Soil School: Cover crops and cattle with Ken Schaus

A land and cattle operation that includes consistent cover crops in a diverse cropping mix can offer several benefits, including  improved soil fitness, better equipment and water holding capacity, and a decreased diesel fuel bill.

In this episode of the Soil School, Bernard Tobin is joined by Elmwood, Ont.-based Ken Schaus from Schaus Land and Cattle Company, at his farm near Tara. In the video they discuss Schaus’ cattle and cropping operations and how the two systems intermingle and contribute to the farm’s soil health.

On the cattle side, Schaus is in the order buying business with feed cattle, and ships to two federal plants in Ontario every week. On the cropping side, Schaus has transformed 3,500 acres — 2,000 owned, 1,500 long-term leased — into a diverse mix of crops, including a cover crop every three years.

Ten years ago, it was just corn and soybeans, and full tillage every fall. Now, Schaus’ rotation includes corn, wheat, soybeans, cereal rye for malting, hay on some of the farm’s lighter ground, and a 12-way cover crop mix with minimal tillage — down to one pass ahead of corn.

The diversification and management change benefits seem to be endless for Schaus. “I’m not a soil scientist but I can tell when ground is mellow, and healthy, and smells good, and plants nice, and when the crops come up, they’re coming up fast,” he says. “We’re seeing equipment holding capacity, we’re seeing water holding capacity, our diesel bill is significantly less, and nice smooth fields to work in all the time as well.”

Watch the whole conversation to hear how the cover crop mix helps soil quality on Schaus’ farm, the cost per acre to plant it, and the benefits and return on investment, story continues below video: 

“We’re getting nutrient recycling, fixing nitrogen as well, we’re mining P and K out of the ground, making it plant-available for next year,” says Schaus, of how cover crops have helped to build soil resiliency. “If we get a three inch rain here, I’m not worried about the topsoil leaving.”

The farm is in a drinking water protection zone, and not only does it not make sense to keep water on the farms, and keeping those paid-for nutrients to stay as well, Schaus is ensuring that zone is protected through the management strategies his farm employs.

With those added yield benefits from cover crops, Schaus is able to bale wheat straw and return corn stalks to his cattle operation. In turn, liquid manure gets sent to potato farms in the spring, and solid manures get composted. That compost then gets spread back on for the cover crop year.

Schaus considers the added nutrient cycling, water holding capacity, potential drought resistance, “free” N out of the cover crop mix, ground cover and weed suppression, and overall improved soil health as return on investment.

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