Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Tom Schwarz's family managed what he notes was a large, conventional operation. However, low commodity prices, tight margins and high interest rates presented a challenge.
"Dad said, 'Let's cut back to what you and I can do without hired men,'" says Schwarz. "Shortly after, my dad passed away and my sister wanted out of the operation.
"We got cut in half, and then cut in half again. That presented challenges,” Schwarz says. “To keep going, we would need to do things differently. That was the point in late '90s when we had to shift gears.”
Schwarz had already started a custom hay-grinding business in the early 1980s while he was in college. Having an interest in organic production, he eventually used his background in alfalfa to segue into organic hay production.
His rotation has since evolved to include alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat, and in the last seven years, daughter Becky and son Alex have come back to the operation with the help of diversification.
However, Schwarz notes organic production brings its own set of challenges. "With organic, you learn you have to adapt all the time," he says. "Now, we're learning with different pigweeds out there; they're presenting us challenges we can't overcome."
With these pigweed challenges — Palmer amaranth, in particular — Schwarz has looked to new strategies for control outside of chemical and manual removal. Diversifying the rotation is a time-tested tool for weed control, and Schwarz has recently brought field peas into the rotation, providing canopy closure earlier in the season. Higher field pea populations, drilling and cross-planting them in 7.5-inch rows also helps crowd out competitive weeds like Palmer amaranth.
"They're such a cool crop because they fit the amaranth problem we're having. By the time the amaranth is starting to germinate, we can crowd it out and hopefully start reducing the seed load out there," he says. "We cut the peas, the amaranth flushes and grows, and we then disk it and undercut it."
DIGGING IN: These black Angus-Holstein cattle have a taste for Palmer amaranth. Tom Schwarz first noticed his cattle had an appetite for pigweeds earlier this year. "They'll clean out the amaranth and come back for the alfalfa," he says. "I'm tickled about the cattle; they love to go in there and chew off that amaranth."
Schwarz has also used higher populations on his corn acres — over 40,000 plants per acre and 22-inch rows — to suppress weeds.
However, field peas also provide an opportunity to feed out cattle. This summer the Schwarzes brought cattle back to into the operation after nearly 10 years, and intends to feed them out using a diet of corn and field peas.
"There are a lot of small feedlots in our area about the size of ours. They aren't being used, and there's opportunity to bring in some cattle and provide some more income for the farm, but also to bring people back into the community," says Becky Schwarz. "With grazing livestock, you can also do more with the same amount of land. We didn't need any additional land to do what we're doing. We’re just using our land differently."
The goal, Tom Schwarz says, is to feed all of the field peas raised on the farm to cattle in their feedlot and grazing cells. "The ideal situation would be if I'm growing 10,000 bushels of peas, I can feed 10,000 bushels of peas," he says. "Those peas we took off the field are going back on the field through the cattle. One of the things I want to do is have as much of a closed system as we can."
Having cattle also gives an opportunity to redistribute nutrients in the form of manure while grazing alfalfa, grass or cover crops seeded after winter wheat and field peas. Schwarz also rotates grazing cells on a daily basis, moving portable water tanks and mineral to concentrate animal traffic, which helps evenly distribute nutrients on the field.
However, one of the biggest benefits of grazing, Schwarz has found, is knocking back weeds. Schwarz first noticed his cattle had an appetite for pigweeds earlier this year, when he first brought the Angus-Holstein cattle to his farm near Smithfield. As time went on, they continued to devour the pigweed — as the plants start to dry down, the cattle still eat the leaves, but only trample down the stalks. By strip-grazing alfalfa interseeded with warm-season annuals, the cattle selectively graze pigweeds even after they've gone to seed.
COVER CROP COCKTAIL: Dennis Rogers drills warm-season cover crops after field peas on the Schwarz farm in August. Typically, the cover crop mixes include warm-season sunn hemp, pearl millet and buckwheat after crops like winter wheat or peas. "Certainly the value of cover crops in my mind is there. We just have to find the right fit. I think that's going to change year to year based on what the weather does,” he says.
"Every hay field around here has Palmer. The first thing they do is go in and strip off the amaranth leaves," says Schwarz. "It's a blast watching them eat it. It's so gratifying to see something just destroy amaranth."
When grazing and feeding cattle out on a field pea ration, Schwarz custom feeds Holstein-Angus cross cattle from a dairy in Michigan – which he calls a "phenomenal beef cross" - for his organic beef program. He is also grazing and feeding his own 80 head of Holstein steers outside of the organic program. "I'm really looking forward to the potential if we can improve the quality of beef. You combine peas with Angus-Holstein cross, and I think the quality of beef out of these calves is going to be amazing."
Research from North Dakota State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has shown field peas to be a good source of protein in a high-energy finishing diet, while sensory panel analysis conducted by NDSU show an increase in tenderness, juiciness and taste in beef when field peas are included in diets.
With this combination, he hopes to capture added value for his beef.
As Schwarz notes, one of the advantages of organic production is it forces you to think of new ways to manage.
"You have to think about every change in your operation, and how it could have an impact in another area of your operation. We change on the fly occasionally. If the weather doesn't allow us to plant a crop, we may have to change," he says. "I'm not doing anything this year exactly like I did last year."