Corn and cattle – what’s the connection?
July 27, 2017
On our farm in western Illinois, the connection between corn and cattle goes beyond the obvious to a buzzword that means something different to everyone – sustainability.
When I think sustainability, I think of another word: legacy. The legacy I have with my family and how we’re caring for the land and beef cattle we raise here. My dad inspires me and the skills and knowledge I have today come from years of working alongside him. Today, my sons help run the farm,
and I’m proud of what we’re doing to ensure the next generation’s future here.
With that in mind, our goal is to nurture what Mother Nature has given us – productive, healthy soil and water – which in the end helps
us raise healthy cattle.
Location, location, location
Illinois farmland is some of the best in the world. The black soil fields are ideal for growing grain crops like corn and soybeans. And you may not realize
that what you probably call dirt is a pretty complicated ecosystem all unto itself.
We go to great lengths to protect our agricultural land and keep soil healthy. For us, our herd of beef cattle improves soil health. We
rotational graze year round. This means that during the summer when grass is green and growing, we fence off an area and move cattle there for them
to graze on the grasses. After the grass is eaten, we move the cattle to another pasture and so on throughout the year.
Our grass, just like your lawn, has to be planted and maintained. We drag (prep the land to be ready to plant) and then plant triticale (a mix of wheat
and rye) that’s good food for the animals and has a strong root structure to keep the soil in place. The cattle add their own natural fertilizer/organic
matter to the soil, and we add manufactured fertilizers only after we test the soil to see what nutrients it needs.
Another meaning for running water
When you think of running water, you might think about the water from your kitchen faucet or bathroom shower. When we think of running water, we think
of the creek that runs through two areas of the farm and flows into the La Moine Watershed. A watershed is an area of land and all of the waterways
like creeks, rivers and lakes on that land that run into a larger body of water. Because we know what happens on our farm can impact the water quality
downstream, we pay careful attention to the land around waterways.
Our pastures are fenced so cattle waste stays only in the fields and is filtered through the soil rather than going directly into the water. Each pasture
has a water station for the cattle to use whenever they’re thirsty. You’ll never see cows drinking directly from the creek on our farm.
We also use conservation practices like buffer strips – land on the outside edges of fields – to control wind and water erosion. The added bonus is they provide wildlife habitats; we often see ducks, geese, quail, pheasants and turtles. A healthy mix of wildlife is a sign we’re keeping everything in balance.
Grazing works for us and our neighbors
Our cattle graze outside year round (they actually prefer the cold rather than the summer heat). In late summer, we move the animals to corn fields where we’ve harvested corn for silage (cutting down the whole corn plant and blending it into feed) and again in the fall on other fields where the
mature corn has been harvested with a combine. The cattle act as a clean-up crew – they feed off of the remaining corn plants and
a small amount of corn kernels left on the ground.
It’s a beautiful blend between the corn and cattle.
Having cattle graze on land that would be idle in the winter allows us use less land overall. We also have our cattle graze on some of our neighbors’ land.
This has been a win-win. For us, we know we’ll have the right amount of land for the cattle. For our neighbors, they have a guaranteed
positive return on their farmland, which wouldn’t otherwise happen in years where corn prices are low and there’s little to no profit.
Everything’s better when the sun shines
Having the ability to care for this land and these animals, there’s a wholesomeness to it. It’s truly a passion. Part of it is the heritage, that legacy,
and part of it is that I love being outside in the fresh air and feeling a sense of accomplishment after a long day of physical work.
I also love making choices, like the management of the land and caring for every animal individually. It’s sustainably working each day to pave the way for a future generation that will do the same.
I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Joni is a fourth-generation cattle farmer in Western, IL. After working for a pharmaceutical company for 20 years, she returned to her roots and started raising cattle with her sons.