March 01, 2022

Article at Beef Business magazine

Drought-proofing 2: Cover crops create “an oasis in the desert”

Jeff Gaye 

With feed crops failing in the heat and drought of 2021, Calvin Gavelin had one good crop growing on his operation near McCord.

 That was the field a had seeded with a cover-crop cocktail of 16 different seeds: grasses, legumes, and brassicas.

 “We started cover crops in 2019 and dabbled in them,” Gavelin said. “Last year being dry, we seeded three different blends. Two of them were fine-tuned for drought because I was very worried that the drought was going to impact our feed supplies.”

 The ranch got six tenths of rain in May and two tenths in June. By the time they turned their bulls out June1, there was nothing in the pastures.

 “So we turned around and those two blends that we planned on grazing, we put our first calvers on it and our open replacement heifers. And we bred on those fields. What we found, those fields were lush,” Gavelin said.

 He had the bulls out for 60 days with a group of 76 heifers and another with 65 first-calvers.

 “When the vet was out here on September 30, she was just amazed because compared to everybody else in the area, our numbers are phenomenal,” he said. “Like on those first calf heifers, we got 63 out of 65 bred in those three cycles, the majority in the first two cycles. And on our open replacement heifers, we got 73 out of 76.”

 The vet asked what he was doing differently, and he told her about the cover crops.

 “She said they had everything they needed and they were in awesome shape, really fat and slick,” Gavelin said. “She said they had all the minerals they needed and they also had the timely plant matter.

 “When our pastures were all dead, and we never got any hay to cut, those cover crops allowed us to keep those animals on our operation and rebreed amazingly well.”

 He had planted another 100-acre field of cover crops for grazing. Considering the drought damage to his traditional monoculture crops, he says the cover crops really came through for him.

 “We never combined an acre this year, so we tried bailing our durum field. We had 34 swaths with the little square bailer and we couldn't even get anything to even justify doing it. So we just grazed them,” Gavelin said.

 “Our durum was just over 1.1 bushels an acre, lentils and peas were under two. So it was it just a massive scratch to get biomass or any feed for our cows this year.”

 But, he says, the hundred acres of cover crops stayed green.

 “We planted that field on June 3. It hung out through everything. It was just green, and somewhat stunted, but all of our monocultures were dead. And then when the rains came at the end of August, they just flourished. That 100 acres provided five weeks of grazing for 200 cows.”

 Gavelin first became interested in cover cropping after taking a course in holistic management. He was attracted to author Gabe Brown’s thoughts on regenerative agriculture.

 The seed combinations work in a couple of ways, Gavelin says. First of all, there are different soil conditions within a single field so some of the plants will thrive where others struggle.

But the variety of plants growing together also creates a symbiosis that helps all of them survive. This, in turn, helps with moisture retention and a diversity of life within the soil, including insects and microbes.

 Gavelin says it’s important to work with a seed dealer to create a custom mix that works with your land and your goals. An off-the-shelf approach can rely too heavily on the law of averages and may not give optimum performance.

 But with the right mix, he says, results can be dramatic. He has had crop and soil experts, who were dubious at first, rethink their attitude toward cover-cropping in the brown soil zone. One, Gavelin says, described his fields as “an oasis in the desert.”

 It may be going too far to say it’s a new Garden of Eden, but Gavelin says the cover cropping has given him a new optimism. His family—wife Marla, daughters Rhys and Quinn—share that attitude.

 “Over the past 15 years, we've done lots of different things. There never seemed to be any spark to get everybody involved,” he said. “Those cover crops that we planted last year, I don't know what it was, but the girls are out there. They're out there picking peas, they're doing everything in those cover crops. You name it.

 “They were enthused when we went to move cows, and we were moving them every three days. They asked to do it. It wasn't like, ‘do we have to go do this?’ They said, ‘Dad, let's go move cows.’ They were so enthusiastic to be out there.”

 He tells of another time in October when Marla got him and took him out into the field.

 “It was a nippy morning, it hadn't frozen yet. But when we were out there in the sunflowers, you could see the bees all nestled in, sleeping. And she said, ‘this is so amazing.’ And that's what I've said to so many people when we're talking about these cover crops. It's brought life to our farm.”

 Gavelin will expand his cover cropping in the spring with another 300 acres. When he put 10 per cent of his seeded acres to cover crops last year, he said his attitude was it couldn’t hurt.

 “But that 10 per cent basically got me through the drought last year,” he said.

 “When I saw my soil test and how much improvement there is in my soil, it was a no-brainer,” he says. “I have to do more of this.”