Cows need forage, forage drives communities

sweet and red clover Tom Frantzen found out that sweet clover is a major soil improving crop for rejuvenating land. Photo (sweet and red clover mix): File/Laura Rance

Ron Lyseng
OrganicBiz staff

When the cows leave the farm, so do jobs, businesses, abattoirs and kids, says Iowa farmer Tom Frantzen.

Whole families pack up and eventually the communities themselves leave.

Frantzen, a pioneer in organic farming since the 1990s and a leading spokesperson for biodiversity in agriculture, said when an area loses its cattle, it becomes dominated by hog barns and bins full of corn with nothing on the land but corn and soybeans. There are no pastures or forages, and biodiversity disappears.

In our operation, cows run the farm. – Tom Frantzen

“You need forages in your crop rotation in any kind of farming system, organic or conventional. When you have farms that are all hogs and binned corn, there’s no spot in the rotation for forages,” Frantzen told the Prairie Organics Conference in Winnipeg recently.

“Hogs won’t digest forages very well, except maybe a very small amount in the sow herd. The cow is significantly different than the hog. In our operation, cows run the farm. We transitioned the farm into organic in the mid-1990s. We started by purchasing a beef herd. The beef herd became the central component in our five-year business plan.”

Cows forced him into a crop rotation that produced hay and pasture — and that’s what he wanted.

“In other words, we envisioned where we were going with this organic farming system at least five years in advance,” he said.

“You need a place in your rotation to put those forages. I call that the brutal truth. Forages drive the ecological motion of the farm.”

Frantzen talked about what he had learned over the years from his friend Dick Thompson, who never became a certified organic grower but was one of the early pioneers in alternative farming systems.

The system Thompson began developing in 1985 became known as “regenerative agriculture.”

He worked closely with researchers at Iowa State University and recorded hard data showing a benefit of $147 per acre more than conventional fields in the same county. He published his research results every year with the books sometimes going as high as 200 pages.

“Dick wrote about the big picture. He wrote about what he observed over his lifetime. Spiritual, cultural, biological, social, water quality, sustainability, farm labour, death of rural communities, rural economy,” Frantzen said.

“Dick said that when the cows leave, it all changes. People leave, the kids leave. It’s no fun to read it, but it’s true.”

For example, Frantzen bought a problem field that he termed “abused ground.” It had been in corn and beans for a long time. The owners had performed excessive fall tillage, so it was badly eroded.

“I thought I would rebuild that ground by putting it in pasture for five years and hauling on manure. I worked for 15 years to bring that land back to life. I tried everything. After all the work with that ground, I failed. It was as bad after 15 years as it was when I bought it. I completely failed. It couldn’t grow good alfalfa. It couldn’t even grow good weeds.

“Finally I went in with sweet clover and it was amazing. Sweet clover reacted with that soil. The sweet clover was the first crop I had put on that land in 15 years that actually was successful. It was so tall it was over my head. But why did sweet clover work when nothing else did?

“We probably got 20 tons per acre biomass. We integrated that into the soil and followed with a clover cover crop. It was a very dramatic turnaround.”

Frantzen said he started reading about sweet clover and found out it is the number one ranked crop in the world for rejuvenating land. It’s a major soil improving crop. He said it has superior characteristics to any other plant when it comes to soil restoration.