Sunday, November 2, 2014

No-Kill Cropping and Pasture Cropping - Still Trying To Figure It Out, But Getting Close

Drilling Wheat and Crimson Clover into Existing Perennial Grass Pasture

I first saw an article about pasture cropping about six years ago and then started experimenting trying to see if I could figure out how to make it work for me and my farm.  It's hard to describe to someone that doesn't grow wheat, but it's pretty exciting to me to think that there's a possibility that I could convert my cropland to perennial grass pasture and still plant and harvest a wheat crop from those fields.

Over the years I've read and re-read everything I could find online on the subject, I've watched every online video I could find, and I've even listened to a handful of podcasts (but it's still been almost like pulling teeth to get to this point)  .  Because of all that content being shared it's been a little bit easier to figure out some of the details, so I thought I might share what I've learned.

I always tell people that I'm experimenting with "pasture cropping", but technically I'm actually closer to "no-kill cropping". But since no-kill sounds so close to no-till, people usually hear it as no-till instead of no-kill, so I started calling it pasture cropping even though it's really no-kill.  Calling something by another name is a hard habit to break, so when I say pasture cropping, I usually mean no-kill cropping (I hope that's confusing enough).

Pasture cropping is basically drilling cool season grain crops into warm season perennial grass stands to get the benefits of a grain harvest, grazing during the summer, and some regeneration or improvement of the pasture due to the two different sorts of crops complementing each other.   The basic idea is that the cool season grass benefits because their roots are able to follow the roots of the dormant warm season grass to moisture and fertility, and then the warm season perennial grasses are able to benefit from the decaying roots of the cool season annual grasses the next summer. 

Typically, a pasture cropped field is fertilized the same as a conventional field, while also possibly having some sort of herbicide applications to control weeds, etc.

No-kill cropping is a similar technique except there isn't any fertilizer or herbicide applied, the crop is just drilled into a dry pasture with as little soil disturbance as possible (hence the name No-Kill).  By drilling into dry soil with little disturbance, the planted seeds are able to wait for a rain to germinate and they are able to compete with any weeds since weeds usually need some sort of soil disturbance to germinate.  No-Kill is basically a low-input technique, with seed and fuel being the only inputs.  

Both pasture cropping and no-kill cropping also have the options of a grain harvest, grazing and grain, or grazing only. 

Anybody that's interested in pasture cropping or no-kill cropping would probably be better off going online to find more detailed information at websites like:

In my experimenting with no-kill/pasture cropping, I've had mixed results, but I've never had a real failure.   When I first started, I used a conventional double-disc drill (IH 5100) and drilled some leftover wheat seed into two areas that I'd baled for hay in the summer, one was a bermudagrass pasture and the other was a native prairie pasture.  I felt like a fool pulling that drill around those pastures, and I even had someone stop and ask what the heck I was doing. But, most of that wheat came up, those pastures were nice and green over the winter, and I ended up grazing the native grass pasture (the cows seemed to do great on the combination of dormant grasses and wheat pasture) and baling some bermuda/wheat hay (the cattle loved that hay).  

It's hard to prove it, but to my eye it looked like the no-kill cropping had slightly improved those pastures because they grew a little bit differently the next summer (or I could have just been seeing what I wanted to see).

After that first year, I started using a no-till drill which had coulters on the front and double-disc openers.  At first, I thought that the coulters would be too aggressive and might tear up the pasture more than I wanted, but I found that the perennial grasses create a dense enough sod that even with coulters, the drill only cuts a small slit that almost disappears with the next rain.

Over my years of experimenting, one year I was able to harvest a grain crop after grazing the pasture in late winter.  The yield was pretty low (10-12 bu./acre), but my input cost was only about $10-15/acre for seed and fuel. At the time, wheat was selling for about $7/bu, so I had about a 700% return on investment on that little 10 acre pasture.  Plus, I was able to bale about 25 bales of bermudagrass hay in the summer and I was able to graze it over the winter.  

