Published Mar 12, 2014

Over “herd” on the discussion list: Converting from Cropland to Pasture

By Margaret Chamas

What started out as a long phone call for me turned into an awesome example of the knowledge and sharing that characterizes PFI.

New member Jeff Roe called to ask me about converting some of his northern Iowa cropland into pasture or forage for his beef cows and goat herd.  The animals currently receive baleage from winter rye cover crops and corn silage from some acres, but the cost of custom harvesting and plastic was getting prohibitive.  What were some options?  “I’m looking for advice on what to plant to best utilize my land and resources to get the most return on investment,” Jeff said in his initial email.  We discussed relative merits of permanent pasture and annuals and ran a few ideas back and forth, but ultimately I referred him to the real experts – other PFI farmers.

The whole thread is too long to post here, but some tidbits and gems:

Fred Abels said, “The best answer is to walk into NRCS and sign up for EQIP. With that you’ll  get help with a grazing plan and forages to use for your situation.”  He said that reed canarygrass and kura clover have served him well.

Joe Sellers mentioned the importance of stockpiling forage and picking species that retain quality after frost.  “Can reduce cow costs by grazing stalks.  Be sure you come up with a flexible system that fit your needs.”

Me again: “Green Cover Seed ( has a pretty cool cover crop mix calculator.  …  it gets information on the soil types and climate in the area, and makes recommendations based on that.”

Greg Lipes pointed out that there’s a difference between adding forage crops as part of a rotation, and converting cropland to pasture.  Also, the type of livestock Jeff has – cow/calf and doe/kid, or finishing animals – would influence the types of forage appropriate.  “Knowing your production model can help inform your management decisions.”

Jack Knight gave some factors that would shift the argument either way, such as Jeff’s willingness to fence, water availability, and the slope and shape of the land.

Torray Wilson has land somewhat similar to Jeff’s, and suggested starting with cover crop mixes and portable fence – that way he could see if he liked the grazing system, before committing a lot of time, money, and fence to it.  It also will help rejuvenate the soil in the short term, allowing more productivity later.  “You have to get your biological activity built up with the cover crops so that when you go to permanent pasture it has the right biology to keep it going. That is how nature converts bare ground to grass land.”

Bruce Carney, who has converted row crop land to pasture himself,  reinforced the idea of whole-system health.  “What are my resource concerns … and what do I want to get out of this (erosion control, nutrient loss, compaction, build soil life, grazing, water infiltration ETC).”

Francis Thicke agreed.  Citing one of the annual conference speakers, he said that “in the first year of converting row-crop land to pasture it is good to plant annual forages in order to get rapid root growth and begin to change the soil ecology more rapidly than if you plant perennials, which are slower to establish roots — and then go to perennials after a year or two of year-around annual cropping.”

Jeff did end up going to his NRCS office, but had missed the EQIP deadline.  He said that the plan this year will be to keep it simple and start small: an area near the cattle building will be seeded with annuals.  He’s still brainstorming ideas for the future though.

In the end, Harn Soper summed it up best: “Isn’t this one of the best parts of PFI?”



If you are a PFI member and want to be on the Discussion list, please contact Erica (


Some previous related blog posts: