Many Illinois farmers are taking notice of the advantages in a diversified farming enterprise that includes livestock. These farmers are at the epicenter of synergistic farming. I'm not sure if that is a coined term yet, but now it is on record. Basically, synergy describes two separate systems that when combined, yield more than the sum of the individual systems when they are alone. In my mind, that perfectly describes the combination of growing corn and raising cattle.
Illinois soils are premium. We can flat grow crops. Crop production and its by-products are easily used in cattle production. Corn grain is the primary energy source for finishing cattle. Illinois corn silage yields with the best, allowing it to price into many feed budgets. Crop residues are ideal for grazing and can be economical as baled forage. Co-products, such as corn gluten feed, distiller's grains, and soybean hulls, are readily available low-cost protein supplements. They can be very complimentary to balancing rations with poor quality forage and crop residues. University of Illinois research has shown the economic advantage to all these practices.
On marginal farm ground or acres that are not tillable, pasture production can still be plentiful if farmers apply some management. Rotational grazing has proven to be a valuable tool and grazing system. Deploying a rotational grazing system will greatly increase the utilization of forage and allow for heavier stocking rates. Investing $200 per acre in fence, water, and layout can end in a rotational system will undoubtedly increase carrying capacity by 50%. This is like purchasing land for $400/acre! Cattlemen using a rotational system are truly managing plants and animals simultaneously which makes them sustainable in many ways.
Emerging use of cover crops has a livestock application. I always struggle with why farmers only utilize high-priced farm ground for 6 months out of the year. Allowing cover crops to feed the soil biology and provide some source of feedstock for cattle is one of the fastest growing practices in agriculture. Opportunities for stacking row crop, cover crop, and livestock is proving to be a profitable venture for many farmers regardless of soil type.
Cattle feeding is making a return to the Midwest. Readily available feeds, co-products, fertilizer prices, and new facility design have all contributed to the resurgence in cattle feeding in the Midwest. Improved cattle feeding facilities are allowing feeders to take full advantage of manure value. Data presented at the 2014 IL Cattle Feeders Day showed a net return of $70/ hd./yr. in manure value for a deep pit system. Replenishing nutrients with livestock manure has long been an advantage of diversified farmers. Input costs, like fertilizer, look to forever be a substantial cost of production for Illinois farmers. Incorporating livestock for use of manure as fertilizer has and will have real cost benefits for farmers.
Other benefits include sharing equipment costs between row-crop and livestock operations as well as the ability to bring future generations back to the farm. Incorporating livestock requires much less capital investment to bring a son or daughter back to the farm than purchasing or renting enough tillable ground to support another family.
There is a synergy that exists with livestock and row-crop farming. The mutual benefits, cost sharing, and increases in land utilization are extremely attractive. As the beef industry is poised to bury the throttle on herd expansion, Illinois farmers should be looking at how cattle and crops can work together to allow farm expansion in Illinois. Taking advantage of the mutual benefits that cattle and corn production have can lead to more profits and a sustainable farming operation. Add some synergy to your farm!