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 my family’s legacy 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.
Illinois farmland is some of the world’s best. The black soil is 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.
When we think of running water, we think of the creek that runs through the farm and flows into the La Moine Watershed. 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 in the fields and each pasture has its own watering station. 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.
Our cattle graze outside year round (they actually prefer the cold). In late summer, we move the animals to corn fields where we’ve harvested field 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 combined. 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.
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.
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.