I have a soft spot for beef cattle. I mean, who doesn’t like to see cattle on rolling green fields on a beautiful Iowa summer day? While this pastoral scene can bring tranquility and enjoyment, returning more land to grazing has water quality benefits and social benefits.
As you know, I spend most my time thinking or talking about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). Most of my presentations are on edge-of-field nitrate reduction practices. My job is to study specific engineering solutions to our water resource issues. Perhaps not all of our problems can be solved through engineering? Radical thought.
When you really look at our nutrient loss issues, the most important factor affecting nutrient loss is that today there are primarily annual row crops where once there was perennial vegetation pre-settlement or diverse crop rotations during the early 1900’s.
These cropping systems have made Iowa an agricultural leader. We are unlikely to see major land use changes in the near future, but I do think there is potential for more
diverse land uses, especially in certain areas in Iowa. One way to diversify would be an increase in pasture and hay land. For this to work, we would need more cattle to forage.
The Iowa NRS Nonpoint Source Science Assessment estimated that grazed pastureland had 85% nitrate-N reduction and 59% P reduction compared to an annual corn-soybean system. Another added value of having greater need for forage by cattle might be that this could greatly improve the potential economics of cover crops. Late fall and early spring grazing could provide some of the forage needs for the cattle.
The infrastructure to increase beef cattle on pasture is not what it once was. We have taken out miles of fence throughout the state and there are substantial labor needs for an integrated livestock-cropping system. On the other hand, adding some diversity to agricultural operations could open up opportunities for young farmers to get back on the landscape.
As we move forward with implementation of nutrient reduction practices, it is important to think about our livestock system and how we might be able to increase the number of cattle on pasture in Iowa. Not only could this benefit our environment and maybe provide more opportunities for young people to get into agriculture, it could also add substantial beauty to our landscape with cattle grazing green pastures.
To explore the benefits of pasture-based livestock operations, check out Dr. Helmers’ Conservation Chat or Leopold Center Dr. Mark Rasmussen’s Conservation Chat. Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University.