AJ & Kellie Blair
Young Farmers Add Cattle to Improve Conservation
Most cattle producers incorporate conservation practices as an add-on to their operations, but AJ and Kellie Blair have taken a different approach.
Conservation is the focus of their farm and cattle have been added because of the conservation benefits.
The Blair Farm is a modern, diversified family farm located in central Iowa. The farm uses a combination of techniques to create a holistic, approach to sustainability and profitability.
AJ Blair and his wife, Kellie, are now the 4th generation of Blairs on the farm. Both are graduates of Iowa State University, with Kellie's degree in agronomy and forestry and AJ's degree in agricultural business. The couple was married in February 2007 and now have two young children, Wyatt and Charlotte. In 2010, they Brough cattle back to the farm with a 400 head mono slope finishing barn and in 2014, they began building a herd of Simm-Angus cows, as well.
Today, the Blair farm includes several hog buildings, corn and soybean fields, a herd of 50 cow/calf pairs, pasture, and the mono slope barn.
Environmental, Economic & Resource Management Goals
The Blairs have a holistic, systems approach to reaching their goals, building on improvements until the entire process makes sense from a farm management, environmental and financial standpoint.
"It's a long-term process. Every year we do a little more. It's hard to know what components are helping with the year to year variables we face, but we try to make changes that will be a benefit in the long-run."
A Systems Approach
The Blairs believe they have developed an effective system combining cattle and row-crops, but the success cannot be attributed to one single factor. Every aspect works in more than one way to improve the farm, grow more food more efficiently, and help maintain profitability even in touch times.
In 2007, AJ and Kellie began experimenting with cover crops on their farm. Cover crops are gaining popularity as a way to improve soil health and meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Rye, in particular, has the potential to reduce nitrate loss by 31% and phosphorus load by 29%. Cover crops are associated with a decrease in erosion and soil compaction. They also take up nutrients from the soil and prevent them from leaching into groundwater. As the cover crops decay in the spring, the nutrients become available to corn or soybeans.
The Blairs knew that cover crops would benefit the soil. But they do more than that. On the Blair farm, cover crops are a feed source for their cows.
AJ and Kellie have planted rye, turnips, and triticale, a cross between rye and wheat. In the fall, the cows graze on corn stalks and cover crops. The spring, the Blairs will bale the regrowth of the rye and triticale to save for the next winter. "Cows can utilize 'wet' silage feeds so by harvesting some of our corn earlier in the season, we are able to produce a second crop of forage from fall and spring growth before row crops are planted again the following spring, giving us three crops in two years. Before cattle, the growth potential of the 3rd crop was there, it just had no monetary value to us. Not it becomes a debit off our feed bill."
Many farmers are using EQIP funding or grant money to plant cover crops. But Kellie and AJ wanted to find a way to make their conservation practices pay for themselves. "After eight years of cover crops we have the agronomic process figured out. Now we're figuring out how to make it work economically," AJ explains. "Cattle are an important aspect in cover crop economics."
Mono slope Barn
In 2010, AJ and Kellie build a mono slope cattle finishing barn, measuring 300' x 40'. The barn and cattle feeding operation began from a desire to use resources more efficiently, and use the resulting manure to fertilize their fields.
The barn's roof keeps rain off the cattle and the manure, making it easier to preserve the value of the manure for fertilizer. The cornstalk and bean hay bedding utilizes parts of the row crops plants that would otherwise go to waste. That bedding, mixed with cattle manure, creates a valuable fertilizer rich in organic matter and nutrients. Producers have found that manure from mono slope barns is more consistent and spreads more evenly than manure from open feedlots. The manure from Blairs' barn replaces 320 acres of commercial phosphorus and potassium fertilizer.
There is some evidence that raising cattle in the mono slope barns is more efficient from a feed conversion and gain standpoint, as well. Researchers at Iowa State University have found that cattle that have access to shelter have about an average 5% improved feed efficiency because the animals are protected from extreme heat and cold.
The manure is regularly tested for nutrient composition as is the soil in the fields. Combining that data allows Blairs to more accurately apply manure where it is needed.
Calculating soil nutrient needs is also made easier with data on the amount of crops and crop residue that was harvested. The Blairs use this information and ensure that they are applying enough manure to replace the nutrients that have been removed, putting back what has been taken off.
Machinery and technology, including precision agriculture, have played a part in the Blairs' ability to effectively use their manure. The addition of GPS in their farm equipment gives the Blairs the opportunity to make yield maps an analyze acres for row-crop use. They have also recently upgraded to a manure spreader with vertical beaters that provides a much more even spread, reducing the need to follow the application with tillage. The new spreader, however, does not have a scale, so AJ purchased a scale for the loader bucket, allowing him to more accurately measure the amount of manure used. The equipment is all calibrated so that careful records of manure usage can be kept.
