Get the Scoop on Using Your Poop

Phewy! Smell that? From an early age, we are often told the old phrase “That’s the smell of money!” Although this phrase is often used to indicate cattle profits, the manure in those pens also holds a wealth of resources that can help enrich and strengthen your soil. Once used routinely in integrated farming systems, manure plays a critical role in returning nutrients to the soil. With the shift from integrated livestock and row crop farms to separated specialized operations, the natural cycle of many nutrients has been disrupted. This separation of practices has led to an overabundance of manure in some areas and a lack of nutrients in others, causing a shift to synthetic fertilizer use. So, what does manure do to our soil?

Manure is an important source of raw or partly decomposed organic matter. The nutrients in manure can vary depending on the animal type, health, age, feed ration, bedding and water content. In addition, the various management practices associated with handling manure, manure storage, duration of storage, application amount, application technique and weather can all dramatically alter the nutrient content in manure and thus the amount of nutrients available in the soil and for future crop use. Understanding and applying the correct amount of manure to your fields can be accomplished by testing your manure prior to application. You would be surprised how much it can vary! The table below highlights the difference in nutrient levels found in beef cattle manure that we have processed at the lab in the past five years. Want to see how swine, poultry, dairy cattle, or compost fared? You can check it out here.

beef-manure1.jpg

First, let’s set the stage. Before manure ever touches the soil, soil fauna (e.g. ants, earthworms, arthropods etc.) and microbial populations (e.g. bacteria, fungi, viruses) naturally exist in your soil. These populations, or communities, are incredibly diverse and have varying community structures that reflect your soil quality, or “soil health”. The majority of the microbial populations exist within the top few inches of your soil, clustered around the root structures of plants, known as the rhizosphere. Soil microbial activity is responsible for the main decomposition of all litter inputs into the soil. Larger fauna in the soil are important for the preliminary break down of residue into small pieces, creating greater surface area for microbial activity. They also move fragments of litter throughout the soil structure, exposing the litter to larger microbial communities, which provides a natural incorporation without resorting to mechanical methods. When food is scarce (e.g. winter months when no living plant is present), microbes have the natural ability to enter a low energy requiring comatose-like state to preserve their nutrient supply until food is readily available again.

Initial introduction of manure is a feeding frenzy for soil microbes. Manure not only contains a large amount of macro and micro soil nutrients but also inoculates the soil with microorganisms excreted by livestock. The nutrients in manure, although processed by the host, require a suite of soil microbe activity to alter the chemical structure of nutrients to make them available for microbe and plant use. Much like hungry teenagers at a buffet, microbes attack the most easily accessible forms of food first: sugars, starches and other soluble nutrients. This initial process is often rapid. Once these resources have been used, the breakdown of more complex soil compounds begins and is a slower process like preparing a box of mac and cheese. It takes time and a little bit of effort. This process includes the breakdown of cellulose and hemicellulose, both found in plant tissues. Lastly, complex compounds, such as tannins and lignins (found predominantly in woody plant species) are broken down. This process occurs over a long period of time and with a lot of help. It’s almost like preparing a Thanksgiving feast. This process requires the specific activity of select microbes (e.g. White Rot) to breakdown these compounds.

Microbes are very similar to people in the way they act. Although the main end product of aerobic (or oxygen loving) microbial activity is to release carbon dioxide (CO2) and water, microbes require nutrients to support growth, maintenance and reproduction. Thus, microbes make a living by harvesting carbon and other nutrients from the soil organic matter. Microbes are responsible for converting many minerals from organic to inorganic forms (often referred to as “mineralization”) that are easy to take up for both the microbe and plants. For instance, microbes need N to meet many microbial needs (e.g. protein building). If there is an abundance of N in the organic matter, extra microbial processed N, in the form of ammonium-N (NH4+-N), is released into the soil environment. Due to the close proximity of microbial communities and plant roots, the released, easily available N is taken up by the plant. Increases in nutrient sources, such as the addition of manure, stimulates microbial growth and reproduction, resulting in a larger, more active microbial community. Larger populations lead to greater microbial turnover, in which the death of the microbe releases nutrients gathered during its lifetime and can now be utilized by plants.

