ATHLONE, VA — People throughout the Mid-Atlantic remember about the winter of 2009-2010 for the abundance of snow that was visited upon the region. Most places received three to four times their average annual amount of snowfall. Once it fell the snow remained, with some localities reporting the longest period of consecutive snow cover since the early 1960s.
Mike Phillips remembers the winter for other reasons: that was when he was inspired to try grazing cattle on a multi-species cover crop.
As part of his efforts to improve the soil quality of his farm here in northeastern Rockingham County, he had planted a mix of grasses, legumes, and Brassica following a summer annual crop.
Phillips was already practicing managed grazing, using strip grazing of stockpiled fescue to extend his grazing season. That winter, he checked on a group of cattle in one field and found them clearing away snow to get at the stockpiled grass.
In the field with the multi-species cover crop, Phillips saw deer were pawing through the snow to get to the cover crop.
“I thought, ‘If deer can do it, cattle can do it too,’” Phillips said.
This winter Phillips grazed cattle on 15 acres of cover crops, a 13-species mix which includes sunflower, turnip, radish and rape for winter grazing. There is also forage wheat, crimson clover, vetch and Austrian field pea which will be available for spring grazing. He planted the mix following summer production of Sorghum-sudangrass.
As he does with his grasses, Phillips strip grazed the cover crop. He also located the cover crop fields adjacent to pastures with stockpiled fescue — that way he can let his cattle have access to both types of forage simultaneously. What’s more, when the soil is too wet — as it often has been this year — and Phillips doesn’t want to let the cattle into the cover crop ground, he can keep them on the sod pasture.
“It’s easy,” he said, “you just don’t open a gate.”
Phillips keeps a cow-calf herd and two poultry houses, and also works as a Soil Conservation Technician for the NRCS out of the Harrisonburg office. His herd currently has 86 cows, but he’s in the process of slightly reducing its size, to enable him to practice year-round grazing.
The ultimate goal for Phillips is to raise quality beef and maximize financial return. To his mind, he can best achieve that by first focusing on getting the soil quality on his farm “very, very good.”
Though this is the first year Phillips grazed the cover crop mix, he has been using a multi-species mix for several years as a way to improve soil quality.
Each year he grows about six acres of corn to use to background his calves. He takes corn off late, following it with a mixture of spring oats and a legume (like Austrian winter peas) which he will graze or harvest in the spring. Then he plants a summer annual (again for grazing or harvesting) like Sorghum-sudangrass and follows it with the multi-species cover crop.
Phillips has used anywhere from five to eight to 13 different species in his cover crop mix.
Why so much variety? To mimic the diversity — albeit with a different assortment of species — that would have been there naturally.
Having that diversity, Phillips feels, is key to maximizing soil health.
“My feeling,” he said, “is we’ve got critters in the ground — including bacteria and bugs we don’t even know about yet — we need to feed.” He doesn’t know which cover crop species will be best for soil health, which is why he’s experimenting with different combinations and a variety of species.
For producers who aren’t interested in experimenting with so many species, Phillips suggests using a least one grass, one legume and one Brassica in their cover crop. If possible, he suggests using three Brassicas — a turnip, a radish and a rape. Even with three Brassicas, he said, you will only need to seed a total of three to four pounds of Brassica seed per acre.
Phillips thinks that in time it will be possible to raise corn in the two-year rotation detailed above with “very little chemical and no fertilizer.”
He points to the experience of North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, who has been able to vastly reduce his use of herbicides and fertilizers, as proof that such a system is possible.
In such a system, yields will be lower than in conventional production, but due to the lower input costs, Phillips is convinced, profitability be will just as high.
Ultimately, Phillips is shooting for year-round grazing (with room remaining for hay production as insurance in case of drought).
The grazing cycle he envisions for his farm is as follows: small grains in the early spring, cool-season grasses including Matua grass, fescue, and orchard grass, summer annuals, back to the cool season grasses, then to stockpiled fescue and the cover crop which was put in following the summer annuals. He is also establishing alfalfa to put in the mix as well, and has some switch grass established and more soon to be planted.
With this system, Phillips expects to have at least a three-to-one ration of cool-season grasses to summer annuals. The grasses are predominant because they are not only grazed during their active growing periods in the spring and fall but are also stockpiled for winter grazing.
Despite his interest in year-round grazing, Phillips still likes to grow a little bit of corn to feed his calves.
“I want them to know what grains are all about,” he said. That way, he can sell them to be corn finished.
To get to year-round grazing, Phillips is planning to reduce his cow herd. He has just over 200 grazable acres. He figures he needs three acres per cow-calf pair, so will probably scale back to about 70 cows.
Year-round grazing, Phillips said, is only attainable by taking the approach he does to soil quality.
“The soils are what makes it sustainable,” he said.
Even though he wants to be able to graze year-round, Phillips said he will “always have a back-up system for hay,” a nod to the regular occurrence of drought in the Valley.
The diversity Phillips wants to achieve on his farm extends beyond soil life — he also encourages wildlife through a number of means. In his cover crop field, for example, he left a 10 ft. wide swath of the mix ungrazed as habitat for pollinators and wildlife.
Phillips has been testing cover crops for 20 years. For farmers just considering how to use cover crops to improve their soil health, he says, “Take a section and try it for a few years. Don’t start with your whole farm, but stick with it. You’re not going to see changes overnight.”
Phillips plans to keep testing ways to build soil health and expand his grazing capacity. This spring he will be trying ways to improve his pastures by overseeding multiple species into existing sod.
Phillips was a full-time farmer before he took employment with the government just over a decade ago. He says the work he is doing on the farm he would do whether or not he worked for the NRCS.
The reason he went to work for first the soil and water district and then the NRCS was, he said, “to help future generations stay on the farm and be profitable.”
That’s the same reason he has put so much effort in experimenting with soil quality on his farm, he said.
“You’ve got to take one step at a time,” he said. “I started with small steps.”
Those steps have taking him to grazing a multi-species cover crop. “It’s not going to be for everybody,” he said, “but it will catch on.”