This post is written by Jefferson Center co-owner and Holistic Management Educator, Spencer Smith. He attended the pasture cropping workshop hosted by Paicines Ranch (thank you Sallie and Elaine and crew!) on October 7, 2015.
A day with Colin Seis
I spent a few days with Colin Seis at Paicines Ranch in Paicines, California following the Savory International Conference in San Francisco in early October. Colin started the farming practice called pasture cropping. Pasture cropping is a farming technique where annual crops are sown into a perennial grassland that is either entering dormancy or that has been prepared by grazing to take away the competitive advantage of the perennial grasses in the pasture.
Colin developed this farming method one night while discussing farming issues with his friend and neighbor, Daryl Cluff. The two crafted this idea while enjoying copious amounts of Daryl’s home brewed beer. They discussed the feasibility of sowing annual grain crops directly into their dormant perennial pastures instead of tilling and plowing. They wanted to have both pasture and croplands in the same space.
Revolutionary pasture cropping
This is so revolutionary because it has widely been taught that you must prepare seed beds by tilling the soil to eliminate weed competition. However it is known that tillage and soil disturbance ruins soil structure and kills the soil microbiome. Their idea challenged conventional thinking that you must simplify the soil in order to grow cash crops. Instead, Colin found that planting his cash crops into a dormant pasture, mimicked the natural balance of cool and warm season grasses and forbs found in healthy grasslands. After a good long night of investigating the pro and cons Colin decided to ”give it a go” and he no-tilled oats into his pastures without preparing the fields at all. He then continued to holistically plan the grazing of that pasture. The results were incredible. The profitability of Colin’s ranch and the regeneration of his soils is nothing short of amazing.
Before we can discuss pasture cropping in detail we must cover some plant basics. Annual and perennial plants are broken into two basic categories, C3 and C4. The C3 plants are the cool season plants that go into dormancy when the temperatures increase and water is scarce. They are termed C3 because the sugar that they produce is a 3-carbon molecule. C4 plants are the warm season plants such as corn, sorghum, sudan, tall bluestem, etc. and they produce carbohydrates with a 4-carbon molecule.
How to plan pasture cropping
When beginning this type of farming first must identify what type of grasses are dominant in the pasture (and decide which types of annuals will fill the lull of photosynthesis when one type of plant is going into dormancy during the growing season). In order to get as much energy flow from the sun into our pastures as possible, we need to determine the low points of photosynthesis and at this time plant another type of grass or forb that will grow and thrive while our pasture grasses slow down . For example, if I were in North Dakota and had predominantly cool season perennial pastures (C3) I would look for some warm season annuals (C4) that I could interseed into them. A good option could be a mix of Corn, Soy, Sunflower, Millet, Cow Beans, etc. I would prep my fields by grazing them down to about 4 inches of stubble and make sure that I was leaving ample litter and mulch. Then I would sow, with a no-till drill, the fast growing (C4) crop into the pasture and plan my grazing to manage for the plants that I want. This method has a lot of great qualities:
- It keeps green growing plants pumping sugar into the soil for a maximum amount of time throughout the year, which feeds much more soil life and increases the nutrients available for all of the plants.
- It requires far less capital input to grow a crop, which increases the farm’s profitability.
- It eliminates the need to plow or till the soil which is proven to destroy the soil structure.
The benefits of pasture cropping
While incorporating pasture cropping into the business model of his ranch, Colin said he reduced his overall cost of production by $81,000 per year while simultaneously producing the same amount of cash crops as his conventionally-farming neighbors. He doubled his carrying capacity of sheep and started a native grass seed enterprise on his farm. Not only did this method of farming make him more profitable, but he also built his soil’s capacity to withstand drought and increased his soil organic carbon matter from less than 1.5 percent to about 5 percent. The water holding capacity on his ranch has doubled and as far as available nutrients go, Colin’s soils hold 277 percent more available nutrients than his next door neighbor (Ca,Mg,K, S, Zn, P, etc.).
When it comes to agriculture we need not reinvent the wheel to grow our food and fiber. Rather, let’s step back and observe how a healthy ecosystem would function. Then, let’s create a agricultural system that closely mimics a healthy ecosystem. This is where Holistic Planned Grazing and pasture cropping are so revolutionary and yet so simple in that they go against conventional thinking, but increase profitability and ecosystem function and health.
Contact us if you would like to learn more about how to incorporate pasture cropping into your operation.