Cover crops make good feed
Cover crops are growing in popularity across the Midwest, mostly for erosion control, weed suppression, nitrate loss reduction and the soil health benefits they provide. Many Iowa livestock producers, however, are also finding cover crops to be an excellent source of spring feeding.
In western Iowa, many Crawford County farmers turned cattle, including cow-calf pairs, loose on an estimated 2,500 acres of cereal rye this spring. Pat Corey, resource conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, says about 40 local livestock producers used cropland for cover crop grazing.
Corey says a cool, wet spring delayed rye growth, but by May 1 the cover crop was tall enough for grazing. “Producers seem happy with the amount of feed they saved by utilizing cover crops, which allowed their pastures to grow back up,” he says. “By late May, these farmers terminated the rye and planted the field to corn or soybeans.”
Farmers who grew a thick cereal rye stand (at least 6 inches tall) could easily run one cow-calf pair per three-quarters of an acre for at least a month with very little supplemental feed, says Corey.
Local farmers who drilled their rye after harvest of corn or soybeans last fall produced better stands of rye than those who aerial-applied the rye seed into a standing crop. “I think that had a lot to do with the dry fall we had last year,” says Corey. “There wasn’t much cover crop growth with cereal rye until this spring, but favorable late spring weather conditions ended up providing some nice growth.”
Rules provide flexibility
In a typical year, it’s common to see livestock graze cover crops in April and early May, which allows farmers to plant corn or soybeans earlier. But 2014 was an unusual year with cooler-than-average temperatures, pushing cover crop grazing and corn and soybean planting back a few weeks.
USDA recently added flexibility to its cover crop termination guidelines, no longer requiring termination by a deadline date. Now, cover crop termination must be completed at or before planting the row crop. Farmers like the flexibility provided by the new termination rules, notes Corey.
Ralph Dorale, who farms near Charter Oak in Crawford County, grazed his livestock on cereal rye for the third consecutive year. He grazed 300 cows on 200 acres this spring. “We’ve seen great results, and continue to expand the number of livestock and cover crop acres we graze.”
Dorale aerial-applied cereal rye in the fall after corn silage was harvested and planted soybeans into the rye after terminating the cover crop in spring. He says letting livestock graze the rye is doing more than just resting his pastures. “We haul and apply less manure to those fields because the cows are incorporating it when they graze. We are also seeing better bean yields, and I think that’s from the cereal rye helping to reduce soil compaction.”
With so much livestock in Crawford County increasing the need for feed, many farmers chop corn for silage clear to the ground, which leaves the soil susceptible to erosion. “It’s great to see cover crops out there protecting the soil from erosion in such situations,” says Corey. “A lot of those acres are very hilly, where it’s common to see springtime soil erosion.”
According to Iowa NRCS state soil scientist Rick Bednarek, cover crop grazing benefits go deeper than the producer’s pocketbook. He says cover crop grazing can improve soil health more rapidly than cover crops alone as part of a cropping system. He says the conversion of above-ground biomass to urine and manure helps move biomass into the soil. “It’s reminiscent of the way buffalo grazed and benefited our native prairies,” says Bednarek. “We want to see cattle eat half of the plant growth and then trample much of the rest, which will improve soil health.”
To provide the most benefits to livestock and the soil, Bednarek says a mixture of cover crops is preferred. Choosing a grass mixture with a fibrous root system and a legume or brassica will provide the widest range of benefits.
Bednarek says high-density grazing would be the ultimate system, where cattle are moved from paddock to paddock once or twice daily. A temporary cover crop grazing system on cropland would only require poly-braided fence, step-in posts and a solar fence charger. “This might only cost $500, and would be well worth the investment,” he says. “And for an extra $400, you can buy an automatic gate opener that allows cattle to move themselves.”
Although some see high-density grazing has a time management issue, Bednarek says moving livestock to a new paddock can take as little as 15 minutes, and there are benefits. “After moving to a rotational grazing system, many farmers are better able to assess livestock condition and health by seeing the animals every day.”
Rick Sprague, grassland specialist for NRCS in Iowa, sees many traditional row-crop farmers renting cover crop acres to neighbors who have livestock. “This is an economic opportunity more farmers need to look into as cover crops become more widespread,” he says.
Sprague says additional grazing in April or May is not as beneficial if you have plenty of regular pasture, since most pastures have sufficient forage available at that time of year. “However, if you can get cover crops planted early enough in the year, say during August or early September, to provide sufficient growth to give you some grazing days in October and November, that would be very helpful.”
Johnson is public affairs specialist, USDA NRCS, Des Moines.
This article published in the July, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.
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