In addition to the minerals microbes liberate for plant use, manure and microbes can also help build your soil structure. Increased presence of organic inputs promotes microbial activity and decomposition. During this process, polysaccharides are produced as a by-product and help bind macroaggregates together in the soil. Polysaccharides  are sticky, glue-like substances that form bridge-like structures between aggregates and are resistant to degradation in the soil. The accumulation of this activity creates a snowball effect in the soil. Stabilized aggregates create tunnels that increase soil porosity, soil water holding capacity, nutrient cycling and nutrient availability to microbial communities. In turn, these characteristics support an improved soil drainage system, a decrease in bulk density and compaction, and a decrease in soil crusting and erosion.

The rate at which decomposition occurs in the soil is dependent on the quality and composition of the manure, the microbial community structure, weather and time. This rate causes manure to act like a slow release fertilizer, ensuring all the nutrients are not lost during initial application or shortly after. A manure analysis report often provides a “First Year Availability” value to help you understand and apply the correct quantity of nutrients needed for your crop. These manure mineralization approximated values are calculated based on similar mineralization rates found in research for each manure type. If you like to apply manure in the fall but are concerned about potentially losing nutrients due to soil moisture and microbial activity, consider incorporating cover crops into your rotation to help cycle nutrients in the soil. As they breakdown in the winter and spring, they will release the nutrients consumed from your manure application while supporting a healthy, thriving soil microbial community.

Applying manure to your soil can be an efficient way of stimulating an active, healthy microbial community while providing nutrients to your crop. Manure quality is dependent on various factors that contribute to the dominate microbe community and nutrient forms. Be sure to properly analyze your manure before you apply to ensure you are getting the most out of your valuable resource. Understanding and properly applying manure could help save fertilizer costs in the future while boosting your soil microbial community resiliency and soil health. So go ahead and take a deep breath. That’s the smell of money.

Drought Planning: 4 Ways to Stockpile Forages

The state of Nebraska is in the center of the High Plains Region of the United States.  The states that make up this region are Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.  I checked the current drought monitor and found that southern Nebraska and southern Wyoming are abnormally dry, and Kansas, Colorado and the Dakotas are experiencing various levels of drought.  The current outlook through April is promising for the Dakotas, but dry for the rest of the region.  Precipitation from the Canadian border is predicted to remove the drought from North and South Dakota. The Dakotas are projected to experience a normal spring season.  As for the rest of the region, southern Nebraska, southern Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas, drought is likely to persist through April 1st.  Soil moisture levels on April 1st will have a great impact on the availability of forages throughout the region during the summer months. When planning for drought conditions, which are likely to result in decreased forage production, especially on dry pastures and rangeland, most producers’ strategy is to decrease animal numbers and stockpile forages.  Here are four ways to stockpile forages for livestock during drought conditions:

  1. Buy Hay

Buying hay is the first thing that usually comes to mind when people think of stockpiling forages.  During a drought, it is likely that local hay may be of lower quality, therefore it is important to test the protein and energy values (I reccomend a minimum of an NIR scan or the F-3 test at Ward Laboratories, Inc.) before feeding to ensure the forage will meet the animals’ nutritional needs. Hay nutrient values may change during transportation, so if hay is being shipped from another region be sure to test after receiving the lot and before balancing a ration to feed livestock.  Having extra stockpiles of hay for drought or emergency feeding is never a bad thing, however buying hay during a drought can be expensive due to less availability, higher demand, and transport costs.  Therefore, it would be beneficial to maintain supplies of hay during periods of plentiful forage conditions. In other words, it is most economical to buy hay in excess when it is low in demand and forages are in good supply and save some back as emergency or drought feed.  If you are located in Nebraska and are looking to buy hay check out the Nebraska State Hay Hotline.

  1. Graze Crop Residues

If your operation is located near farmland, consider working with your neighbors to allow your livestock to graze their crop residues.  Cattle can graze preferentially to take advantage of high protein, low fiber portions of the plants left standing in the field.  If you reside in southern Nebraska or Kansas, corn or wheat residues are good alternative forages especially when fed with energy supplements.  When grazing crop residues, be cautious and remember to test for nitrates before letting animals out onto the filed.  This option for stockpiling forages is cost effective, however labor intensive and may require cooperation with neighbors.  If you live in Nebraska check out the crop residue exchange to find farmers willing to let you take advantage of this great forage source.

