Casey – along with his wife Lacey, their son Garrett and daughters Poppy and Daisy – live on the ranch his family homesteaded in 1914. The Coulter family works with their local Garfield County Conservation District.
Lacey and I operate a cow/calf and stocker operation, and until this year, also had small grains and hay. We graze livestock on a combination of native rangeland, tame pasture, cover crops, and crop residues. We have been no-till for three years, and used minimal till for the two years before that. We are reducing the amount of land we hay to stockpile forage for winter grazing, and have seen excellent results – both for the cattle and the land – in the five years we’ve been grazing cover crops. We have been developing water and installing fences to allow for a better grazing rotation and longer rest periods for our land.
We’ve found that the health of our soils has improved by using perennial grass mixes instead of small grains, and grazing those mixes instead of producing hay. We believe that soil health is paramount in any operation, and we’re doing our part to incorporate best management practices on our land to build healthy soils.
Soil Health Practices
We started increasing our soil health without even knowing it. Our local NRCS office convinced me to try covers, which I agreed to as long as we could graze them. We were looking for more forage to graze and less time in a tractor, and using covers accomplished both. But it wasn’t until I planted the first cover and witnessed the results that I understood how much the soil benefited by feeding it and not disturbing it. On advice from a neighbor, we started rotating the ground which was hayed annually, choosing to haying it every other year. That small change almost guaranteed a crop of hay every year, and again, it wasn’t until I saw the results that I realized the benefit of keeping the soil covered.
The more we become students of soil health, the less conventional production practices we use. With all of the covers we have planted, we have only had 50 acres that didn’t work. On those acres, we had planted the cover after an annual hay crop, which we raked, removing all the litter from the soil surface. We planted at a shallow depth in hopes of catching a thunderstorm to germinate the cover, but the soil was dry and the rain didn’t come. Some of the cover germinated, but it didn’t amount to much other than kochia.
But that would be the only real failure we experienced. Despite what the experts say about grazing millet, sorghum sudan, and oats in the summer, we have never had trouble with nitrate poisoning or prussic acid. We have killed cattle with alfalfa, but not covers.
The immediate challenge we face in eastern Montana is precipitation. We are doing all we can to increase our water infiltration rates on our soils, but we still need sufficient precipitation for forage production.