Cover Crops for Cattle

January 9, 2014 03:17 AM
Cover Crops for Cattle

Livestock and soils benefit from forage innovation

Scorched pastures offered little substance for O.D. Cope’s 1,000-head cowherd in summer 2012. Desperate for forage in August, the Aurora, Mo., cattleman says he took a cue from area dairy producers and seeded cover crop combinations of fescue, wheat and turnips on one farm and cereal rye with turnips on a second farm.

"I had never seeded turnips before, but I’d seen the dairy boys do it, and the cows seemed to like it," Cope recalls. "That was a lifesaver for us." He says he was also pleased with the crop results that fall.

Like Cope, other diversified cattle and row-crop producers are recognizing the benefits that cover crop combinations offer, says Jay Fuhrer, a district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation District in Bismarck, N.D. Along with providing food for livestock, the synergism between the two enterprises improves soil health, water retention and sometimes, the chance to reduce input costs.

That is true for several producers Fuhrer works with, including Jerry Doan, owner of Black Leg Ranch near McKenzie, N.D. In addition to a couple thousand no-till cropping acres, Doan rotates in 300 acres of full-season cover crops each year, mostly warm-season mixes. He plants the crops in June, and by fall, he is able to use them to support the ranch’s pheasant hunting enterprise. After hunting season, Doan moves cattle in to graze during the winter. In the spring, he plants sunflowers or corn on those fields. Fuhrer says the organic matter created by the cover crops, along with nutrients in the cattle manure, improves Doan’s soil biology and reduces his fertility costs on those 300 acres by about 25%.

The cover crop combinations also do a good job of meeting the nutritional needs of lactating and gestating cows, Fuhrer adds. Nutrient analysis of Doan’s cover crops in 2010 showed crude protein levels of 7.9% and 59% total digestible nutrients.

Nutrient values of cover crops can vary, so Fuhrer suggests producers test soil and fecal samples annually.

Have a plan. Randy Ringler, a forage consultant with Cover Crop Solutions in Lititz, Pa., tells producers to identify their goals for using cover crop mixes before they purchase seed.

"What I’m going to recommend varies, depending on whether growing the cover crop is your primary objective and feeding cattle is secondary or vice versa," he says.

Risa DeMasi, a partner with Grassland Oregon, adds: "If you can identify your top three priorities, the time of year you want to plant and the type of climate you’ll experience during that time, you can narrow down your options and determine the cover crops that best fit your needs."

Ringler says Mother Nature is usually the biggest hurdle that diversified Midwest farmers face. "Weather usually determines whether they can plant cover crops early enough in the season to make them perform the double duty of feeding cattle and improving soil biology," he explains.

Cover crops need about 45 days to establish a good root structure before turning cattle in to graze, Ringler says. Allow cattle to graze the crop down to about 4" to 6", and then move them to a new area.

It can take two or three years for diversified producers to work out an effective farm-specific program for cover crop use, Ringler adds. "We do ourselves the most good when we weigh options and start the process on a small scale." 

You can e-mail Rhonda Brooks at

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