  1. Graze Cover Crops

Adding cover crops to your own cropping rotation can be another great way to stockpile forages.  Cover crops allow you to extend the grazing season into the fall.  Preferential grazing increases the animals nutritional plane and therefore performance may also increase.  If you are lucky enough to get some moisture after grazing, cover crops may produce regrowth and animals may be able to graze those areas again.  There are also many benefits to adding cover crops into a cropping rotation for the soil. For more information on that read guest author, Emily Shafto’s Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle. Planting a diverse cover crop mixture can ensure that if one species in the mix fails others will thrive, diversity can prevent disaster. Cover crops are cost effective as a source of forage, especially in a drought.  They are however, more labor intensive and if they are high in nitrates, prussic acid or sulfur, they may detrimentally affect animal health and mortality.

  1. Rent Additional Grazing Lands

If you are not located in an area where cropping agriculture is prevalent, and you rely on rangelands to provide forage for the summer grazing months.  Renting additional grazing lands may not be very cost effective immediately, but in the long run it will take some of the pressure off the lands typically grazed and allow them to rest and rejuvenate to provide forage for the next grazing season.  Renting additional grazing lands may be a hit to the pocketbook during that drought season, but it will prevent over-grazing, which is a necessity when practicing good land stewardship.

 

Stockpiling forages, using one or more of the strategies above, can help prevent a disastrous drought situation.  Always monitor the precipitation and temperature conditions so that you can do your best planning for the future.  Always look for creative ways to fill gaps in feed availability.  A feed or NIR test from WARD Laboratories, INC can aid in decision making when it comes to feeding alternate forages. When buying hay, test nutritional values after shipment and before feeding for accurate results.  When grazing corn stalks, oat stubble or wheat stubble check for nitrates before letting animals out in the field.  And revisit my blog 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops to ensure you are feeding a safe forage when grazing cover crops.  For more information on drought planning visit the National Drought Mitigation Center.

season_drought

Integrated Systems Agriculture: 4 Benefits of Grazing Cover Crops to Beef Producers

Intensive, specialized crop production has several widely agreed upon downfalls.  These specialized systems tend to have stationary yields with expensive pesticide and herbicide inputs all while profitability is widely dependent on a global market over which we have little control.  Dependence on these practices  leads to higher resistance among  insects  and weeds, reliance on fertilizers due to nutrient depletion  in the soil,  soil erosion and contamination of waterways due to run off, and improper soil management practices. Soil scientists and agronomists agree that the addition of cover crops to a cropping rotation can improve soil quality and health through decreased erosion, increased microbial activity, increased carbon sequestration, more soil aggregates, and increased conservation of moisture in the soil, all due to a more extensive rooting system and ground residue protecting the soil for more months out of the year.  The addition of livestock, most commonly beef cattle, to this rotational cropping system decreases the need for herbicides and fertilizers, as they help deplete the weed seed bank and their manure contains many nutrients vital to plant nutrition and soil health. Guest author, Emily Shafto, covered the benefits to the soil extensively in her blog Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle.  Here are four benefits of grazing cover crops to cattle producers:

 

  1. Grazing cover crops extends the grazing season, leading to decreased costs of stored feeds.  Supplementation needs are also lessened due to the animal’s ability to preferentially graze to meet their nutritional needs. According to a study by Practical Farmers of Iowa, grazing cover crops can offset winter feed storage costs by up to $40,000. Of course, it is important to mention that labor costs increase, and grazing cover crops requires more intensive management of the land and cattle.  The cost may be offset by the reduced need to cut and bale excessive amounts of hay or corn silage. Feed should still be stored for emergency use, such as a failed cover crop or a stressed crop that has accumulated too much nitrate to graze.

 

  1. Grazing cover crops can improve cattle’s nutritional plane through preferential grazing.  Animals consuming a cover crop mix can choose plant parts such as leaves over stems which are higher in protein and non-fiber carbohydrates and lower in fiber.  Cattle can also choose less mature plants for the same nutritional reasons.  Therefore, by grazing a mix of annual crops, cattle can consume more protein and carbohydrates for performance than a balanced ration of roughages and grain supplements. Therefore, grazing cover crops can improve nutrition and eliminate the cost of ration balancing and mixing.

