Wednesday, June 12, 2024
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Science backs profits from grazing cover crops

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Cover Crops: Renowned for protecting the soil, adding organic matter, increasing soil biodiversity, and providing habitat for beneficial organisms. Yet still, strangely overlooked by many!

Planting a cover crop after corn, soybeans or wheat makes Jeff Rasawher an additional $200/acre. For forage cover crops that he harvests and sells, he makes even more, ranging from $300-400/acre. When he puts his herd of Black Angus on the cover crops, his profits climb to close to $500/acre.

The cover crops are making him money because they reduce the amount of fertility he has to apply the rest of the year. He plants a diverse mix of cover crops, finding the boon in the the diversity.

The funny thing is that, even though cover crops do all sorts of amazing things to the soil and bottom line, not everyone plants them. The number is climbing slowly; only 12% of Midwest farmers used them in 2010, and less than 2% of agricultural land in the Mississippi River basin gets cover cropped. Even though there are plenty of folks who believe in the benefits, some say it would take incentive payments of about $23/acre to get them to sign up and plant.

Whenever we think of adopting a practice, it comes down to the bottom line. Jeff’s experiences boosting his bottom line by hundreds of dollars per acre when he grazes cover crops sound too good to be true. He’s backed up by research, though. Most recently, scientists in Georgia* planted annual rye after cotton for four years. They grazed some of the annual rye, and compared profits from cotton and rye production on the grazed and ungrazed portions. Most years, they didn’t see much of a difference, averaging just $50 or so more per acre. The low-seeming profits were in part attributed to compaction from the cattle’s hooves on wet ground. In 2007, when there was severe drought, grazing produced about $150 additional dollars per acre.

Jeff and I talked about this study, and he wasn’t surprised the researchers, including H. H. Schomberg and D. S. Fisher, didn’t see more of a return from grazing. If he were doing such a comparison, he would have used a different variety of annual rye, seeking one with a lateral root system in the surface. One he suggested was Rootmax.  He also would have added crimson clover, rape, and radish, to give the root system resilience. The highly developed root system he finds in diverse cover crops develops macro-aggregation (good small clumps and pore spaces) in soil, making it able to rebound better from cattle traffic.

Cover crops have the potential to improve soil health in many ways, and can increase profitability as well. Forage cover crops have value in that they provide a product you can sell. Each year, Jeff tries to add something to his cover crops for diversity and to improve his system. He sees variation from year to year, and cover crop to cover crop, but he’s seeing profits boosted by planting cover crops. Grazing cover crops, when done carefully, seems to be a great addition to that system. Now, one question is finding the time to add these extra practices.

*Here’s the original journal article on their research: Schomberg, H. H., D. S. Fisher, D. W. Reeves, D. M. Endale, R. L. Raper, K. S. U. Jayaratne, G. R. Gamble, M. B. Jenkins. 2014. Grazing Winter Rye Cover Crop in a Cotton No-Till System: Yield and Economics. Agronomy Journal 106: 1041-1050

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Rachel Gilker
Rachel Gilker
Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.

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