Wallaces Farmer

With proper planning and seed choice, cover crops can also be used as forage crops.

Rod Swoboda 1, Editor, Wallaces Farmer

August 24, 2016

5 Min Read

The annual Van Buren County Pasture Walk, sponsored by Iowa State University Extension, will be Sept. 7, 2016 hosted by Jason and Paul Wells who farm near Milton in southeast Iowa. The focus for the pasture walk will be on using cover crops as a forage source—something more farmers are looking into. Even if you don’t have cattle on your farm, a neighbor may be interested in grazing your cover crop for a fee.


“Cover crops have become quite popular in recent years, not only from a soil conservation and water quality perspective, but also due to their potential to be an additional forage source for livestock producers,” says Rebecca Vittetoe, field agronomist with ISU Extension and Outreach.

Cover crop grazing can reduce feed costs for cow herds
Jason and Paul Wells will share their experiences using cover crops as a forage source on their dairy farm. ISU Extension beef specialist Patrick Wall and Vittetoe will discuss and share information incorporating cover crops as a forage source into an operation.

The pasture walk will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is open to the public. There is a $5 registration fee to help cover the meal, which will be prepared by the Van Buren County Cattlemen’s Association and served by a local 4-H club. Please RSVP to the Van Buren County Extension Office at 319-293-3039 by September 2.

Directions: The Wells’ dairy farm is located at 14658 252 St. in Milton, Iowa. To get there from Keosauqua, go south on Hwy. 1, and turn west on Hwy. 2 for about 8 miles toward Route V64. Turn north onto V64 for 2 miles, and then turn west onto 252 St. for about 0.5 miles until you arrive at 14658 252 St. For additional information or if you have questions contact Rebecca Vittetoe at 319-653-4811 or email [email protected], or contact Patrick Wall at 515-450-7665 or email [email protected].

Using cover crops for forage is an untapped potential resource
Most farmers recognize the benefits of cover crops, such as reducing nitrate and phosphorus loss from fields, along with bringing soil health improvements. But using cover crops for forage is largely an untapped potential. As producers prepare to seed cover crops, they might want to consider the advantages of grazing.

Meghan Filbert, livestock coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa, says grazing cover crops offers many benefits. “By grazing in the fall and spring you’re effectively extending your grazing season,” Filbert says. “You’re preserving your spring perennial pasture and you don’t have to put cattle on your pastures quite as soon in the spring by being able to graze some green rye that’s out there right now. And one big advantage is you save money in stored feeds, you save money in hay.”

Which fall-planted cover crop will produce the most forage?
Fall planted winter rye, winter wheat and triticale provide the most biomass and ideally 16% to 18% percent crude protein, she says. The amount of dry matter (DM) available for grazing depends on length of time the cover has to grow. For fall-planted rye grazed the following spring, Filbert says farmers can expect approximately 200 to 300 pounds of DM forage per acre by mid-March; 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre by mid-April; and about 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per acre by mid-May.

Consider this example: A 1,400-pound cow consuming 3% of her bodyweight per day at 50% grazing efficiency would be able to graze for five days with 500 pounds per acre DM. However, if 2,000 pounds of DM per acre is available, the cow could graze 25 days.

Grazing in action, how a farmer uses his cover crop system
For nearly 30 years, Mark Schleisman, a farmer in the Elk Run Watershed near Lake City in northwest Iowa, planted 70 acres to rye every year and used that field for spring calving. About five years ago, he expanded his cover crop grazing system.

“We got into seed production more—popcorn seed or corn seed—and that crop comes off pretty early,” Schleisman says. “We had a lot of weeds come late in the fall or in summer, too. I started using the cover crops more to give us some ground cover and compete against those weeds. At the same time, we noticed the cows were happier grazing if they could eat some old cornstalk residue as well as some green cover crops at the same time.”

His 320 cows graze approximately 800 acres of cereal rye mixed with turnips, radishes, rape and or triticale from fall through spring. Schleisman divides his fields into three categories—fall only grazed, fall and spring grazed, and spring only grazed—based on proximity to feed and available facilities. For Schleisman, cover crop grazing has reduced his feeding costs.

Cover crops provide conservation and soil health benefits
“It depends on the year, the temperature and the growth, but overall on average grazing the cover crop has greatly reduced our feed needs,” he says. “In a year like this where it’s been pretty warm with an early spring, we’ve probably cut our feed consumption in half of what it would be if we didn’t have cover crops. A lot of times, we get by giving the cows either no feed or half a feeding and letting the growing cover crop be the rest of the food source.”

Beyond reduced feed costs, he says the root structure of cover crops have relieved the soil compaction the cattle would create. Additionally, Schleisman notices reduced erosion from planting cover on the seed production fields, which don’t typically leave much residue. Finally, he values the ability of cover crops to reduce nutrient loss on the acres where he applies manure.

Producers interested in cover crops can participate in single-year and multiyear trials (grazing and non-grazing) through the Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network. To sign up for trials, contact an On-Farm Network field specialist: Rich Stessman, northwest Iowa, 515-333-8760, [email protected]; Anthony Martin, northeast Iowa, 319-461-0759, [email protected]; Brett McArtor, southern Iowa, 319-594-2417, [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda 1

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Rod, who has been a member of the editorial staff of Wallaces Farmer magazine since 1976, was appointed editor of the magazine in April 2003. He is widely recognized around the state, especially for his articles on crop production and soil conservation topics, and has won several writing awards, in addition to honors from farm, commodity and conservation organizations.

"As only the tenth person to hold the position of Wallaces Farmer editor in the past 100 years, I take seriously my responsibility to provide readers with timely articles useful to them in their farming operations," Rod says.

Raised on a farm that is still owned and operated by his family, Rod enjoys writing and interviewing farmers and others involved in agriculture, as well as planning and editing the magazine. You can also find Rod at other Farm Progress Company activities where he has responsibilities associated with the magazine, including hosting the Farm Progress Show, Farm Progress Hay Expo and the Iowa Master Farmer program.

A University of Illinois grad with a Bachelors of Science degree in agriculture (ag journalism major), Rod joined Wallaces Farmer after working several years in Washington D.C. as a writer for Farm Business Incorporated.

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