I kept experimenting on that 10 acre hay meadow, drilling leftover wheat seed into it in the fall, and since we've been in drought for a few years, I've just grazed it out with the cattle over the winter.  Grazing it out doesn't seem like it would be a huge money maker, but after a little calculation, I found that if I spent about $10-15/acre to drill that wheat and grazed it, it would save me about one bale of hay (i.e. 1 acre of really thin wheat pasture replaced 1-1100 lb. of hay).  During those drought years, a bale of hay probably cost about $40-50/bale (I'm not sure, because I've never bought hay), so I'll gladly spend $15 to keep from spending $40.  Plus, I had all those wheat roots doing their whole organic matter building business underground as a bonus.

This year, I decided to try planting a mixture of wheat and crimson clover (85-90 lb. wheat and 7-8 lb. crimson clover per acre) in my no-kill cropping test area.  I'm hoping that I can get the crimson clover to go to seed and I can eventually have a volunteer stand of crimson clover growing in that pasture (hopefully it will also start to spread).  If I can get some sort of clover established, I'm thinking that my no-kill cropped wheat yields will start to increase.  

On November 1, I drilled this mixture into about 10 acres of a predominately bermudagrass pasture that had been baled once last summer, then grazed right before I drilled the wheat.  We had a killing freeze (27 degrees) on October 31, which should make the bermudagrass go into winter dormancy so that it won't compete with the wheat until next April or May, and a good rain is forecast for early next week, so there should be enough moisture to get a decent stand of wheat.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates on this no-kill cropping experiment. If we get a little rain this winter, I might even have some photos of a combine cutting wheat in a pasture.


  1. Very interesting and on a topic I knew next to nothing about. Since we don't have cattle, we never had pastures. But back when we raised wheat, we almost always had clover in the field so after wheat harvest, we could get a couple cuttings of clover to sell later.

    I think the key is that you are looking at it as a return on your investment instead of how many dollars you end up with in the bank. So many look at the latter and thus never do something like that and end up with worn out pastures and needing to buy lots of hay. By looking at it in the former way, you end up with better pastures and less expense of buying supplemental hay and some money in the bank as well.

    1. "...I think the key is that you are looking at it as a return on your investment instead of how many dollars you end up with in the bank..."

      One of the tougher subjects I deal with on the farm (and it might be that way with every business) is determining exactly what makes me money and what loses me money.

      An economist or accountant would probably factor in a bunch of stuff like lost opportunity costs, depreciation costs, etc. and would isolate every part of the farm (cattle in one column, wheat in another column, hay in another) to determine what should be expanded and what should be cut.

      I've never been able to wrap my brain around any of that sort of thinking because everything seems to part of the whole and it's impossible to put a value on a lot of it, so the best I can usually do is try to figure the ROI on some things to try to get a rough idea on whether it's worth doing or not. Sometimes I play games and figure how much I'm making per hour, I probably made about $250/hr from the wheat on that pasture which doesn't really tell me that much.

      But saying all that, if I could make more money per acre with a much lower ROI, I'd opt for the lower ROI, which sort of defeats the whole purpose of figuring ROI when I think about it.

      In the long run, I'd like to get the yields high enough in these pasture cropped areas that I can make as much money per acre as I make in the other wheat fields.

  2. Years ago I helped my parents set up a program to manage their farm. I think it was called FarmWorks. It was great for creating end of the year balance sheets but like you said, it didn't give you the whole picture. Those cows eating that pasture contribute fertilizer which makes your wheat grow better. At the end of the day, I think most farmers like you kind of go with their gut and the bottom line and do the best they can.

    1. I've used a similar program and found out there was more money being spent in some areas than I originally thought. I paid more attention to that sort of spending after that, which for me seems to be the best way to use that sort of information.

  3. Along the same lines, I should mention that my parents farm a significant chunk of land for an absentee landowner. My family has been farming for this family for nearly 60 years. After about 50 years, they decided to shake things up a bit and hired a farm manager right out of college with some relevant degree. After ten years of working for him now, I'm not sure my father feels that he is making better decisions than he has been but then, my father might be a bit biased. He is a nice enough kid though and the biggest benefit is that my father just gives him all the figures and doesn't have to explain what they mean to the owner who is a the wife of a doctor and knows nothing about farming.