Grazing cover crops means additional considerations for crop producers, livestock owners
As record high grass prices take their time coming down, many livestock producers have been forced to seek out alternative ways of keeping their cattle business in the black.
One alternative producers are taking a second look at is cover crop grazing.
Greg Rasmussen started planting cover crops on a piece of farm ground north of Boelus, Neb. in an effort to stop soil erosion and improve soil health. What he didn’t bargain for was the additional benefits of better yields and higher nutritional value for grazing cattle.
In fact, when Rasmussen had his cover crop mixture of sorghum and millet analyzed at one of the laboratories, he was told the mix wasn’t only just good for grazing but exceptional. Its nutritional value was comparable to high-quality alfalfa.
“One of the things about cover crop grazing that I have found important is grazing time,” he explains. “If we wait too long, the quality goes down. It gets tall and stalky, and the cattle will leave a lot behind.”
“I try for more timely grazing and just let them take the tops off so regrowth can occur. It is good for the cattle and for soil health,” he notes.
Because the cover crop can be better quality than grass, Rasmussen says he leases it to cattle producers by the day and bases the cost on pasture prices.
“I feel like producers are getting a good deal because the cover crop is actually better quality than what is in the pasture at that time, and the cattle show that coming off of it,” he says.
Mike Baker of Thermopolis found out how much his soil health could improve when he started experimenting with no-till and limited tillage. Within a few years, his corn yields had increased to the point he was overrun with residue.
“We are nearing 200 bushel an acre, so we have a lot of corn residue to harvest through the cows,” he explains.
In the barley stubble, annual forages, like turnips, barley, radishes, peas, collards and a broadleaf are planted in the fall. These fields are sprayed in the spring and planted to corn.
“We don’t have summer range, but we take in cows to graze all this residue. We rent it out by animal unit month (AUM) and probably provide 500 to 600 AUMs of grazing each year for our renter,” he explains. “What I like about it is it recycles the nutrients back into the ground and aids in the no-till the next year without having all that surface residue left over from the prior crop.”
Of particular importance when grazing cover crops is stocking rate, how much biomass can be taken and how much should be left. Mary Drewnowski, beef systems specialist with the University of Nebraska, says time of grazing cover crops is a crucial component of how much regrowth will occur.
“If we are grazing it in the fall, we won’t get a lot of regrowth on warm season grasses like sorghum-Sudan, but if there are oats underneath that, they will grow with a little bit of rain,” she says. “If we don’t graze until mid-October, there will be no regrowth, so it would be possible to graze more but still try to maintain adequate ground cover.”
Rasmussen says on his own fields, he likes to take half and leave half.
“My goal is to make my soil healthier, so it can hold more moisture and grazing cattle on cover crops helps me accomplish that,” he says.
“The biggest thing we need to remember is we can’t transition overnight,” he tells crop producers. “Our soil is like a drug addict. It’s addicted to what we have been feeding it, so if we take it all away, it will react.”
“We can’t completely take away fertilizer and chemicals, or it will be a disaster. But, with time, if we continue with this cover process, bring in some cattle and be smart about seed costs, the investment isn’t huge. We can get 60 to 90 days of grazing and some big soil benefits, so it is a real win-win,” he states.
Watch for a follow-up article next week on how to construct a cover crop grazing lease agreement. Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.