Thanks to Elisabeth Spratt of the Pasture Project for this article on their recently finished project!
If you raise crops and are looking for a way to improve your soils and your bottom line, Wade Dooley says cover crops grazed by livestock is your solution. “It is the best and fastest way to realize an economic return on using cover crops while at the same time improving your soil conditions.” While cover crops provide major benefits, livestock grazing accelerates the process while offsetting the cost of winter feed.
“You can’t go faster than with cows, as far as showing a net return on a single year cycle,” says Dooley, adding, “If they’re worried about a one-year lease or a one-year return, they can show their banker: cows are the way to go.”
Dooley is a sixth-generation farmer who operates Glenwood Century Farm in Albion, Iowa. He’s also one of eight cooperating farmers in Iowa and Minnesota who have been participating in cover crop grazing trials since 2015. Led by the Pasture Project, an initiative of the Wallace Center at Winrock International, along with Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, and Land Stewardship Project, the trials focused on quantifying just how much benefit participants were getting out of grazing cover crops.
Dr. Allen Williams, who consulted on the project, says that grazing provides opportunities to further bolster the soil health benefits from cover crops: “You’re actually creating a double benefit. You can not only create more net revenue in that year than your cash crop generated, but you’re putting money in the bank for the future because you are creating soil benefits that last for years and years after that.”
Grazing Days and Profits Increase
Cooperating farmers in this project grazed an average of about 16 fall days and 8.5 spring days, though several farms surpassed 30 days for the full season. On average, net profits equaled $40 per acre.
Grazing days and costs depend on the location of your cover cropped field and your infrastructure. Dooley says, “Depending on the herd that we’re using, if they’re really easy to handle and calm, and we’ve already got everything fairly quick to set up and tear down, I want a minimum of seven days of grazing.”
The equation may change if you are grazing another farmer’s row cropped land via a grazing lease. In that case, the costs of transporting cattle mean that you’d need more grazing days to break even. Bruce Carney, another project cooperator who operates Carney Family Farms outside of Maxwell, Iowa, says, “You would have to have, I would guess, a minimum of 30 days [of grazing] to haul cattle to somebody else’s farm.” Bruce’s cattle grazed on his neighbor, Rick Kimberley’s, cover crop, and since Bruce’s pasture is adjacent to Rick’s crop fields, the logistics of grazing were easier.
Growing Cover Crops
Planting early enough to get sufficient growth before the weather turns too cold, particularly in the northern climes, was key to maximizing grazing days. Williams says the secret can be interseeding before the cash crop is harvested – for example, planting into corn in the V4-V6 stage. “We can broadcast seed using a highboy, we can fly it on, or we can retrofit planters so that we can go in and drill in between corn rows,” says Williams.
But don’t be alarmed if cover crop growth slows when the corn canopy grows over the top of the newly-germinated cover, says Allen. “Many times you may think you have lost that cover crop, but it’s just lying dormant. Once that corn is harvested, if you’ve got proper moisture and soil temperature, then you see very rapid response. It won’t be long until you can get your livestock in on that cover crop.”
Farmers are using other creative ways to stretch the cover crop growing period, too, such as shorter-season corn hybrids, including small grains in their rotations, or even planting and grazing warm season covers in place of cash crops in some years, which can more fully leverage any investment made in fencing or watering systems. Some cooperators said, this requires a fundamental shift in thinking about the value of cover crops. “Until you start looking at your cover crop and give it the same importance as you do your cash crop, you’re not going to get the full benefit out of your cover crop. It means flexibility. It means maybe changing hybrids and using shorter‑season hybrids to let your cover crop grow longer to get more benefit out of it,” says Carney.
Getting Started With Cover Crops and Grazing
As with all new practices, starting small is a good way to see what works best on your farm. Dan Jenniges, another project cooperator who manages Jenniges Hidden Acres in Pope County, Minnesota, stresses that much of what he learned, he learned from experimenting: “It can be as scary or as comforting as you want. It can be as simple or as complex as you want. Never feel bad about trying one particular cover crop on a small area to get your foot wet.”
Learn more from the experiences of the project’s cooperating farmers and experts by downloading the free “Grazing Cover Crops: A How-To Guide” and by checking out the project’s Grazing Cover Crops Video Tutorials.
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