Creating resilient soil: Integrating cover crops and livestock grazing

“It makes sense financially to do no till,” Jordan Reimnitz said. “Because there are no added costs, whereas going into cover crops is a harder decision to make because it does cost and takes time up front.” For him, the investment into cover crops is well worth the long-term payoff. Courtesy photo

Written by Kara Pugsley
The South Dakota Soil Health Coalition

Farmer and livestock producer Jordan Reimnitz has seen the benefits of going completely no-till on his family farm. By planting cash crops directly into growing cover crops, and grazing and integrating livestock onto his 1500 acres of cropland – he’s achieving his ultimate conservation goals. “Since everything starts at the soil level, building a resilient soil is a big goal of mine,” said Reimnitz, whose operation is located near Corsica. “Whether through wet or dry or cold or hot conditions – I want a soil that can protect me in those situations and be resilient without costing me a crop.”

Reimnitz jointly farms the land with his brother and their father. They grow corn, beans, wheat, hay and alfalfa and have some cattle. Reimnitz says his focus has always been conservation. “I want to improve things long-term, for my legacy…if it’s not for one of my kids, hopefully it’s someone who has the same philosophy about the soil that I do,” he said.

Cover crops and planting green

His father had started the no-till practices on land that had previously been tilled. “I kind of picked up from there and wanted to take it to the next level when I started farming the land,” said Reimnitz. But whenever he looked at those no-till fields, they just looked like they needed something else, but he couldn’t pinpoint it.

Planting cover crops made all the difference. By keeping plants growing throughout the year, the structure of the soil stayed intact. “We know that there’s so many living things there in the soil, and when you go out and dig the living cover, it just looks alive,” he said.

On their operation, the cover crops have decreased erosion and increased water management. “We’ve had some big rains in the spring the last few years and cover crops have certainly shined in that situation,” he said. “This year, over 90 percent of my acres have a cover on them.”

For the past several years, Reimnitz has also been planting primary cash crops into actively growing cover crops – also known as “planting green”.

“Planting green is going out there when the cover is still living or terminated shortly before, and planting that cash crop into that living cover basically,” he explained. “And I’ve been doing that for several years.”

This method has really cut down on erosion and moisture loss from the soil. “I’ve noticed a big benefit by planting this way,” said Reimnitz. “The results in the spring have proven themselves big time,” he said.

“Spring is usually a delicate time for the soil where it’s coming out of the freeze, winter cycle, making it easy to erode in the spring,” he explained. “I’ve noticed a big benefit there. Whether it’s a cash crop or a cover crop, keep living cover out there all year,” he advised.

He said he likes to try new things regardless of what others think. “Planting green is something that I get funny looks at from people,” he said. “But if what you are doing works, and you’re seeing the results you want to see, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

Planting corn into Cereal Rye or “planting green” has been done successfully by producers around South Dakota and in neighboring states. Drilling cereal rye immediately after harvest of a soybean crop, then planting corn into the Rye the following spring. However, caution is needed to avoid yield loss to the corn crop. This concept is still being researched and yield loss has been experienced by some producers possibly due to Nitrogen tie-up or insect injury as such from wheat-stem maggot. There seems to be less concern with yield loss if planting Soybean into green Cereal Rye. Planning and research are needed before planting.

Livestock integration

Another area the Reimnitz operation is focusing on to improve soil health is integrating livestock onto his cover crop fields to graze. He has tried it in the fall and the spring. “I grazed my cows on the field for a month, we had record rainfall in that month, and I still raised one heck of a corn crop off there.”

It wasn’t his best yield, but he didn’t have high expectations for that particular field. “It was a poor field to begin with,” he said. “It did well for my expectations.”

He added that it helped him with rotational grazing also. “This cover allowed me to get them out of the lot early, get them grazing and let the grass get going a little better in the spring,” he said.

Financial impacts and long-term goals

Reimnitz added that going into no-till is a pretty easy transition financially, especially for someone just starting out. “It makes sense financially to do no till,” he said. “Because there are no added costs, whereas going into cover crops is a harder decision to make because it does cost and takes time up front.”

For him, the investment into cover crops is well worth the long-term payoff. “Right away, it’s hard to notice an economic benefit…you have to have long term goals in mind.

Within the first year of adding cover crops, the operation saw big improvements in water management. “I’ve seen improvements in water infiltration, runoff and erosion.”

Reimnitz thinks of the next generation when he weighs the economics of it all. “I have to think about what I want my land to be like for my kids; I want to leave my farm the best way I can leave it.”

Information within this article was provided by representatives of the USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service and the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. For more information on the principles of soil health contact the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition at (605) 280-4190 or [email protected] To view the Profile in Soil Health video this article references please visit www.sdsoilhealthcoalition.org/videos/.