Livestock profitability exceeds commodity crops

John: Many people are beginning to recognize the value and the importance of cover crops, but there’s still a lot of hesitation around incorporating livestock into agricultural ecosystems. In your estimation, how important do you believe it is to incorporate livestock to the overall ecosystem?

Gabe: Let’s step back and take a look at how our soils were formed. They were formed over long periods of time by large herds of elk and bison being moved across the landscape by predators—trampling, grazing, and then defecating and urinating. A natural nutrient cycling occurred. The animals moved on, so there were long periods of rest and recovery, which allowed for a maximum amount of carbon to be pumped into the soil. Soil health revolves around a carbon cycle.

That’s how our prairie soils were formed, but look what we’ve done with our modern monoculture-type mindset. We’ve removed the diversity, and we’ve removed the animals from the landscape, and now we’re simply not pumping as much carbon into the soil. Now, can we advance soil health without livestock? Absolutely. I have several quarters of land that we’re just not able to graze livestock on because they’re surrounded by housing developments and there’s no water; it’s just not worth the hassle to incorporate livestock onto those acres. We’ve still significantly advanced the soil health on those acres, but those soils will never reach the health of the soils where we are are able to graze livestock.

There are many benefits of having livestock on cropland. The one thing I think producers are really missing out on is the profitability of doing so. I ran some numbers after 2016 and we added $220 net return per acre on the cropland acres where we were able to graze livestock. With margins where they in commodity agriculture today, that’s significant. What producer doesn’t want $220 more per acre? I’m not saying all producers will want to do the things we’re doing with livestock; I’m just saying that they’re missing a major opportunity there.

Cover crops are an absolute no-brainer from a soil health standpoint. If you can integrate livestock, that’s a way to convert those cover crops into dollars. I tell producers that even if they don’t want to do it, there are many people in their communities around the country who would love the opportunity to run some livestock—to enter agriculture that way. Why not benefit your land, help a young person, and integrate some livestock under your cropland?

John: That’s a great idea for including the next generation. When you talk about the economics and the profitability, an additional $220 net per acre—isn’t that a larger net than most growers are getting producing corn?

Gabe: It is. On our operation, we sell very few commodities. We’re doing value-added, direct-to-consumer products—simply because of the dollar return we can generate by doing so. I just shake my head at commodity agriculture today. I have no desire to produce commodities, and I really don’t understand why people do it. There’s just no money in it, unless there’s a major drought somewhere or some external force. We tie our hands, so to speak, when we produce commodities.

I’m not a proponent of the current production model. I think it leaves too many decisions in hands other than our own. Our farm is profitable every year because we set our own prices. We take that out of somebody else’s hands and put it in our own. When you’re able to do that, that really adds to your bottom line and increases profitability significantly.