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Norfolk revisited

Chad Hale for Progressive Forage Published on 27 December 2018
Grazing cattle

For the November issue, I wrote an article about the Norfolk Four Course: Turnips and clovers in revolution and how it helped increase agricultural production and made possible the first sustained population growth in England.

I received some very welcome feedback on the article from many readers. A common theme among the feedback was that I neglected one very important aspect of how the Norfolk Four Course changed agriculture. While the article focused on introduction of new crops, there was another important introduction that took place – the introduction of livestock onto the cropland. This is an extremely important point, and I’m thankful to you readers for pointing it out.

In the days of communal agriculture, there was rotated cropland and there was permanent pasture, where the livestock stayed for years. Naturally, most of the nutrients from the livestock stayed in the pasture. Some manure was hauled to the crop fields from barns, but there wasn’t enough to go around.

Plow sick

Even back then, they noticed a problem with annual cropping of the ground for too long. Not knowing any particulars, they just said the ground was plow sick. They noticed crop performance stagnated at best, but until the Norfolk Four Course came along, they didn’t have a means to address it. The new system introduced new crops, which helped soil health, but there was another benefit.

The Norfolk Four Course rotated livestock over all the cropland in a matter of a few years. Instead of manure being hauled to limited amounts of land each year, livestock (and their manure) was brought to the entire farm in time. You might be thinking a manure application every few years isn’t enough to matter, but not all nutrients from a manure application are available the first year.

So one application can have an impact on crops in the following years as well. In addition, manure adds organic matter and microbial life to the soil and both have long-lasting positive effects. In general, it seems the residual effect lasts longer in areas with lower precipitation.

Reintroducing livestock

Fast-forward a few hundred years to today. A few years ago, I attended my first National No-Tillage conference. The attendees were crop farmers, most of which did not have livestock on their operations. I heard several presenters at the conference say that one thing they need to figure out for the long term is to find a way to bring livestock back to their land.

In a way, the breadbasket of America has become a bit like the crop ground in a medieval crop plan … livestock are completely removed from the rotation. It is easy to say that livestock aren’t critical anymore because we can just go to the co-op and buy the fertility we need. We can be more precise and apply only the nutrients we need. So why are these very progressive crop farmers interested in manure?

The reason is the “magic” of manure. Farmers have noticed improved crops after applying manure that cannot be explained simply by the nutrients applied. Studies generally find about a 5 percent additional benefit to applying manure compared to equivalent nutrients from commercial fertilizer. We are still learning about all the details, but it seems manure helps stimulate soil biology and is, of course, full of microorganisms itself.

Today’s farmer is not looking to replace commercial fertilizer with manure, but rather trying to find the right balance of each.

Why am I writing all of this in a forage magazine? There is a substantial and rapidly growing opportunity for custom grazing on crop farms. Many crop farms divested of livestock a generation ago and have focused on crops. Those producers may not want to rebuild all the infrastructure and invest the time required to add a livestock enterprise.

A good way for them to reap the benefits of livestock and their manure is to have a custom grazier come in and graze crop residues or cover crops. The arrangements vary with the needs of the grazier and the landowner. The grazier may pay a little bit to the landowner or the landowner may simply give access to the land if the grazier does all the work. If you live in an area with large amounts of cropland, a custom grazing opportunity may be just a phone call away.

Rather than worry about your animals getting into the neighbor’s field, imagine what it would be like if they were welcomed.  end mark

PHOTO: We may have strayed too far down the crop production path and forgotten the benefits of grazing crop residue with livestock; custom grazing may fill the gap. Staff photo.

Chad Hale
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