TESA winner matches cover crops with cow herd

Steve Sickle rotationally grazes his cows and calves on pasture, but uses cover crops at the end of the season

Steve and Amanda Sickle of Brant County ended up in the beef cow business when they realized a rolling part of a farm they’d turned from pasture to crops was much better suited to pasture.

The family had sold their beef cows when Steve’s dad broke his hip.

“We brought them back when we realized cropping that land and selling rained-on hay wasn’t a great revenue stream,” he said.

The Sickles then worked to create a sustainable and efficient cow-calf production system. The family was awarded The Environmental Stewardship Award (TESA) at the recent Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) annual meeting.

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Why it matters: There are farms that are most productive in pasture. Programs like TESA can help share best practices for making pasture farms profitable.

Sickle rotationally grazes 25 cow-calf pairs on the farm mostly on 25 acres of pasture, but also on corn stalks, with cover crops among them, when it makes sense.

The cows calve in a barn in March and April and he finishes the 25 calves in his own feedlot. Half are sold locally to the freezer trade and the rest go to Norwich Packers.

During last summer, his 15-year-old daughter moved the cows each day to fresh grass.

Water is moved with the cows in a trough on a sled.

“I hated dumping water every other day, so we keep it in and drag it,” he said at the BFO annual meeting.

Steve Sickle calls this solar-powered, motion-activated, freeze-proof water bowl a good investment.
photo: Steve Sickle

In the winter, a solar panel-powered, motion-activated, freeze-proof water bowl provides water. Even with the darker winter that was seen in Ontario this past season, Sickle said he didn’t have to remove the battery and charge it once. The sun did the work.

“It’s been a good investment,” he said.

Bale feeders are moved 50 feet each day when bales of hay are added to the feeders. Sickle says that helps spread manure around a pasture.

It costs him $45 per acre to plant an oat, pea and turnip mixture

“The cows didn’t know what a turnip was,” he said during a presentation after accepting the award. He dug some out for them and then they were onto the tasty turnips. He didn’t have to start feeding hay until January as the cows ate turnips until then.

Cows graze corn stalks, interseeded with a cover crop.
photo: Steve Sickle

He says that grazing cover crops is inexpensive feed and easy to manage. He recommends starting small. He will harvest or graze cover crops planted after wheat and graze cover crops planted into corn stalks.

Sickle uses soil-healthy practices in the cropping part of his operation too.

He sows cover crops whenever he can, usually cereal rye at low rates.

He then plants no-till into living cover crops the next season. He says he is now planting most of his crops into green cover crops and continues to get good yields.

Sickle says there is still room to improve on their farm, as environmental issues change. Phosphorus is now a greater concern than it was in the past.

Cereal rye is sown on the Sickle farm for both soil health and grazing reasons.
photo: Steve Sickle

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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