This week, as I was picking my daughter up from preschool, I got a call from a local grower needing a little help moving his cattle from his fields where they had overwintered. And I thought to myself as I heard his request, Finally!
We put our cattle out quite dependably as we wrap up harvest and we bring them in…? When? We’re not quite so dependable as to when we bring them in and procrastination or delay on this date can cost us more than we realize.
The issue is this: cattle cause compaction and compaction costs us yield.
The freeze-thaw cycle that our soil experiences during the late winter months is one benefit of our finicky climate here in the Midwest. As temperatures fluctuate between freezing and not, the expanding and contracting of the water in the soil actually works to break up compaction and soften the seed bed for planting. Leaving cattle in the fields through the freezing and thawing though disrupts the natural process as their heft and hooves tamp the soil down and obliterate any loosening that might occur.
This compacted soil then causes many problems for our crops. When roots are unable to break through the packed soil, they can’t grow and spread as they should. The result is spindly, sickly plants and stalk diseases due to reduced nutrient uptake.
My full disclosure to you is that I am not a cattle guy myself, but my goal with this article isn’t to convince you to join my camp, or even to stop the practice of overwintering your cattle in your crop fields, because there are sound economic reasons for doing so and when the ground is frozen, the effect of cattle in the fields is minimal. Rather, I want you to have a plan to bring your cattle in early enough to let your fields benefit from the freeze-thaw of late winter and alleviate some compaction before planting so that your crops can enjoy the softened soil that will best promote their growth and production.
As with most things farming, there is not hard and fast rule about all this. How long you can acceptably keep cattle in your fields depends on what the winter was like, when we start experiencing temperatures above freezing, and how much moisture is in the soil. It also depends on your operational capabilities, like if you have the capacity and ability to till, for example.
I can say with fair confidence though that for most years, moving cattle out of your fields by the first of March is a good idea. March is typically a month when we yet experience freezing and thawing and your fields still have a good shot at loosening some before planting.
If you’re reading this as a farmer who happens to have cattle, then you’re probably nodding in agreement right about now. If you’re reading this as a cattle guy who just happens to farm though, then I sense a little scowl on your face. Truthfully, it’s very hard to hit a homerun on both beef tonnage and ag production. Decisions that support beef tonnage tend to undercut ag production and decisions that support ag production undercut beef tonnage.
The good news though is that we can strike a balance. Perhaps we won’t the hit the numbers we could should we decide to devote our operation to one or the other, but we can still do well in both.
It just takes some careful planning, management, execution, and a little luck. Which seems like a lot now that I put it on paper, but truly, some attention to the date and some forethought about the detrimental effects of leaving cattle in your fields too long will bring you dividends in your ag production this season.