In a fast-growing trend to diversify, add value, improve soil quality and provide additional grazing resources for livestock, the use of cover crops in farm and ranch operations is a quickly growing trend that isn't soon to go away. With cost-sharing grants available through the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the opportunity for a more efficient livestock feeding system is one to take advantage of.
"Winter forage accounts for 70 percent of costs in a cow-calf operation," said Justin Fruechte, Millborn Seeds forage specialist.
Fruechte spoke at a winter meeting for the South Dakota Farm Bureau Association's Young Farmers and Ranchers group. "Cover crops can be used as free solar energy to promote year-round growth and use of your land. Land values are high, and cover crops help get the most out of each acre."
For those considering adding cover crops for the first time, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.
"Selecting the right cover crop seed is critical," stressed Fruechte. "With the correct blend for your land, cover crops can increase crop yield by 12 percent with every 1 percent increase in organic matter that cover crops promote. Talk to your area NRCS representative or a respected seed salesman to determine the appropriate blend."
Peter Sexton, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) state coordinator, offered advice on the benefits of different blends.
"Cover crops can be used to address a variety of soil issues," he explained. "For example, Brassicas, which usually consist of a blend with turnips and radishes, are helpful in reducing compaction of the soil, fixing problems such as surface crusting, plow layer compaction and subsoil compaction. To address nitrogen needs of the soil, look, plant lentils or peas. Livestock producers are using blends with more grasses in it because the brassicas by themselves tend to be low in fiber. The blends are dependent on their goals."
"For salinity management, where excess salts reduce plant growth, consider salt-tolerant crops like beats, barley and rape, which can also be used as livestock forage," added Fruechte.
Both agree that cover crops are a useful tool for anyone wanting to improve the land, increase efficiencies and diversify their operations.
"People are becoming more interested in cover crops as a way to improve soil quality," said Sexton. "It's a good fit where people are raising small grains, and they have time to add in a blend. We will probably see more of this down the road, as people gain experience with it and find what blends work on their place. We have several studies in the works that will enhance the information that's already available on cover crops. We are looking at winter rye as a cover crop for soybeans. We are also looking at nitrogen credits for cover crops. We are also doing preliminary work looking at clovers interceded into rye grass. Additionally, we are looking at nitrogen-release rates from different cover crops. We are trying to find something that will fit into the soybean and corn system as a cover crop. We are also looking at energy costs of production to evaluate how much energy it takes to produce a bushel of corn. The big draw for energy is nitrogen fertilizer."
With SDSU research well-underway, the use of cover crops will continue to grow and can be better applied and managed by producers in the future. A recent study conducted by Iowa State University (ISU) revealed 5-10 percent corn yield jump using erosion-slowing cover crops. The four-year study showed that cover crops can improve corn yields, by as much as 10 percent, when used as a soil-saving approach to farming.
According to the study, planing living mulch between rows of corn will help maintain soil moisture, slow soil erosion and sequester carbon. The study looked at the effect on the soil of removing corn stalks, cobs and leaves to use as biomass for producing cellulosic-based ethanol. Using cover crops helps to maintain the carbon in the soil and reduce erosion.
"The challenges of cover crops are that the crops come off the field so late, and it can be hard to get something in behind them," said Sexton. "Also, moisture is a challenge, too. A really dry fall can really hurt the growth of cover crops."
"The time of seeding is important," said Fruechte. "The crop must reach maturity to prevent volunteer growth in the following year. Also, consider the method of planting. Using broadcast, drill or air seeder, the method impacts rates because of various seed sizes in the blend. Understand your goals before choosing a blend; whether you're planting cover crops for grazing, nitrogen fixing or compaction, reducing residue or increasing organic matter, a reputable seed company can help you select the best blend for you."
Bloat is always a major concern when turning cattle out into a cover crop field. NRCS offers ways to reduce the risk of bloat.
"Don't introduce hungry animals in to a field; introduce animals slowly or restrict access over a 7-10 day period; provide dry matter (hay, millet hulls, dry pasture, or crop stalks) to the cattle when they are grazing in the cover crop field; the cover crop species should be at least 25 percent grasses and not be more than 70-80 percent brassicas; strip graze if possible to get the best utilization of the cover crop plants. Strip grazing will cause the animal to utilize the entire plant instead of the leafy portion of the brassica plant first and the bulb later; use bloat blocks where ever practical."
Despite a few areas of caution to be made when grazing cover crops, Fruechte said the benefits for cover crops in a livestock grazing system are numerous and hopes producers will consider using them as a beneficial addition to their feeding programs.
"Cover crops reduce feed costs, provide high-protein content for efficient gains, are very cold tolerant and regrow quickly," he said. "For $10-20 per acre, you can promote soil health, increase yields on your crops and add another feed source for your cattle."
"Cover crops have a role to play in adding diversity and improving soil quality; they are here to stay and can be used," added Sexton.
The benefits of cover crops are hard to ignore, and with cost-sharing grants offered through NRCS, the opportunity to experiment with blends is ready for the taking.