Whether you have pastures or you plant and graze cover crops, diversity is king. Cover crops are just like annual pasture. They make a great opportunity to improve soil health and to try out some new and interesting forages.
Farmers and ranchers in Maine and Northern Idaho have been mulling over what to plant for graze-worthy cover crops, and what to add to pastures. We talked to Jeff Rasawehr of Center Seeds for some suggestions. He’s been planting and grazing his own cover crops for years now, and he has examples of successes and failures that we can all learn from no matter where we live and work.
Jeff pondered the cover crop question thinking the farmers would be grazing beef cattle in both regions, but his suggestions might be useful for herds of different sorts. Given that Northern Idaho and Maine are both similar in temperature, but not in moisture, there are some differences in the ideas he’s got for each spot.
The first thing Jeff said is “Diversification is the currency of adaptation. It gives you the ability to adjust to varying environmental circumstances.” His ideal mix is truly a mix. He makes a veritable stew of seeds for planting. Minus the biscuits and gravy.
Planting Cover Crops
Spring cover crop planting would be pretty tough, especially in Idaho, given the dry conditions. He’d go with a mix of oats and peas in both Maine and Idaho, because they are both so beneficial to soil health [check out this previous article on PEAS]. The two don’t always mature in sync, though. Peas grow slowly, sticking at 6-8″ of height for weeks, then bolt to waist high out of the blue. If the peas don’t bolt, you won’t get much quality forage from them, but you still get the soil health boost. The oats are also a shot in the arm for soil health, and usually mature pretty quickly, depending on temperature and moisture. The beauty of the combo is that even if one doesn’t really seem to show up for your herd to graze, it’s still helping soil microbiology where you can’t see it.
The thing is, peas aren’t going to take the rigor of grazing very well. They are so tasty that they are selectively grazed, and they can be taken out completely. That will (surprise!) end the nitrogen fixation that the peas would be doing for the pasture. Any nitrogen fixed up until then will stay, but they are a one-shot deal for grazing.
There’s a lot more fun to be had with a summer/fall cover crop planting. In Northern Idaho, his summer/fall planting goes in as early as the first week of June and then even until early in August. For Maine, he’d plant later than June and earlier than the beginning of August. In both cases, that helps take advantage of available moisture, and avoids running into the end of the growing season.
Some of the first seeds he’d add to the cover crop mix are regional millets (3-5 lbs per acre). In the west, he sees that as a a good grass option. He’d also suggest some component of sorghum/sudangrass. (3-5 lbs of that too). Then he’d stir in a little oats, for some phosphorus availability, just 5 -10 lbs, not too much out west because it is so dry that they might not take off. One thing he would add, especially to feed the soil is 1 lb of the daikon radish, 1/2 lb of turnip, and 2 lbs of Verseem clover. Finally, he’d top it all off with 5-10 lbs of Austrian peas, but no more than that because of dry conditions. Jeff points out that some plants economize moisture and deal with heat. Your best bet is plant a mix, and then see what does well for you. When you see what does well for you, you become a practitioner, not just a cog in the machine.
Planting Into Pasture
Your pasture may be fine, but you might want to add something to it. To achieve an effective polyculture, you don’t have to be excessive with any single seeding rate. You can seed in small amounts of different species to add to soil health and to the forage ration.
One thing Jeff suggests seeding into pasture is Dutch white clover. But, if you’re going to add Dutch white, Jeff put it this way, “Less is more. More is too much.” Just 1/2 lb per acre is what you might consider. Dutch white doesn’t have much grazing value, so it doesn’t get much air time. But it is great for soil health, fixing nitrogen to beat the band. It lasts 7, 8, or 9 years, and does reasonably well in northern regions. Even if the seed doesn’t take in Year 1, it will establish in Year 2. It’s really prone to success, so don’t put down too much.
An option that might surprise you is chicory. You can seed in 1/2 – 1 lb per acre in mid summer when you are getting some moisture. It will last 5-6 years, and it is excellent for rumen health. Jeff said that any time he’s taking the time to seed, he tries to put some chicory in. But, remember, look for a leafy chicory, NOT a stemmy English blue. That’s a cutting flower!
In late fall, one thing to try is red clover. Some really aren’t comfortable with red clover, just as some like orchard grass, and some like fescue. There really are regional preferences, and your local grasses might be working for you. What you might want to try is adding a little of this and a little of that. Just a little, though.
To put it simply, “Diversity is great. Excess is not good.”
Another way of looking at this is that you might want to go out on a limb with different seed mixes. As Jeff said he’s heard Gabe Brown say that if you don’t make 1 to 2 mistakes a year, you’re not trying enough new things. Jeff suggests that peas or phacelia should be one of the 1-2 mistakes you’re willing to make. Phacelia is expensive, so no more than 1/4 lb per acre. You might come back to it, or you might say “I’ll never do that again!” (AND Phacelia is great for pollinators, so you might want to keep it for that reason alone.)
Most of all, the best idea is to try low rates of lots of different seedings to see what works. But keep records…so you can go back and avoid making the same mistakes twice!
P.S. Jeff extends the offer to pick his brain in person. Here’s his phone number: 419-305-0187. Say hi for me, if you give him a call.