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Sustainability

Victor R. Shelton Published on 12 September 2011
Franzen said, “If biological diversity is declining, if topsoil is eroding, if water resources are being depleted or an increase of inputs challenges solvency, the system is not sustainable.” This is as true today as it was 50 years ago, perhaps more so.


Today, high commodity prices and cash rent for any ground that you can hang a combine on without too much risk of it flipping over, competes relentlessly with land for pasture.

These high prices for grain and cash rent make it challenging for some producers and land owners to keep “good” ground in forages.

Time has taught us that protecting the resources, especially soil, can make or break us, the land and the nation.

In an old publication written by W.C. Lowdermilk, Conquest of the Land through Seven Thousand Years, he wrote, “Records of mankind’s struggles through the ages to find a lasting adjustment to the land are found written across the landscapes as ‘westward the course of empire took its way.’

Failures are more numerous than successes, as told by ruins and wrecks of works along this amazing trail.

From these failures and successes we may learn much of profit and benefit to this young nation of the United States as it occupies a new and bountiful continent and begins to set up house for 1,000 or 10,000 years – yea, for a boundless future.”

An article in the Cattle Range Weekly talked about the continuing drop in cow numbers and the “cause.” These reasons are extremely interesting from a view of low-input producers.

“High feed costs, the result of competition from the federally subsidized ethanol industry, have caused many producers to liquidate or downsize herds.

Higher feed, fuel and fertilizer costs could affect or exceed the increased income, leaving only producers with low-input operations realizing higher profits.”I think this is true, but it is more complicated than that.

One factor that it does not take into consideration is that the average age of the cow/calf producer is close to retirement age and the current high cash rent land prices and high cull cow and breeding stock prices set them up for a good opportunity to step out in good grace, especially those with no one in the next generation wanting to work livestock.

If these operations were grazing forages and managing their operations in tune with forage availability (calving time), commodity prices would have little effect on their profitability.

Each landowner/producer will have to decide whether it is feasible or not to maintain land in pasture or forages or to even maintain livestock on their farm, but I hope to at least keep them thinking.

Traditionally, most land was rotated in a row crop, small grain and forage rotation. That rotation was not only good for the soil, but also vital for the farm because almost all farms, again traditionally, had livestock to feed.

Our Amish neighbors still do a good job in maintaining such rotations and thus are able to maintain organic matter and fertility with lower input costs, often with more tillage than the norm.

Some land, especially with thin soil and steep slopes, is certainly better off in forages than row crops, and if you get steep enough and thin enough, is probably better off with trees, especially if still present.

Even pasture or hay land can have erosion problems if not well managed. Thin forage stands, multiple hay cuttings, overgrazing and poor choices for overwintering can promote erosion because of increased runoff, lack of adequate coverage or root base.

Though the appearance of high commodity prices looks very appealing right now, rising input costs have to be factored into the equation.

The more inputs required at any particular situation, the more you need to think about feasibility. Some of those inputs are sometimes hard to realize.

Perennial forages consistently have lower inputs and, with the right management, can be extremely sustainable and profitable.

The fewer the inputs, the more control you have of the whole system and of your livelihood. With many enterprises, you have very little control over input costs and prices paid for your products.

Having some control over either costs or prices is always a step in the right direction.

You can’t get any system much more stable financially and environmentally than a well-managed forage field with a good grass and legume combination, especially one where you can return a high percentage of your nutrients right back where they started and grow more forage, instead of playing the mining and replacement game.

Present commodity prices are incredible right now. My forefathers paid for ground with $1.50 bushel corn … so $6.25-plus bushel corn sounds very exciting. With those prices come higher cash rent, higher operating costs and more risk.

I’ll admit that I’m not as up to date with present cropping economics as I used to be, so I’ll refer to a recent Purdue University document.

If we look at a corn/soybean rotation on average productivity ground (161 bu corn) with $4.80 corn, you will gross net $386 per acre; then add government payment, subtract overhead costs, labor, drying/handling and land cost, it shows about a $93 per acre net.

Now, this is probably extremely debatable and there are numerous variables that could be different on any specific operation, so we are kind of comparing apples and oranges instead of apples and apples.

The same thing can be said a cow/calf operation; there are many possible variables.

We will assume for this case a well-managed forage-based cow/calf system with moderate-framed 1200-pound cows with little inputs except 60 to 90 days of hay supply, mineral, some vet expenditures and depreciation on the cows and grazing infrastructure.

In the first instance we will assume annual per-cow costs at $190 and a two-acre-per-cow basis. If we harvest a 600-pound calf off this cow and sell it in the fall for $1 per pound, we have a $110 per acre net profit or $200 per acre if sold for more present prices of $1.30 per pound.

If you have good fertility and higher management, you could figure on a lower acreage, which would increase your return on a per-acre basis.

Several operations function quite well on a year-round basis closer to a one-acre-per-cow basis or less in a few cases, doubling the net per acre. This is something to certainly think about before ripping out fences.

There is, of course, something very satisfying or even enjoyable about walking out to check the cows in a field of nice green forage, bringing back memories of running barefoot through the grass, dodging fresh deposits.

Enjoying solo the tranquil noise of forages being torn off by a tongue in sequence with the next cow and the quick alignment and order they assume when they see you walking towards the next gate.

I end with two excellent inspirations, the first being from Loudermilk. When invited to broadcast a talk on soil conservation in Jerusalem in June 1939, Loudermilk challenged them with the possibility of an “Eleventh Commandment” as follows:

“Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation.

Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion; thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever.

If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth.”

And then one of Kit Pharo’s fabulous quotes, “Agriculture that is not profitable and enjoyable will never be sustainable.”  FG

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

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Victor R. Shelton
Grazing Specialist
USDA – NRCS

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