January 30, 2022 at 5:52 p.m.
A method to protect, preserve the soil
“At first, I couldn’t find any worms in my soils,” Cotter said. “Then, I did less tillage, and I found some worms. I stopped using chemicals, and I found more worms. I added livestock, and I found more worms. … Now, I can take my grandson fishing, an opportunity I missed for my son.”
Cotter and his family care for 50 cow-calf pairs in Mower County near Austin, Minnesota. He also runs 1,050 acres of land, most of which are grazed as either pasture or cover crops.
He spoke of his farming practices during a virtual presentation, “Bringing cows, covers and reduced tillage into your organic world,” Jan. 7 at the virtual Minnesota Organic Conference.
Within any given year, Cotter has established cover crops on his soils and a plan for grazing the forages. From April to May, his livestock graze the crops planted in the fall, which may include cereal ryegrass, winter triticale and oat. Then, from June through August, the cattle are on pasture, followed by grazing conventional canning crops and small grain fields until January.
This time of year, the herd is fed round bales.
“I graze every acre and stress the importance of getting a double income, or as some might see it, saving expenses on your assets,” said Cotter, mentioning at one point he was saving more than $28,000 in feed costs by grazing cover crops. “And, when I first started integrating livestock, my soil health exploded.”
Prior to the late 1990s, Cotter and his family practiced conventional farming methods. Then in 1998, they planted their first cover crop.
“I was 25 years old at the time, and I thought my dad was trying to make me work more,” Cotter said. “We cover cropped with rapeseed, and we had the best corn that year.”
By 2010, Cotter began strip tilling and implementing other practices to maximize soil health. Six years later, the farm was recognized by the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.
“I wasn’t looking to get certified. I was just doing good things,” Cotter said. “When you focus on soil health, everything else works together.”
Cotter considers good soil health to be land that has visible root structure, plant and insect diversity, and is capable of water and nutrient retention.
“I use all of my senses to know how my soil is really doing,” Cotter said. “I can see good structure. I can smell good soil health like a good cup of coffee. I can hear my soil health. It rips like Velcro if it’s healthy and holding on.”
As Cotter transitioned from conventional to organic farming methods, reducing chemical applications and tillage, the most prominent change to Cotter’s management has been the introduction of a diverse group of cover crops.
The farmer’s fields have been blanketed with ryegrass, red clover, turnip, kale and buckwheat, as well as rapeseed, vetch, cabbage, radish and cowpea; each cover crop is chosen to achieve a certain objective.
“When I’m planting cover crops, I like to be flexible and take what Mother Nature gives me,” Cotter said. “I adapt to the conditions, the environment and the times.”
During this time of year, Cotter begins to plan for the upcoming planting seasons, taking into account his previous decisions and outlook for the farm.
“When I was first conventional, it was like I was a little kid playing checkers and making similar motions,” Cotter said. “Now, I’ve gotten into organic, no tilling, regenerative farming and I’m playing chess. My plan is about three years out.”
In the springtime, Cotter often scouts the stands and will seed in more cover crops if weeds are developing. During the summer months, Cotter will place orders for cover crop seeds to be used after harvest and take the time to attend field days and gain further knowledge of the practice. At this time, he will also interseed the corn fields with an assortment of cover crops.
For soybean fields, Cotter typically interseeds with cover crops around Sept. 12. He uses oat, winter rye or winter triticale. At harvest time, Cotter’s soil is protected, and about three weeks following harvest the fields are ready for grazing.
“Trust yourself and your preparation,” Cotter said. “If I was ever doubting myself, I stopped and thought about what my dad would think. When we first started with cover crops, we weren’t organic, but it helped me get to the organic world.”
Adding livestock on top of those cover crops has only benefited the Cotters.
The cattle provide nutrients to the soils and bring in more microbes to the environment. They also help aerate the soil as they graze throughout the fields.
“For 45 years, we had 500 head of feeder cattle in lots,” Cotter said. “I was even planting cover crops for 10 years before we started grazing them. Get the livestock out there. … It’s all about recycling nutrients and making it available to the plants. Now, I’m inviting organisms in and feeding the soil as much as possible.”
Cotter’s experience in cover cropping, reduced tillage and grazing livestock to improve his soil health has proved to be beneficial.
“There are multiple methods of using forage to combat weather fluctuations, forage prices, feed shortages and creating two income revenues per acre,” Cotter said. “The best recipe for a healthier herd is diversity and healthier soils.”
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