Cover crops can extend grazing

For forage and grass-based livestock farmers, the cost of stored feed, like hay, is often the single greatest cost of maintaining their animals over the winter. Thus, extending the grazing season as long as possible can translate into significant savings.

Cover crops can extend grazing

For forage and grass-based livestock farmers, the cost of stored feed, like hay, is often the single greatest cost of maintaining their animals over the winter. Thus, extending the grazing season as long as possible can translate into significant savings.

Two new research reports by Practical Farmers of Iowa show that farmers with access to cover crops have a high-quality, low-cost source of cold-weather feed that, with proper management, can extend the grazing season, reduce the amount of hay needed and let pastures rest longer in the spring.

The projects, “Grazing Cover Crops on Corn Ground” and “Grazing Cover Crops for Winter Feed,” were conducted by farmers in real-world conditions through PFI’s Cooperators’ Program, which helps farmers design and conduct rigorous on-farm research to better answer their most challenging farming questions. The reports are available to view or download at practicalfarmers.org/farmer-knowledge/research-reports.

Significant cost savings

The first project, “Grazing Cover Crops on Corn Ground,” was conducted near Maxwell in central Iowa. Farmer Bruce Carney rotationally grazed his herd of 184 cattle on winter cereal rye planted in a neighbor’s cornfield, measuring soil compaction as well as the body condition of his animals. The cover crop gave him eight extra days of hay-free grazing in the spring: a total cost-savings of $1,379.

To figure out how much money the cover crop saved him, Carney calculated the cover crop’s cost per ton of dry matter ($61.66 per ton) and compared it to the average cost per ton of hay ($140 per ton) seen in early-spring auctions. He also tracked how much his herd consumed on a daily basis (about 2.2 tons per day). On a per-day basis, this cost difference amounted to a significant savings of almost $173 per day.

Because Carney was careful to remove his cattle from the fields during particularly wet weather, the research showed that soil compaction did not increase following the grazing. Compaction is a concern for many crop farmers that might deter them from integrating cattle into their operations.

Carney says he “hopes to show that livestock and crops can co-exist and benefit one another.”

This research was funded by The McKnight Foundation.

Hay single greatest cost

In the second project, “Grazing Cover Crops for Winter Feed,” near Exira in western Iowa, farmers Dave and Meg Schmidt of Troublesome Creek Cattle Co. gave their herd of 27 cattle access to 220 acres of corn and soybean ground seeded with a cover crop mix of winter wheat and homegrown winter rye, starting in late October 2013 (hairy vetch was also seeded, but didn’t germinate well). The cattle were able to graze the cornstalks, bean stubble and cover crops for 140 days, until early March. Over this interval, grazing the crop residue and cover crops satisfied 57% of their animals’ needs, a savings of $21 per day.

To determine how much money grazing the crop residue and cover crops saved them, the Schmidts first figured out how much dry matter their herd would need over the 140-day period (about 72 tons). They recorded how much hay they fed (48 tons) and calculated the amount of forage consumed (the difference between the animals’ needs and what was fed as hay). They also considered labor and fuel costs to feed hay versus grazing (which requires no fuel), as well as the cost of establishing the cover crop versus the average cost per ton of hay.

Avoid compaction

The forage would have supplied a higher percentage of their animals’ needs, but the Schmidts refrained from grazing their herd on the cover crop regrowth in the spring due to wet, muddy conditions; doing so would have damaged the soil and plants, jeopardizing their ability to terminate the cover crop with herbicides.

“I believe we can greatly improve our operation by further reducing our use of hay,” Dave Schmidt says. “Our long-term goal is to cut stored feeds down to approximately one month, for when gestating cows have high nutritional needs or when the weather is extremely harsh.”

He adds that continuing to graze crop residues and fall-seeded cover crops will remain an integral part of how he and Meg plan to reach that goal.

This project, “Grazing Cover Crops for Winter Feed,” was funded by The McKnight Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

PFI’s Cooperators’ Program helps farmers use accepted scientific methods to transition to more sustainable and economically profitable systems through research, recordkeeping and demonstration projects. The Cooperators’ Program began in 1987 with farmers who were interested in saving money through more judicious use of inputs. It now includes research on a wide range of field crop, livestock, horticulture, on-farm energy and cover crop questions.

Source: Practical Farmers of Iowa

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CUT COSTS: “The cost of stored feeds, like hay, is often the single greatest cost of maintaining cattle over winter. Extending the grazing season can result in significant savings,” says Bruce Carney.

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GOOD FEED: “Grazing cover crops can provide a high-quality, low-cost source of feed that, with proper management, can extend the grazing season and reduce the amount of hay needed for feeding,” says Dave Schmidt.

This article published in the November, 2015 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

Grazing Management

Cover Crops

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