Editors Note: We’ve shared quite a few articles on cover crops and how they can help folks raising livestock on pasture. Now, here’s an article from Genevieve Slocum at King’s Agriseed about what you might plant this fall to reduce your feed bill while improving your soils for this coming spring.
Cover crops, including those that double as forage, are a cost-effective conservation practice. They contribute a variety of benefits to the field, including weed suppression, soil building, and soil pore formation to help alleviate compaction and increase moisture-holding capacity. As a residue barrier, they prevent erosion and evaporation. Even when you graze the top growth, cover crops keep on working as their root biomass contributes to soil organic matter and helps physically break up the soil. A winter cover crop complements nutrient management plans because it holds many manure-applied nutrients in the plant tissue, while scavenging leaching nutrients.
What Should You Plant?
What to plant in the fall will likely be influenced by the type of feed you need in the spring, and whether this will be for grazing, mechanical harvest, plowdown, or burndown. A mix that includes two or more species, including small grains, other grasses (usually annual ryegrass), legumes, and brassicas, is the ideal choice. As a forage crop, even a simple mix adds agronomic diversity to the ration, as well as providing a nice complement to summer annual forages.
The window of time you have available for planting and growth in both the fall and spring also influences your choice. For example, maybe you have time to plant by late summer this year, but want to be able to plant the following crop next spring as soon as you can get in the field. In that case, the best thing would be a mix or straight stand that may include oats, spring barley, Daikon radish, or turnips. These crops grow rapidly in 60 days, depending largely on the tail-end of summer’s heat, but don’t reliably survive a killing frost. Instead, they leave a protective killed residue layer over winter, advantageous to no-till plant into in the spring. They also greatly improve soil tilth with their root growth.
If you’re planting a winter annual legume for the nitrogen benefit, you must leave enough time for it to grow until bloom for the most benefit. Hairy vetch often blooms in early June, while crimson clover blooms a little earlier, around mid-May.
Triticale is one of the most productive winter annual small grains and great as a forage because it is high in digestible fiber. Consider mixing it with some of the legumes listed below or with annual ryegrass and/or oats for the potential of a fall cutting, and one or more spring cuttings.
Rye is of course the classic fall-back cover crop option at a late planting date. It is the latest planted and earliest maturing cover crop available and produces the most for its growth period. Although it comes in behind triticale’s combination of yield and quality, it is an economical soil builder and makes a decent forage if harvested before boot stage in the spring.
Keeping it Simple
The best winter mixes for building soil and making good feed are often the simplest, and can consist of a small grain and legume. The legume helps fix nitrogen and improve protein levels, but often faces competition from the small grain and will make up a small portion of the total dry matter yield.
Legume options include:
- Austrian winter peas
- Spring peas (will winter kill with hard frosts)
- Crimson clover
- Hairy vetch
- Yellow blossom sweetclover
- Ladino white clover
- Medium red clover
Finally, don’t forget the bees when planting. You can add blooming plants to your cover crop mix that will keep bees in business through the growing season and add add some beauty to your landscape.