 

  1. By improving their nutritional plane, animal performance can increase when grazing cover crops.  Growing steers typically have increased feed intake when consuming cover crops as opposed to a mixed ration, which results in increased weight gains.  Heifers and cows on the higher plane of nutrition provided by cover crops can have increased reproductive performance.

 

  1. Grazing cover crops rotationally can have an added benefit of forage regrowth.  When animals graze a paddock for the first time, they open the top canopy and allow sunlight to reach shorter plants.  When the cattle are removed from that section, plant growth is stimulated and if allowed enough time, may recover sufficiently enough to allow the area to be grazed again.   Grazing regrowth is like bonus forage and can also contribute to decreased feed production and storage costs.

 

Integrating cropping systems with forage production and grazing benefits soil health, grazing livestock, and your pocketbook.  Grazing cover crops specifically benefits beef production by extending the grazing season, thereby saving on winter stored feed costs, improving the animals nutritional plane resulting in improved animal performance through increased intake and gains, and bonus regrowth can also be grazed, again saving on winter feed costs.  Don’t forget to take proper precautions before allowing cattle to graze cover crops. See my blog post: 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops. 

Feeding From The Waste Stream

 

The other day I received a phone call from a dairyman who said he was attempting to “Feed from the waste stream” and he sent in two samples.   The first sample was mixed juice pressings, which consisted of a random assortment of spinach, cucumbers, ginger, carrots, apples and more, and the second sample was citrus pulp, also leftovers from juice mainly consisting of orange peels.  He tested these samples for nutritional values.  Both samples had greater than 8% crude protein and both samples were very high in nitrogen free extract meaning they were high in soluble sugars and energy as well.  Showing that these organic human food wastes do have value nutritional value as an animal feed source.  The producer went on to comment on how much his cattle loved these feeds and how affordable these by-product feeds were to him, which lead me to do some more research into the phrase he used “feeding from the waste stream”.  What I found was, the EPA encourages feeding from the waste stream and this practice could be beneficial to food and livestock producers, consumers, and the environment.  There are also added value compounds in some organic wastes which could potentially improve animal health and production. However, there are laws regulating the practice of “feeding leftovers to livestock”.

The United States alone produces 160 billion pounds of food waste per year.  These wastes can range from the leftover juice pressings mentioned above to bakery wastes to expired grocery products.  Typically, this organic waste goes one of three places, a landfill, incineration, or compost.  These options especially, the landfill option, can have detrimental impacts on the environment, therefore the Environmental Protection Agency encourages the use of organic wastes in animal production.  Below is a diagram of the Food Recovery Hierarchy which shows feeding animals as priority after feeding hungry people.

FoodRecovery

Ward Laboratories has also tested samples from Northstar Recycling a company that works to help livestock producers and food packers to recycle organic waste. I will never forget the first sample they sent to us, it was tuna by-product. We received it on a Monday and I can tell you it smelled like it had been in the mail for 3 or 4 days by the time it got to our lab.  Since then, we have received many more pleasant-smelling samples including marshmallows, assorted candies, dough waste, peanut butter, cake and more. With feed being the most expensive cost of production in the livestock industry taking advantage of these cheap waste products could improve profit margins.  Additionally, the livestock industry is constantly battling the consumer perceptions that our animals are competing with humans for grain based feeds and meat is “bad for the environment”, therefore feeding from the waste stream could improve consumer perception of the industry.

Some of the organic waste products, specifically those from leftover fruits and vegetables have value added compounds.  For example, citrus peels have essential oils which have been shown to improve immunity and have a positive effect on production.  One essential oil of interest is D-limonene.  This essential oil has been shown to improve gut microflora balance by increasing beneficial microbial populations and decreasing detrimental microbial populations, and increase feed efficiency of beef cattle and gains in swine.  Another example of value added compounds present in organic wastes is polyphenolic compounds.  These compounds occur at a higher concentration in the seeds, roots, pits, and skins of fruits and vegetables than in the edible portions utilized in human food production. Polyphenols exhibit beneficial properties such as being anti-carcinogenic, anti-pathogenic, anti-oxidative, and immune modulatory. Therefore, in feeding livestock, a producer may see improvements in gut, respiratory, and cardiovascular health in their animals.

