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to start thinking

Ever see a cow gulp down a turnip in a field of cover crops? A lush, green field of cover crops is both tasty to cattle and beneficial to the soil. For Lewis Bainbridge, a farmer and rancher from Ethan, S.D., using cover crops makes perfect sense for his diversified livestock operation.

"Cattle thrive on a good cover crop," said Bainbridge. "Everything is green, lush and very palatable to the cattle. Our herd gains weight before heading into winter by grazing cover crops. It's really a win-win for us. Not only do cover crops bring nutrients up from the depths of the soil, but the cattle are spreading manure. We don't have to feed hay, nor do we have to haul manure out to that field."

Bainbridge typically plants 4-6 different types of plants including a legume such as peas or lentils, a forage like rape, and brassicas such as turnips and radishes. He has also added oats to his rotation of cover crops, as it helps release phosphorous in the soil.

"We've tried many things over the years and have found that Mother Nature finds a way to keep one type or kind in the mix from growing," he said. "We try to have a good variety, so something ends up growing in the field. Each variety also has different benefits for the soil, so it's good to have a nice mix."

Cover crops are a recent buzz in popular agriculture literature," said Kent Solberg, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota livestock and grazing specialist. "Cover crops are a tool that may be used to address one or more resource issues on a particular field. These issues can range from compaction, nutrient and water cycling, erosion, and pest suppression."

Solberg spoke at the 9th Annual I-29 Dairy Conference in January in Sioux Falls, S.D. And while cover crops can help build drought resistance and reduce input costs, they won't solve every problem a producer faces.

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"Cover crops in themselves are not a silver bullet," he said. "Cover crops are part of a larger soil health management program. Strategies to improve soil health consist of maintaining soil armor (surface residue), minimizing soil disturbance (tillage), increasing crop diversity, providing continuous living cover and integrating livestock. The more of these tools producer utilizes, the greater the benefits."

Solberg said how a producer incorporates cover crops into the operation will depend upon the resources available and the operation's specific goals.

"Cover crops are readily adapted into a crop rotation following a small grain or field pea crop, or as a season-long crop that is harvested by livestock in the fall. Producers have successfully incorporated cover crops with silage corn," he said.

Bainbridge has a crop rotation of wheat, corn and soybeans, and ultimately, the weather decides which field and how soon he can get his cover crops planted.

"We've had great success with cover crops over the years, except in 2012," he admitted. "With the extreme drought we were in, we chose not to plant that year."

In dry areas, producers may be hesitant to plant cover crops, especially if there isn't adequate moisture to get the crop going. However, Solberg said there are some complex cover crop mixes that have been shown to be more resistant to the impact of drought.

"Different soil management strategies can influence soil structure and the soil's ability to capture and store water and nutrients," he explained. "While producers cannot control the amount of precipitation their ranch receives, they can influence the ability to capture and store every drop that falls. For example, soil organic matter can be increased through the use of fibrous root cover crops. SOM feeds soil microbes. Soil microbes build soil structure. The percentage of SOM and the soil structure determines the soil's ability to capture and store precipitation and retain nutrients."

"When planting cover crops, you can expect to have some failures, too," explained Bainbridge. "One year, we tried to fly rye onto a field of corn. We had minimal success with that. We've had some seeds that don't grow, as well. Some seeds are small and some are large, and they all require a different depth. The recipe for a perfect cover crop isn't quite perfected yet. However, with the high cost of land and pasture, we feel like utilizing cover crops is a money-saving option for us. We try to hold our cover crop costs to $20/acre, and the returns are huge. We far exceed our input costs by having cover crops."

Experience has shown Bainbridge that cover crops can help extend the grazing season, plus it can also help maintain body condition scores in the cowherd.

"The target is to graze about 30-50 percent of the cover crop, trampling the rest to feed and protect the soil," Solberg added. "Respectable average daily gains (up to 3 lbs./heifer/day) have been reported for cattle on diverse cover crop plantings. This, in part, may be the result of the animals having the opportunity to be selective when grazing the cover crop. Cool season cover crop blends can be chopped as silage in June or July and allowed to regrow for late summer or fall grazing. Some producers have moved toward raising particular cover crops as a cash crop, such as barley or red clover for seed, to diversify their rotation and income streams."

Other examples of cover crop options producers can utilize include seeding 2-3 lbs./acre mix of turnips, crimson clover and annual ryegrass into corn," Solberg added. "Seed may be flown on or spread with a modified spread. Shade tolerant Crimson clover may be sown under oats. The clover will continue to grow after harvest and is terminated by freezing weather. Barley and field peas may be sown together for silage, diversifying the crop rotation. This can be followed with a complex cover crop blend that includes millet, sorghum, Sudan grass, sunflower, buckwheat, brassicas, cowpeas, soybeans and others."

Bainbridge has done a test plot of 20 different species in the past, and the one thing he noted that cattle would not eat was Ethiopian cabbage.

"The cows wouldn't touch that Ethiopian cabbage," Bainbridge noted. "However, I'm thinking about adding it back into my ration, so it can serve as something to cover the soil and catch snow. The cows typically eat the fields down to nothing, so it might be worth having something out there that the cattle would just eat around."

Even with some snow cover on the fields, Bainbridge has observed how his cattle will abandon hay feeders and head out to the field to dig and scrounge up the cover crops.

"When we started planting cover crops, we were planting predominantly for the good it does for the soil," Bainbridge said. "The added bonus is if you can get some moisture, you can feed cows for a long, long time. The cows will eat the turnips and brassicas even when frozen. If you have an adequate supply of moisture and don't have too much snow, the cows will stay out there and graze it to the ground. My fields look like mowed lawns right now. They have eaten everything out there."

If a rancher is willing to try something new, managing for soil health using cover crops can be productive and profitable.

"Producers have found that managing for soil health using cover crops can be productive and profitable. Start small and learn how incorporating cover crops into operation can help improve soil health and your bottom line. Remember, soil health begins one field at a time," advised Solberg.

"When a producer goes to choose their seed, look first at what you want to accomplish with your soil and incorporate that with some substantial forage you want your cows to eat," recommended Bainbridge, who would one day like to experiment with weaning calves out on a field of cover crops. "Be willing to try new things and know that some thing will work and others won't, but the gains are well worth trying cover crops out."