Growing up on a farm, for me, the end of autumn was always marked by weaned calves, harvested corn fields, and of course, cows grazing corn stalks. It's a resource Iowa, my home state, shares in common with Nebraska. Corn stalk grazing helps stretch forage supplies and gives perennial pastures more time to recover. Dry cows can typically maintain or even gain weight on corn residue when grain, husks, and leaves are available. And, grazing stalks doesn't come with additional fuel or equipment costs.
But it's still an underutilized resource in Nebraska and Iowa, where many corn stalk fields go ungrazed each year. I've heard several reasons for not grazing residue or not leasing stalk acres for grazing – from concerns of cattle removing too much residue to cattle contributing to soil compaction. However, research continues to demonstrate these concerns aren't well-founded.
A 16-year study at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Agricultural Research and Development Center near Mead evaluated the effects of cattle grazing stalks in fall and spring on corn and soybean yields in a corn-soybean rotation. This study showed grazing corn residue in fall or spring resulted in a statistical improvement in soybean yields the following year, and had no effect on corn yields. Researchers noted fields are typically frozen this time of year, so any compaction should be minimized.
When grazing residue, cattle tend to eat the "goodies" first. That is, they selectively eat any grain left behind first, then the husk and leaf, and finally the cob and stalk. According to UNL research, about one bushel per acre is typically left in the field for livestock grazing after harvest. It's recommended to graze to only take 50% of the leaves and husk, and leave the stalks and cobs. Those who manage and take cattle off in a timely manner usually don't have problem removing too much residue.
And stalk grazing can actually be mutually beneficial for cattle and crop producers. Excess residue can impede soil warm-up in spring and seed placement at planting, and grazing provides an alternative method for managing this excess residue. Meanwhile, the first thing cattle graze is any grain left behind, reducing the likelihood of volunteer corn. It's a win-win for both cattle and crop producers.
A valuable tool for determining the amount of acres of corn stalks needed, the number of the number of days to graze, the necessary number of animals to graze, or the cost of grazing those stalk acres is UNL's Corn Stalk Grazing Calculator.