There are regulations for feeding food wastes to livestock and the rules that apply are different depending on the source of organic food waste and the species of animal to be fed.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was put in place to prevent food-borne illness from occurring at the processing stage of food production. The regulations in the FSMA apply to products from human food production, this would include things like bakery waste, or juice pressings.  The regulations that apply depend on the type of facilities producing and utilizing the food waste. The other two pieces of legislature for feeding food waste to livestock are the Federal Swine Health Protecting Act (SHPA) and the Ruminant Feed Ban Rule.  Put simply, the SHPA states that food scraps containing animal products must be heat treated to kill disease causing bacteria and prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease.  The Ruminant Feed Ban prohibits the feeding of mammalian proteins back to ruminants to prevent Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) also known as mad cow disease.  States may also have their own rules and regulations regarding feeding food by-products to livestock.

In conclusion, there is an abundance of organic food waste products.  Their utilization as livestock feed is good for the environment, profitable for the producer, and if we tell this story can improve consumer perceptions of our industries. Some of the fruit and vegetable waste products are not only nutritionally beneficial to animals but also contain compounds which can improve production value and animal health.  If a producer is interested in “feeding from the waste stream” they should do their research, test their feeds for nutritional values to ensure they are meeting animal nutrient requirements and be aware that it is a regulated practice. Below are some additional links for further reading on this topic.

Fruit and Vegetable Wastes as Livestock Feed

NORTHSTAR RECYCLING TRASH TALK BLOG

Leftovers for Livestock

 

 

4 Considerations of Water Quality for Beef Cattle

Typically, livestock water access and quality are considered during the summer months when heat stress is a concern.  I am choosing to address this topic during the cold winter months because as the temperature drops, below the thermal neutral zone animals consume more feed to increase metabolic heat production and water intake requirements increase with feed intake.  Water is often an overlooked nutrient during the winter months although access to quality water is important for maximum health and production.  Additionally, I have received a concerning inquiry regarding adding salt to water to keep it thawed during the winter months.  This could have deleterious effects on animal health. If a high salt water is provided with no alternate fresh water source, it could eventually lead to the animal’s death.  It is important to remember that water serves many functions in the mammalian body including making up 70% of the body’s mass, regulating temperature, growth, reproduction, lactation, digestion, metabolism, and many other functions we typically take for granted to function properly.  Therefore, access to quality water is important throughout all seasons, including the winter months.  Cattle can substitute snow if water availability is sparse but, access to quality water promotes maximum growth and reproductive performance.  Cattle are not particularly fond of cold water and therefore, while they can use snow in place of water, they prefer a heated water tank. Below are 4 items to examine when determining water quality:

  1. Total Dissolved Solubles (TDS).

This measures the minerals broken down within the water. Sodium chloride (NaCl), bicarbonate (HCO3­), sodium sulfate (Na2SO4), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) are some of the common solubles present in water.  Less than 1000 ppm TDS indicates safe water and will not cause any animal health concerns.  If the TDS is greater than 1000 ppm then further guidelines found in either the Ward Guide page 148  (http://wardlab.com/download/WardGuide.pdf) or Table 9-2 of Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle 8th revised edition page 156 should be referenced for Total Soluble Salts (TSS) guidelines

  1. Nitrate.

Health risks including abortion can occur in cattle drinking greater than 133 ppm NO3-N over long periods of time.  Nitrate poisoning and death can result from cattle consuming water greater than 221 ppm NO3-N.

  1. Sulfates.

High sulfate water can result in health risks from diarrhea to Polioencephalomalacia (PEM), a disruption in thiamin metabolism resulting in a neurological disorder.  It is recommended that calves are provided with water less than 500 ppm sulfate and mature beef cattle are provided with water less than 1000 ppm sulfate.

  1. Contaminants.

Other compounds can be found in water which are detrimental to cattle health. Below is listed common contaminants Ward Laboratories, Inc. tests for, but we are always happy to send samples out to other labs if you suspect another compound may be causing issues.  We commonly send out for selenium and lead.

Contaminant Toxic level (ppm)
Aluminum 0.5
Boron 5.0
Copper 1.0
Fluoride 2.0
Manganese 0.05
Zinc 5.0

 

In conclusion, it is important to provide quality water low in soluble salts, nitrates, sulfates and other contaminants to cattle in order to maximize production performance and ensure healthy animals.  Addition of salts to beef cattle water to keep it thawed during the winter months can increase the TDS thereby, having negative effects on cattle performance and health.  If you are struggling with keeping waterers thawed, remember cattle can substitute snow for water when necessary, and options such as heated tanks should be considered. If you are really struggling and need to get creative, put a salt water solution in water bottles and allow them to float at the top to prevent ice formation.