Utilizing the manure helps "close the loop." "We take off the crop for feed and bedding. The manure puts something back."
"Cattle are an important aspect in cover crop economics." - AJ Blair
Using corn for food and fuelOver the past few years, the ethanol industry has grown by leaps and bounds in Iowa. But many argue that ethanol production takes resources that could be used to produce food and uses them to produce fuel instead. The Blairs have found a way to do both by feeding co-products.
The Blairs have been making improvements to their pasture ground since renting it three years ago. using the National Resource Conservation Service's (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help finance the improvements, AJ and Kellie have rebuilt fencing that had suffered from years of neglect and are currently working on piecing out the land into more paddocks to facilitate rotational grazing.
Fencing keeps cows out of the creek except for a small drinking area. AJ and Kellie are currently working on a watering system that will allow them to completely restrict the cattle from accessing the creek, helping to stabilize creek banks and keep manure from reaching water. The Blairs have also been busy cutting out cedar trees and brush and reseeding areas in order to improve the pasture land for their cows.
The Blairs have invested in trees on their farm as vegetative buffers around their cattle and pig buildings. They not only assist in containing odor on farm, but they also provide an aesthetic buffer for neighbors. They also act as a wind break.
Efforts have been made to incorporate renewable energy sources into the operation when possible, including a geothermal heat system in a relatively new shop on the farm. Depending on the season and temperatures, soy biodiesel is used in machinery. The waterers for the pasture and areas where cattle graze on crop ground are energy free.
Earlage and high moisture corn prevent the need to dry the corn, reducing overall energy use. Normally, corn must be dried to 15% moisture, but Blairs keep their corn at 17% moisture to feed to the cattle. By feeding corn from the operation to the cattle, Blairs have been able to reduce their energy used to dry corn by 1/3.
Wetlands & CRP
About 10% of the Blairs' crop acres have perennial vegetation through CRP, buffer strips and wetlands. One of the CRP wetland contracts will expire in the fall of 2016 and will be transitioned to additional pasture acres. That parcel of land currently contains many native prairie plants including big bluestem, little bluestem, purple and yellow coneflowers, Indian grass, switch grass and more. Kellie and AJ have also planted a grass and forb mix in accordance with NRCS and in partnership with their local Pheasants Forever chapter. Converting this to CRP land to pasture will not only maintain their perennial vegetation for water quality, preserve wildlife and pollinator habitat, but also provide space to graze more cattle.
Outcomes & Accomplishments
Importance of research and data - "One of the biggest challenges is trying to figure out what to measure and how to measure it. If we are going to make a change we need to first think about the goal, and in the end be able to measure if we were successful. That is why we work with experts around the state to establish those measurements," explains Kellie.
"IF we put two different rates of nitrogen on a corn field, it's easy to measure and determine whether or not the extra nitrogen made a difference. Environmental benefits can be harder to measure. Cover crops, for example, have more long-term results and more variables (such as weather) that make it harder to gauge progress."
The Blairs had soil nitrate samples taken in the spring of 2015, which were compared to other area fields. The samples showed that AJ and Kellie's field had more available nitrogen for the crops despite the fact the that no nitrogen was applied the previous fall, as it had been on the other three fields. AJ Blair credits six years of cover crops, reduced tillage, and cattle manure usage with this accomplishment.
Starting out farming a new parcel of land in 2009, the Blairs implemented reduced tillage and cover crop strategies right away. Once cattle became part of the operation in 2010, they hauled cattle manure to the parcel. With these improvements, they've seen an increase in organic matter on that farm. The data from soil samples show an increase of organic matter from 4.025% in 2011 to 5.063% in 2014. (Cover crops can be expected to increase organic matter by 1% over 10 years, but the Blairs have seen a better increase by combining both cover crops and manure from the bedded mono slope.)
The Blairs started taking water samples with the Iowa Soybean Association in 2014. The Iowa Soybean Association has worked with Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance to implement water samples on farms across the state. With this partnership the Blairs receive data about nitrates in tile water on acres that they manage. From this data, they can make decisions on how to reduce nitrates in their tile water. The data serves as a baseline for their farm. AJ and Kellie planted cover crops on those acres in the fall of 2015 to gain more insight form the data in 2016 and years to come.
Often times, it seems a though increased sustainability can decrease profitability. But the system the Blairs have worked out is intended to increase both factors.
As AJ explains, "Production agriculture is a business. You have to make enough money to farm again next year. The hard truth is that farmers don't care about soil health or water quality if they can't afford to farm again next season. So true sustainability means that your are making a profit."
"We try to get at least two months of grazing cornstalks and cover crops /cow each fall. At $1.50/day to feed a cow, that is $90/cow value added to our operation," explains AJ.
"We do a log of enterprise budgeting and in that process you find yourself questioning why you are creating each expense and whether it's really necessary. Conservation sits right on the table with numbers."