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It took Jerry Doan several years and a lot of trials, but the North Dakota beef producer has learned how to replace hay with cover crops for winter feed. It was time well spent. Doan said he's reducing annual feed costs by as much as $50,000.
Those big savings are great, but the benefits don't end there. Doan said he's seen improved health in the cattle herd, which he attributes to the animals not being confined to a small area.
The greatest improvement he's seen, however, is in soil health. Doan has cut both phosphorus and nitrogen inputs by 25% for some of his row crops that follow covers. He usually grows corn, soybeans, wheat and sunflowers, as well as all his hay (about 1,000 tons per year).
The hay is a mix of alfalfa and native grasses. In this area, cool-season native grasses may include canarygrass, June grass, needlegrass, wheatgrass and wild rye. Warm-season natives include bluestem, buffalograss, cordgrass, grama, Indian grass, sandreed and switchgrass.
HAY PRODUCTION DOWN
"I'm not a cover crop expert," Doan said. "But spending all summer in a hayfield drove me crazy as a kid. It didn't make sense to bale hay, haul it in, process it, use a machine to feed it and then haul manure back to the field. That might have worked when fuel was $1 a gallon. Now, it quickly pushes cattlemen to the break-even point."
Doan put up about 4,000 tons of hay each year before he started using covers for grazing. He's now cut hay production by at least 75%.
Part of Doan's motivation for improving Black Leg Ranch stemmed from his children wanting to return after college. They mark the fifth generation that will work the ranch. Ancestors homesteaded it in 1882. A history of the ranch notes it is now 10,000 acres of privately owned land and one of the oldest working cattle operations in the country.
"It was exciting to learn that our daughter and three sons wanted to be part of the operation, but it's challenging to make it all work," Doan said. "Between me, my wife, Renae, sons Jeremy, Jay and Jayce, we raise crops, maintain a cow/calf operation, custom-graze yearlings and operate a wildlife guiding, hunting, and agritourism operation. Our daughter Shanda and her husband, Don, live off the ranch, helping when they can."
It's been at least 12 years since Doan started exploring cover crops for grazing. Several years after completing the holistic management course created by research biologist and Zimbabwean farmer Allan Savory, Doan began modifying his grazing strategy.
"Intensive-grazing principles helped me change my winter-feeding process. I also now look at my ranch as a whole without isolating the beef production," Doan said. "In the past, I was trained to look at one problem in our operation and find a solution. I've learned that what I do in one segment of the ranch impacts everything. In solving a problem, I need to look at the operation as a whole."
The first two or three years Doan planted cover crops, he ended up with lots of weeds and not much else. Still, he knew high input costs threatened his operation's sustainability. So he continued to search for a program that would work.
"We have a lot of marginal soil," Doan said. "We have to think about the long-term impact of our practices. High input costs make it difficult to stay competitive in the protein market."
COVER CROP GOALS