Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

Integrating Sod and Livestock Grazing into Row-Crop Farming

SARE Outreach
2020 | 310 pages

About 50 percent of the row-crop farms in Alabama and about 25–30 percent of row-crop farms in Florida and Georgia have livestock [33]. This is an opportunity for sod-based rotations. Livestock provide many advantages to row-crop farming. They are an inexpensive method for harvesting low-value crops or forage and turning them into meat or milk products. If grain does not meet market standards, it can be used in a livestock ration. If grain prices are low, it may be more profitable to feed grain to livestock. Note the flexibility the sod-based system provides to maximize profits and reduce risk.

Land not suitable for crop production can still generate income if a perennial grass is planted and grazed. Weeds and briars are controlled to some extent with grazing, and nutrients are recycled so less commercial fertilizer is needed. Ground-nesting birds, small mammals and deer are found in well-managed pastures. Perennial grasses also provide feed and habitat for wild turkey and rabbits [3, 12].

Integrating livestock into row-crop production has synergistic effects. Livestock can graze efficiently on winter small grains planted after row crops. Winter small grains do not compete with summer cash crops and are grown at a time when there is seldom drought and pest pressure is low. Livestock are the most cost-effective method to harvest forage [3]. In most cases, soil remains covered during the winter and a profit is made from the livestock. Livestock manure increases soil organic matter content [20]. Manure and urine also raise the soil pH and accelerate the decomposition of organic matter that releases nutrients [9, 10].

A sod-based rotation may make the most sense for dryland production. Farmers without irrigation often say that about 20 percent of their cropland is marginal or breakeven, but they continue to farm it each year since it is part of the fields being cropped. The marginal areas have often been cropped for 10, 20, or 30 years or longer. They are the areas that get “extra” fertilizer if it is left over after field application. Even after added fertilizer, these areas seldom produce a profit due to pest, fertility or other problems. Put these areas into continuous sod for two years or more before planting cash crops and they will likely produce much higher yields with less pest pressure.

A diversified farm with sod, livestock grazing, row crops and winter cover crops provides a buffer against losses due to unpredictable weather, such as droughts and hurricanes. An example is the impact of Hurricane Ivan on cotton in Florida, Alabama and Georgia (2004). The hurricane occurred during the boll-opening period and many farmers lost a large part of their crop. A farm with a sod-based rotation would have had only half the acres planted in cotton and peanuts, and the income from livestock grazing would not have been affected.

Weather is the key variable in determining yield each year, and a sod-based rotation is an effective risk-management strategy for limiting weather’s impact. Row crops grown in the Southeast need adequate soil water for establishment in May, good rainfall in July and August to produce the crop, and dry weather in late September and October for harvest. Most years have periods of drought or excessive rains that affect row-crop yields. If part of the farm is in bahiagrass or another deep-rooted perennial grass, the grass would survive hurricanes handily and would survive droughts without much effect. Livestock do well anytime that good quality grass is present. Livestock and perennial grass also reduce economic risks by reducing yearly variations in returns [26, 38].

Farming becomes a year-round occupation when sod and livestock grazing are added to row-crop rotations. With winter grazing, all fields are utilized for the entire year instead of for 125–155 days during the summer growing period. Farmers must start slowly with livestock if they do not have experience. Fencing will have to be installed. Likewise, cattle producers may find it difficult to terminate bahiagrass after only two seasons of grazing. However, the system mitigates risk and increases profits for both row-crop and livestock farmers. Integrating livestock into row-crop enterprises can be challenging since it does increase labor requirements. The transition is easiest for established livestock producers and more difficult for pure row-crop farmers who will benefit from learning from their livestock-owning neighbors.

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