|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: http://www.pasturecropping.com/
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.