This level of management has allowed the Browns to maximize pasture recovery time. The native rangeland has flourished – desirable grasses and forbs are abundant. Gabe and son, Paul, are careful to graze a pasture less than 20 days total in a year. Many pastures are grazed less than 14 days in a year, some are grazed once a year, some twice, while others are as short as three days, some as long as 20. It is totally dependent on the growth of the forage in the pastures. Careful monitoring is critical. They also rotate the time of year each pasture is grazed.
Marginal cropland was seeded back to tame grasses in 1993. Although the stand was good, production did not flourish due to low nutrient cycling, specifically the availability of nitrogen. Soil tests showed less than four pounds per acre. Gabe and Shelly searched for information regarding what varieties of legumes could be interseeded into this tame grass.
The tame grass/legume pastures on the Brown Ranch are unique to this region and many tours of this system are given each year. The Browns truly enjoy sharing their experiences with others.
Recently, the Browns added to their tame grass system by purchasing 120 acres that was previously in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). They added a well, installed a shallow pipeline, water tanks, and built perimeter and cross fences to make six tame grass pastures from this 120 acres of former cropland. Although the opportunity existed to re-enroll this land into CRP, Gabe is confident he can make a higher return on investment by grazing the land. Gabe feels proper grazing management will stimulate forage production and have a positive impact on soil health and wildlife. He looks forward to collecting data on this tract.
Livestock are used as a tool to manage the cropping systems and increase soil health. The rotation evolves around crop diversity which includes legumes, forages, companion crops, and cover crops. Ground litter is constant; as crops are removed, a companion crop or cover crop takes its place; thereby extending the growing season. Maintaining adequate ground litter is becoming more challenging as soil health improves. The livestock increase the cropping system profitability by managing the residue in the fall.
Wildlife diversity and population numbers have also increased dramatically with the grazing system and zero-till cropping system. The Browns carefully consider and include wildlife in all of their management practices. The Browns take great pride in the fact that although they are located only two miles from the city limits of Bismarck, wildlife is not only abundant, it flourishes. Today, ringneck pheasant, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, Canada geese, many different species of ducks, a wide array of songbirds as well as several species of raptors make their home on the ranch. Whitetail deer abound and it is not uncommon to see over 20 of them any given day on just the home section. Many other smaller mammals such as mink, weasel, raccoons, coyotes, and fox abound as well.
By practicing the philosophy of using livestock as a tool to improve natural resources, the Browns are insuring the continued viability of the operation for themselves, their children, and future generations.
Planned Grazing System (Natives and tame legume system)
Shelterbelts and Windbreaks
Tanks, Wells, Pipelines, and Ponds
Quote from Gabe Brown, producer:
“Cattle have a positive impact on the environment. We have an open door policy to show people this. To date, we’ve had visitors from 41 states and 14 foreign countries through various tours and workshops.”