 

Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle

How many of us producers have a shovel in our pickup? When was the last time we used that shovel to thoroughly examine our soil?  Are we able to determine what a truly healthy soil looks like? Grab a shovel and take a look at your soil. Check out your soil profile. Does the shovel easily enter the ground? Is there a cottage cheese like structure? Is there a nice, deep rich brown color to your soil? Is the soil easily crumbled in your hand? All of these characteristics indicate a healthy soil. If you answered no to any of these questions, a look into your soil’s health may be just what you need.

Soil health has become a buzzword in agriculture. It is used as a way of understanding the impacts we have on the living soil ecosystem. The five principles of soil health are: cover the soil, minimize soil disturbance, create a diverse plant population, maintain continuous living roots and integrate livestock to complete the nutrient cycle and promote a healthy soil ecosystem. Highly disturbed soils with low organic matter, high weed pressure, poor soil structure and poor soil drainage are only a few symptoms of a “sick” soil. Continued interest in influences that impact soil biology, an important link to the physical and chemical characteristics of soils, have led to the reduction of tillage, fertilizer and pesticide use, thus reducing producers’ input costs.

Soil health also relates to the crops we choose to grow. When a plant is growing, it harvests energy from the sun and converts it into simple sugars for plant growth. As the nutrients begin to deplete around the root zone, the plant roots begin growing towards nutrients in the soil. The roots cannot grow quickly enough to harvest adequate nutrients for continued growth. They release simple sugar based compounds called root exudates that gather a microbial community that will help harvest nutrients from the soil. As microbial communities grow and expand, they release “super glues” in the soil that promote soil aggregation. Aggregation not only acts as a home for microbes but also creates channels that promote water infiltration and increases the soils’ ability to retain water.

Furthermore, root growth density, structure and depth are plant dependent, so care should be taken when deciding what to plant. Cover crops can be excellent nitrogen scavengers, soil builders, erosion preventers, weed suppressors and forage sources. As interest in cover crops continues, it is important to realize that although there are numerous benefits to keeping a living plant on your ground, each plant species can have harmful characteristics. Certain species may be better at suppressing undesirable weeds than others. Some species may become hosts to harmful pests. For example, cereal rye is a popular, fast growing cover that has the ability to reduce soil-borne diseases, nematodes and weeds, but it does not control weedy grasses and can increase cut worms and wire worms. Thus, rye would not be the most suitable cover to plant prior to grass crops such as corn, sweet corn, sorghum or wheat. Multispecies cover crops not only provide a variety of benefits, but helps fill gaps or mitigate the weaknesses of monoculture cover crops. Multispecies cover crops mimic nature, which uses a wide variety of plant species to maintain an effective system. Selecting the correct mix of cover crops for your production will take time, research and trial and error. A cover crop that is ideal for one producer may not be the best for another, so it is important to select cover crops that grow well in your area and meet you own soil health goals.

Producer oriented conferences, such as the Western Canada Soil Health and Grazing Conference we recently attended, can aid producers in forming a plan of action for their soils as well as start a conversation with local producers as to what management practices have worked well for them. While at the conference, producers and researchers alike shared principle ideas about incorporating cattle and cover crops into a cropping system. This approach has created healthier soils and a more cost-effective feed source for livestock. So, what happens to the soil when cattle graze?

Cover crops can provide a mixed culture forage for cattle to gain key macronutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats. In exchange for the plant’s nutrients, manure and urine left behind provide a source of new microbes and new organic matter for plants and existing microbes. Addition of new microbes often signals to prevailing microbes that a new source of nutrients is available for consumption and use. This process feeds the continued growth of plants and completes the nutrient cycle.

But it doesn’t end there. An animal feeding on the plant also impacts its root growth. When cattle feed on plants, they trigger a survival response in plants that requires the plant to decide which roots best support the continued survival of the plant. The other roots are abandoned, but still serve as a home and food source for the microbial community. As the abandoned roots degrade, the tunnels left by the roots increases the soil’s water infiltration rate and improves the soil for macrofauna such as earthworms and arthropods. As the plant recovers, roots will resume growing normally and further improve soil structure.

