Jim Wulf likes to feed cattle, but he’s also a man who spends a lot of time thinking about soil and its capability to grow plants. It’s that undeniable dependency between soils, plants, and cattle that drives Wulf to learn and experiment every year. The result: A western Minnesota farm, blessed with natural springs, that cranks out high-quality forage in the same way it cranks out high-quality water.Wulf and his wife, Twyla, bought their current farm about seven years ago and tabbed it Clear Springs Cattle Company. He formerly had worked on a large cattle operation near Morris, Minn., with his brothers.
“We have a lot of rocks and rolling hills, but this is good cattle land,” said Wulf, who owns 1,100 acres and leases nearly that much more. About 400 acres of the farm are tillable and it is on these acres that corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay are produced. A center pivot provides water for 170 acres of the cropland. But make no mistake, everything done on this operation is planned and executed for the benefit of Wulf’s 350 Simmental and Sim-Angus mother cows along with the associated seedstock, all of which are genomic tested.
Three years, five crops
Wulf has always had an interest in annual forages or what many call cover crops. “I remember 20 years ago planting turnips following wheat on a limited basis,” he said. These days, there’s nothing limited to the way he fits them into his crop rotation and utilizes them for grazing. He also relies heavily on a cover crop consultant for guidance.
Wulf’s preferred crop rotation begins with corn. He then interseeds a cover crop mix into the crop using an air seeder and rotary hoe when the corn is 1 to 2 feet tall. Following corn harvest (either silage, earlage, or dry grain), cattle are allowed to graze the cover crop. Wulf explained that they don’t like to run the stalk chopper on the combine when cover crops are growing underneath because it creates too much mulch and a smothering effect. “We prefer to have the stalks left standing; this makes it easier for no-tilling, too,” he said.
The next spring, soybeans are no-tilled into the corn stubble, and following harvest in the fall he will no-till either winter wheat or winter rye into the soybean residue.
“The nice thing about the winter cereals is that we can get some straw and they come off early enough that we can no-till our cover crops in much earlier, which provides a lot of forage for fall and early winter grazing,” Wulf said. “Essentially, we’re growing five crops in three years.”
When an alfalfa-orchardgrass mix hayfield is terminated, that is followed by corn to take advantage of the nitrogen credits. If establishing a new hayfield by no-till, that is done following soybeans using an oat-pea companion crop.
“We try to no-till everything,” Wulf said. “It’s a system that we’re still trying to perfect.”
Wulf is not partisan when it comes to cover crop mixtures. “I like to have 10 to 15 different plant species in our mixes,” he said. “We get them premixed and work closely with our local supplier. Right now, our mixtures contain cereal grains, turnips, radishes, clovers, lentils, rape, and sudangrass. If we have any extra soybean or corn seed around, we throw that in there, too. We believe the multiple species is what really helps the soil health because you’re feeding and aiding different soil organisms. We want a living root in the ground year-round.”
When using row crop acres for grazing, there is also the matter of infrastructure — fences and water. Wulf has a brother who puts in tile lines. He has utilized him to bury 6-foot deep water lines in each crop field. Water is then supplied from the home well and pushed up to 2 miles to reach some fields.
“What I hope happens some day is that a few of my cash grain farm neighbors with cover crops will call me and want to lease my cows for grazing,” Wulf said. “The cow makes that cover crop even better when it’s converted into manure and urine.”
The resourceful Wulf is already working with some neighbors who allow him to plant cover crops after their wheat and bring his cattle over to graze. “We also do some cornstalk grazing on neighbors’ land as well,” he said.
Wulf’s own permanent pastures are rotationally grazed, though not intensively. He explained, “Most of our paddocks are 10 to 20 acres and get grazed twice per year. We move cattle about every four to five days, and our watering stations service several paddocks.”
On average, Wulf’s cattle graze with no or little additional forage supplementation from mid-May to December. He has grazed as late as February, depending on the weather.
Variety of feeds
Just as Wulf’s cover crop mix encompasses a diverse mixture, his stored feed supply is also multifarious. In addition to grazed forage, he has at his disposal dry hay, baleage, corn silage, earlage, and small grain silage. The silage and earlage are stored in silage bags. This variety of feeds lets him mix and match the nutrient content of the feed to the nutritional requirements of the various cattle classes, including bulls which he sells throughout the U.S. Though all of the corn is custom harvested, Wulf makes his own hay and baleage.
“In Minnesota, it’s hard to know what you’ll need for hay, but you have to be prepared,” Wulf said. “Our fall cover crops could be buried with snow in early December or they could be usable until early February. We plan for the worst-case scenario, then sell hay if we have extra,” he added.
Wulf calves his cows during early winter and weans the calves in mid-August. “If we can have some high-quality grazing in September and October and put some really good condition on the cows before the rough weather sets in, they seem to do really well,” he explained.
“Before they calve, we like to feed them a little oatlage, which helps keep the energy and birthweights down. Then after calving, which is done at the home farm facilities, cows and calves are put back out on pastures. There, they are also fed our best hay and corn silage in a total mixed ration (TMR). We like to feed our younger cows some baleage as well,” he said.
More public lands grazing
Wulf’s passion to improve the productivity and health of his own land base spills over to public lands as well. As a member of the Minnesota Cattlemen’s Association board of directors, he has gone to the state capital to advocate the benefits of grazing cattle on public lands as an alternative to burning or doing nothing.
Bordering Wulf’s land is an abundance of public lands, including that owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Glacial Lakes State Park is also a near neighbor.
“We currently graze nearly 300 acres of the Fish and Wildlife Service land on a short-term, 30 to 45 days basis,” Wulf explained. That occurs for two years and then they give it a break for two years.
“We also graze some DNR land but would like to graze more in the state park. This isn’t being looked at as a permanent grazing alternative, but rather a means to give our own land a break. By doing so, it allows me to stockpile more forage to graze later in the fall and winter and the livestock provide a benefit to the health of the public lands. Our conversations with the state agencies have been cordial and, I think, productive,” he added.
Productive and healthy — those are the two words that continue to arise in a conversation with Wulf as he speaks of his land, his cattle, and public lands. He’s still in a learning mode but has found at least some answers in cover crops and no-tilling; however, the journey is ongoing. Said Wulf, “I don’t think we’re close to knowing everything we need to know about managing cover crops and the impact they have on soil health.”
This article appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Grower on pages 40 and 41.
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