Here’s how we’re managing our land to be resilient, help with the climate crisis | Opinion

Cattle are grazing a cover crop field. This field lies in-between pasture paddocks, and the authors are trying to restore grass there by planting cover crops repeatedly to increase soil health. Photo courtesy of Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz.

Last summer, our land was at D4 status for a month or better. D4 status, for those who don’t wait for the Drought Monitor update each Thursday, means exceptional drought. D4 status is associated with widespread crop and pasture losses and shortages of water in streams and wells, which creates water emergencies.

Our corn and soybean yields were down last year, and we also saw impacts on our pastures. We rotationally graze our cows, calves, chickens and sometimes hogs on perennial pastures. If we didn’t have livestock, some of that land would be used for row crops. The other land we pasture is either rocky and hilly or creeks and trees and wouldn’t be well suited to row crop agriculture. 

We made the decision not to graze one of the pastures we added to our operation last year because it needed rest, especially with the drought. This pasture had historically been overgrazed, and the lack of soil moisture left little plant growth and recovery after the 2020-21 winter. Another 250 acres we planned to custom graze dried up so fast and so early we weren’t able to put cattle out to graze it. We harvested hay early in the season on the 250 acres and rested the land for the remainder of the growing season. 

We made these decisions because we want to protect the pastures for grazing in future years. If we overgraze the grass, it degrades the root system and sets us back for the future. We’ve made a long-term investment in keeping armor on the soil.

We believe we need to keep the soil surface covered with armor, otherwise known as green cover. It keeps soil temperatures lower and feeds the biology in the soil, which leads to success in crop production. 

This picture is an example of plant diversity returning when grazing management allows plenty of rest and recovery. Photo courtesy of Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz.

We’ve learned that one teaspoon of soil contains more living organisms than there are people in the world.

Over the past few years, we’ve traveled thousands of miles to attend conferences and seminars on rotational grazing, cover crops and soil health. We implemented the practices and first noticed the changes on our pastureland, and now we’re attempting to change things on our cash crop fields, too.

The biggest change we have recorded is our ability to hold rainfall. Instead of washing gullies into fields and moving soil, we’re able to infiltrate water where it falls. We’ve planted cover crops since before they were called cover crops, and we’ve changed our water infiltration rates from less than one inch to eight inches to 12 inches per hour. Our water infiltration rate has tested as high as 30 inches on one piece of ground.

We started planting what people call cover crops — a non-cash crop between growing seasons — as forage for our cattle herd. We had no idea what keeping the soil covered was doing for the land until big rain events made us focus on soil health.

In our operation, we want to see diversity in plants growing as the plants feed each other. There’s more and more research being done on that. With more diversity, you’re more likely to have better plant survival as different plants thrive in different conditions.

We’re doing our best to educate people on soil health practices and how farmers can change things. We absolutely believe how we farm and manage our land will help with the climate crisis we are having right now.

Water is the most limiting factor for grazing, especially in a drought. Last year, the natural waters we normally rely upon dried up or were inaccessible for our livestock. 

If the Legislature passes drought assistance, we will consider applying for a grant to install more water infrastructure in our permanent pastures. Drought assistance could also assist farmers in buying hay to feed their livestock and give them the ability to rest their soils.

We believe that we are managing our pastures, and crop acres also, as an ecosystem. This system provides healthy feed for our livestock, healthy crops to be marketed, healthy soils to store carbon and improve our environment, and ultimately a healthier bottom line for the farm.

We’ll find out how the results of our management decisions last year affect available pasture and forage this year.

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Grant Breitkreutz
Grant Breitkreutz

With his wife Dawn, Grant Breitkreutz runs a cow-calf operation northwest of Redwood Falls in Redwood County, raising cattle on about 900 acres of pasture and growing cash crops and feed crops on another 900 acres. He's a fourth generation farmer.

Dawn Breitkreutz
Dawn Breitkreutz

With her husband Grant, Dawn Breitkreutz runs a cow-calf operation northwest of Redwood Falls in Redwood County, raising cattle on about 900 acres of pasture and growing cash crops and feed crops on another 900 acres.