On his west-central Missouri farm, Kyle Grumke and his father, Ross, use cover crops on 350 acres. It’s a practice Ross initially scoffed at but now appreciates for the soil health benefits and additional feed source for their cattle.
With a passion for preserving their land for future generations, the family switched to 100% no-till on their Wellington, Mo., farm 10 years ago. They plant an eight-species mix of cover crops after wheat and cereal rye following corn and soybeans. Kyle says the benefits more than pay for the $25 per acre investment.
“Livestock is where we really net back the cost,” Kyle says. “In addition, if we can keep nutrients out of watersheds and in our soil and prevent algal blooms that keeps the government from telling me what to do.”
For example, in 2017 the Grumkes grazed 38 cattle on a 17-acre patch midsummer, when quality hay was scarce. Kyle says the average cost per day was 80¢ per head, about the same as hay, but the forage quality on his cover crop acres far exceeded available hay quality.
Doug Hanson, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle one hour south of Chicago in Danforth, Ill., agrees cover crops and cattle are a no-brainer. “It’s always nice if we can raise our forage for cattle on ground that has already produced a cash crop,” Hanson says. “It lets us know how much feed we have for the winter so we can buy any hay we’ll need during the summer months when it’s cheaper.”
In addition to selling cover crop seed, Hanson helps other farmers create grazing plans for cover crop acres. He recently helped a farmer graze 89 cows for 40 days on a newly fenced 80-acre field. It cost $8,076 to fence and aerially plant winter rye and turnips into standing corn. While that expense might seem high, it would have cost the farmer $9,000 (1.5 tons per day at $150 per ton) to buy forage. That created a total savings of $924.
You can’t just put cows out without a plan, Kyle and Hanson advise. Make sure they have access to shelter and water, and keep an eye on what and how much they eat.
“If you’re going to graze covers, strip graze them,” Kyle says. “Cows eat the ‘ice cream’ first and leave the ‘vegetables’ until the end, resulting in uneven feeding.”
Strip grazing assures they eat the patch evenly.
Be picky when selecting cover crop blends to graze. Make sure you find something with high energy, with adequate protein and rich in minerals. In addition, look for palatability and diversity, advises Audrey Stever, with the Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Department. Annuals provide more energy than perennials and legumes more than grasses. There’s no statistical difference in energy between warm- and cool-season grasses. In terms of protein content, annuals have more than perennials and legumes more than grasses. Cool-season grasses have more protein than warm-season grasses
“Grazing is most effective when plants are 6" to 15", and you shouldn’t graze a cover shorter than 4",” Stever adds.
While grasses are desirable because they grow faster, legumes provide more nutrients, as mentioned. Also consider water and nutrient availability and how cover crops might impact your cash crop.
There’s an element of trial and error involved when establishing and grazing cover crops. Mother Nature will throw curve balls, so be prepared to react and adapt quickly.
“In 2010 I had 120 head of cattle grazing 80 acres of summer annuals and permanent pasture from April to Oct. 1,” Hanson says. “When it came time to plant the fall cover crops, I planted the first five acres then waited one week to finish the last 25. It was a drought year—the only acres that received rain were the first five I planted.”
The cover crop provided spring grazing but wasn’t able to provide feed through the winter. On top of already paying $20 to $30 per acre to establish cover crops, he had to buy hay. Now that he’s made that mistake once, Hanson says he does all he can to mitigate risk and plant early.
“University of Missouri research says, and I’ve seen it on my farm, cows on cover crop fields when used responsibly won’t hurt yield,” Kyle says. It’s a practice he plans to continue to use and expand on his farm.