By Cassidy Spencer
Barry Little says a lot of folks believe he’s taking ‘the lazy way.’
Rather than hauling feed to the cows and eventually hauling their manure back out to the fields, he started simply rolling the hay bales out in the fields; the cows consumed more total quantity of hay and the field was fertilized in the process.
Many tenets of traditional North American farming have convinced generational farmers that much more labor is required to maintain land than is necessary. Many farmers trained in conventional techniques hold closely to their learned practices, contend with new techniques, and subsequently stay attached to methods that create more work for themselves and the land.
These lines of contention often fall on generational lines. Fathers who learned techniques from their fathers and grandfathers watched their children attempt to undermine practices many years in the making. But a new generation of adaptive farmers have a lot of addendums to traditional American farming, and this father-son duo is addressing it head-on.
Barry and Eli Little manage 1600 acres of cropland near Castlewood, SD. They farm that land along with another 1300 acres of leased land from Barry’s brother. In addition to their to cropping operation, they also run close to 500 head of cattle. While they do have 800 acres of pasture, the Littles are committed to integrating livestock into their farmland. In this episode of the Growing Resilience podcast, Barry and Eli speak with Buz Kloot and Joe Dickie regarding their approach to cover crops, livestock integration, and inter-seeding, as well as the ways that their new adaptive approaches have improved economic and interpersonal facets of farmland operation.
Livestock Integration and Cover Crops
When Barry got started, he was managing a cow-calf herd with his dad. This was Barry’s first time seeing cover crops grazed, and it was by accident. His dad would harvest the small grain and let the volunteer plants and weeds come back. He’d then put up an electric fence and graze the whole acreage.
For the first time, Barry and Eli intentionally planted cover crops in 2011. After a wheat crop, they used a spinner box behind a tractor and a vertical tillage machine to work the seed into the soil. That year they got waist-high volunteer wheat, turnips, and radishes. They weren’t yet aware of paddocks, and just let the cows graze the entire area.
It has always been Barry and Eli’s goal to feed their cows as little stored feed as they could; which is what motivated their journey to integrate livestock into cropland. The cows get fresh foliage, the cover crops, and the grazing enriches the cropland soil.
“Our cows are a tool we use to help the cropland operation,” says Eli, “As soon as the cows are off pasture, they're onto cropland as much as possible.”
Now their approach to cover crops has become much more intentional. They aim to plant cover crops ideally before August. They have found that they can get the most return from their cover crops the earlier they are planted, particularly with the mix they are using that has a wealth of species.
“We plant our winter wheat following soybeans. We’ve put turnips, radishes, and clover in with our winter wheat just to add a little more biology to what’s growing in the fall,” says Barry. “When we can grow winter wheat, and we can get it harvested between the 15th and the end of July, there’s a real advantage there over spring wheat, which we tend to harvest between the 15th and the end of August. That extra month that you have for cover crops to grow– that’s the warm season where you can really get stuff to take off.”
Some of their best cover crops have been grown on prevent plant acreage that were meant for corn. If they pass the final planting date for corn, they have an opportunity to plant their 14-species full-season cover crop mix and eventually intensively graze the cover crop on the land.
“Every time we get some prevent plant acres we find it as an opportunity to plant as many cover crop species as possible,” says Eli, “I kind of get excited to see the mixture.”
Inter-seeding and Pastures
The Littles have been workshopping their intercropping approach for the last four years. In 2018 they used a spinner to spread turnips, radishes and rye grass into a standing corn field with the urea application; the cover didn’t effectively seed. The next year they modified a rotary hoe to fit the between rows, which also didn’t work well. In 2020 they put a Gandy air seeder on their rotary hoe, with hoses reaching each row and side dressing with 28% nitrogen rather than using urea. This method worked well; the cover crop germinated nicely and the cows had plenty to graze on after he corn.
“When we first started interseeding in the corn our goal was to get a lot of forage out of that growth between the rows,” says Barry, “But since then we have learned that because we have those extra species in the soil, they are inviting different microbes to flourish. So just having an inch or two of growth is enough to make the soil biology flourish. Even though it looks like a failure, it’s not. It’s doing a lot for us.”
Concerning pasture, Barry and Eli have been stretching the days of pasture rest by grazing cover crops as well as Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land and wetland reserve acreage. They aim to move cows every day in the summer– and after so many years of watching what their cows and their land need, Barry can visualize how many cows he needs for what land, and for how long.
Reducing Input, Increasing Yields
There are government programs now that offer farmers financial incentives to integrate cover crops, but the Littles were doing so before the government subsidies.
“It surprises me that there are so many people that say we need a check from the government in order to focus on soil health when we know that we make more money,” says Barry. “Our return on investment is much higher because of the way we’re operating, even though we are leaving some areas for wildlife and other things, we’re still making more money because it just works.”
After the integration of cover crops, they ran some fertility tests– and found that they were cutting their fertilizer use in half and still getting the same amount of bushel per acre. Livestock are also enhancing yields; the microbes in a cow’s gut communicate with soil microbes, so much so that they haven’t put fertilizer on a bean crop in 6 years. Bean yields are only improving, and they have cut corn crop fertilizer to a third of that recommended.
“Our thoughts on fertility continue to evolve,” says Eli, “5 years ago we thought we needed to add more fertility to grow a corn crop in the valleys where we were going to get a higher yield, and cut the rate in the hilltops where the yield was always going to go down. We now realize that the soil health in the valleys is so good that that’s where we don’t need much fertility added. It’s the hilltops that are low in organic matter and are missing nutrients.”
They’ve also cut their herbicide use. They spray their corn only once and their soybeans usually just once; owing to no-till practices, cover crops reduce the presence of unwanted plant species, and limit their herbicide use so as to discourage weeds from adapting to the herbicide.
Their soil structure has improved to the extent that they are able to drive a truck through a field without creating big ruts. There is less standing water on the land, and better infiltration in land that was once muddy in the low spots.
Simplifying Decisions, Easing Tensions
Decisions on the Little farm always come back to soil health; holistic grazing and holistic management. Every morning they speak over coffee, a conversation that usually comes back to the farm. They both emphasize the importance of flexibility and creative problem-solving.
“We’re always thinking about something a little different that might work,” says Barry, “with our many different operations, you can always spin something positive. There were a lot of people complaining a couple of years ago how much it was raining during bean harvest, and I felt– well, it’s germinating our winter wheat.”
They took part in an interview a few years ago, gauging the stress they experience running the farm; and found that they have reduced their stress significantly. They owe this to always having a series of backup options.
Barry and Eli are both finding more joy in the process now that it has become more creative and collaborative.
“My kids love to hang out with grandpa, love to hang out with me on the farm, riding the tractor–” says Eli, “It’s nice to know we’re building something for the future with the soil.”
Listen to the full podcast here: https://www.growingresiliencesd.com/podcasts/episode/28fe6212/52-how-fatherson-team-is-cutting-input-costs-and-increasing-yields
Visit these “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” information pages:
1. Podcast page for drought planning fact sheets, Q&As, news, podcasts and more.
2. Video page to watch videos of other ranchers’ journeys toward improved rangeland/pasture.
3.Follow Growing Resilience on social media:
4. Our homepage: www.growingresiliencesd.com