The use of cattle and cover crops in agriculture operations provide the link to completing the nutrient cycle in the soil. The strong root systems of multispecies cover crop mixes provide numerous benefits to soil microbial communities and positively influence soil structure. These mixes can provide nutrients to cattle who in turn return nutrients to the soil. Successful implementation of management practices by well-known regenerative farmers such as Gabe Brown and David Brandt are excellent examples of soil health practices but should not be viewed as the silver bullet to healthier soils. Instead, their principles and view of soil management in a holistic manner can provide helpful guidelines to producers interested in improving their soil. Soils, like people, differ greatly and will require different strategies to strengthen them. So, grab your shovel. Get down. Get dirty. And get to know your soil.

What to Do with Down Corn?

Here in Nebraska, down corn has been an issue for cattle producers who want to graze corn stalks.  Due to a late harvest and weather patterns creating high winds, many corn fields have ears of corn just lying on the ground.  Cattle are selective grazers and will pick the high energy, high starch grain over the high fiber, low energy corn stalks if given the chance to be turned out onto those fields.  This can cause issues such as acidosis, bloat and eventually death among cattle.  The available starch in corn grain is rapidly fermented by rumen microbes, this can result in acidosis where the pH of the rumen decreases rapidly damaging the epithelial lining of the rumen.  If cattle are dealing with bouts of acidosis after eating they will likely go off feed for a short period, but then they will go right back out and consume the high grain diet that made them sick in the first place, thus resulting in another bout of acidosis.   The readily available energy in the corn grain can also result in a feedlot type frothy bloat.  If untreated and not taken off the high grain diet the cow will continue to eat and eventually death will occur.

Due to those risks in down corn fields, different management is necessary to graze those fields.  Unfortunately, varied management also means more labor-intensive strategies.  For example, the first step is to determine about how much corn is down in your field.  For this I would reference UNL extension Mary Drewnoski’s calculator and article regarding down corn https://beef.unl.edu/down-corn-problem-or-opportunity-cattle-producers.  After determining how much corn grain is available in the field, you can utilize a feedlot type / mob grazing strategy where you utilize electric fencing to reduce the amount of corn grain they consume daily and provide extra roughage in addition to the cornstalks already available.  In this way you can gradually allow them to have more access to the field and provide less roughage to acclimate the rumen microbes to the high starch diet without the pitfalls and production losses of associated acidosis and bloat.

Another strategy some producers have looked toward is to rake and bale the cornstalks corn grain and all to mix into a total mixed ration (TMR).  One issue that this strategy might run into is the ash content of the baled corn stalks may be high and may cause an impaction.   Ash is defined as the total mineral content of a feed and has two sources.  Endogenous ash is from the plant and is bioavailable providing micronutrients to the animal. Exogenous ash is from soil contamination of the feed.  This soil is not available as micronutrients and usually just passes through the animal’s digestive tract.  The problem with soil contaminated feeds is that the soil could cause a compaction within the omasum, abomasum or beginning of the small intestine.  An impaction would not allow other nutrients to pass through and could cause cattle to go off feed if it is serious enough.  Not enough research has been done in this area to determine how much ash or soil contamination would result in an impaction.  The more likely issue however would be a decrease in performance due to the dry matter intake the ash is taking up.  Roughages and forages generally range between 8-10% ash with 4-6% being endogenous.  Extremely soil contaminated roughages could contain as much as 18% ash.  Because cattle typically consume 2% of their body weight in dry matter, consumption of a soil contaminated feed can result in a considerable amount of the ash as dry matter intake with no nutritional value. Thereby, resulting in decreased performance for the animal.  Therefore, it would be my recommendation when raking and baling down corn for a TMR to test the ash content and if it is high, mix with feeds that have a low ash content to minimize impaction risk and performance losses. It is also important to remember to test the nutritional value of the baled corn stalks before mixing them into the TMR as it has more energy value than typical cornstalks due to the high grain content and should be treated as such. In addition, soil contamination of any feed can introduce mold spores heightening animal health risks and decreasing production performance. Therefore, it would be my recommendation when raking and baling down corn for a TMR to test the ash content and if it is high, mix with feeds that have a low ash content to minimize impaction risk and performance losses.