Cattle help organic operation save its soil

Steve McElroy introduced cattle by buying heifers and introducing them to small parts of his farm. Photo: Supplied

By Heather Smith Thomas

Steve McElroy started his farm in Hillsdale, Michigan, in 1989 as a conventional crop operation. He became a certified organic grower about 12 years later.

He grew organic grains and row crops for 15 years.

“Our soil is short of organic matter and wasn’t in good condition to go organic,” he says.

Steve McElroy, seen here with his daughter, Melanie, says the positive results of cattle’s impact on his land are becoming more obvious. Photo: Supplied

“It was becoming more expensive to fertilize. When we began, we could buy chicken manure and organic types of fertilizer fairly cheap but it became more expensive as more people started using it,” he explains.

Costs went up and the soil did not improve.

“We realized the negative impact conventional farming was having on our soil, our family and our ecosystem. Organic, no-till crop farming stopped the immediate problem of poisoning our soil with harmful chemicals that killed natural grasses and soil life, but we realized it was doing very little to restore and regenerate the ecosystem,” says McElroy.

Tillage and cultivating were taking it in the wrong direction.

“Stephen VanDeusen, my partner with cattle, had been reading about the positive impact they can have.”

We wanted a regenerative system that would get better every year, using cattle to improve the soil without having to buy fertilizer. – Steve McElroy

VanDeusen, a neighbour, started working for McElroy as a teenager.

“He had some background with cattle in 4-H and when he started working for me, he mentioned the benefits of cattle. Together we purchased our first cattle — eight heifers — and started grazing them in small areas on the farm. We read about how to do this, with advice from Gregg Judy, and watched a lot of his videos, and began regenerating our farm, using cattle,” says McElroy.

“We wanted a regenerative system that would get better every year, using cattle to improve the soil without having to buy fertilizer. Being organic helped because we had no herbicides in the soil. During the last decade, we transitioned away from crops, and now focus on farming the soil, using a small herd of cattle that has grown over time.”

The farm now has more than 350 acres of pasture.

“Over a period of three years, we stopped grain production — reducing grain acreage by one-third each year. We stopped planting grain on those acres and just let things grow whatever seed was already there or came in naturally. It looked horrible; the neighbours thought we were crazy because the first things that came in were woody weeds.”

Weeds are the first plants that come into bare ground, as nature’s bandage to keep the soil covered.

“The cattle ate those weeds, however, and we had lots of acres to move them all around the farm. We didn’t have enough cattle to make much impact, however, so we purchased 28 cows and a bull, then 20 more heifers the next couple years, to get enough of a herd. You need enough hoofs on the soil to do some good; having just a few doesn’t help much,” he explains.

“We rotated them around and they did well and got fat. It’s been nine years now and we kept increasing the herd by keeping heifer calves and now have 300 head. We run them all together as one group (for impact on the land) and the bull is with them all the time. We calve year round,” says McElroy.

Having just one herd makes it easier.

“One year we moved to new pasture every few hours, but we now move two to three times a day. The 300 head are usually in a paddock of 10 to 15 acres.”

The positive results of the cattle impact are becoming more obvious.

McElroy puts up hay and feeds the cattle in winter.

“We unroll bales in a pasture and don’t move the cattle as much. They might be in a 50 to 100-acre pasture that includes woods for shelter and windbreaks, and just unroll hay bales to feed them. We usually pick a 100-acre area for the whole winter, and this creates a bigger impact on the land having cattle there that long, and the hay.”

Bales are unrolled in a pasture during the winter and cattle aren’t moved as much. Photo: Supplied

This creates a lot of manure and hay litter, which helps feed the soil, he says.

“There is enough room that we can keep moving to a cleaner area to unroll the bales. The hay also provides more seed for the pasture. In regions south of us, there’s a lot more grass seed in the soil. Our area was originally wooded, without much grass, but now we’re getting a lot of grass and not sure where it is all coming from.”

The grass is not very dense, but steadily increasing.

“We’re running 300 cattle on 400 acres and can’t keep up with it in the spring; we don’t have enough animals to eat it all. A local college is doing some studies and this year they will get some counts on the microbes in the soil. We are opposed to tillage because we realize it breaks up the soil and disrupts/destroys the environment under the ground.”

More microbes mean more food for the plants and more plants in general. It’s a slow process and takes time.

We haven’t begun to reach the limit of how many animals we could have on this place. – Steve McElroy

“It’s also a challenge financially because you are not producing very much per acre. But at the same time, you’ve cut expenses and are not spending money for seed, fertilizer or machinery for farming.

“We haven’t begun to reach the limit of how many animals we could have on this place. We don’t buy more cattle; we just continue to keep heifers, and we process and market the male cattle.

“We have a retail beef business and a website and deliver beef to our customers. This helps because we get a retail price for the meat. Our soil was so degraded we couldn’t run very many cattle at first and needed the extra income per animal,” he says.

Since this soil is still in the process of improving, the best way seems to let it improve gradually and support whatever plants can come in and thrive, he says.

“If we were to plant a pasture mix with 12 or 15 species of plants, which a lot of people do today, it would be expensive and the soil would only support the species it is ready for. Most would die out; we’d end up with just a few species left after five years,” says McElroy.

“Letting the land heal itself, plants come as the soil is ready and the microbes in the soil are ready to feed them. Every year, the weeds change, then grasses start coming in. You start out with woody weeds that simply cover the bare ground, and conditions slowly change to where more types of plants can survive.”

McElroy says the soil is still in the process of improving, so the best way to do that is to let it improve gradually and support whatever plants can come in and thrive.
Photo: Supplied

When they come, it’s because they were already there in the seedbank, just waiting for the right conditions, he says.

“A gentleman from South Africa, Ian Mitchell-Innes, came to our farm to see what we are doing. He gave us really good advice that changed our thinking toward the right direction. He’d had a lot of experience doing what we are doing, having cattle all in one herd, moving them around the pastures to get maximum impact to get the right plants to grow.”

Diversity in the plants and soil is key.

Monoculture crops are not the best for land or cattle. We want a system that regenerates the land more every year. – Steve McElroy

“Cattle will eat what they need to eat, for proper nutrition and health, but you need the right plants out there or they can’t make those selections. This is why diversity is important. The cows eat different plants at different times during summer,” he says.

“Monoculture crops are not the best for land or cattle. We want a system that regenerates the land more every year. Every place is different. I never tell anyone how to do something or say they should do what we are doing. I just tell them what I do on my farm. It might not work for someone else; they have to adapt it to their own pace.”

He says their land is now better at retaining moisture and is reducing runoff into local streams, which permits the soil to better handle drought conditions.

“During our transition to grazing, we never planted any seeds in our pastures. Instead, the cycle of rotationally eating and stomping waste on what few plants we had was enough to activate seeds that had been dormant for many years.

“Each of our fields has a different diverse plant life, and by rotating our herd, and baling hay to unroll in the winter, these seeds spread; our plant communities grow more diverse every year.”

This article was originally published at The Western Producer.