Sponsored By
American Agriculturist Logo

Soil health and forage: A cover crop twofer

Dairy farmers are getting creative with cover crops as a homegrown forage.

Chris Torres

November 30, 2023

6 Slides

At a Glance

  • Cover crop mixes can add a lot of benefits.
  • Timing is crucial to make good cover crop feed.
  • Look at forage values to determine what works.

On a cool, crisp, sunny November afternoon in Cabot, Pa., William Thiele and his twin brother James are hard at work.

It’s harvesttime at Thiele Dairy. No, not corn and soybeans. It’s time to harvest the “crazy” cover crop mix the brothers planted in August.

“There’s a lot of crazy stuff in there,” William says with a laugh as the Massey Ferguson 4160V gets ready to do its work. This includes volunteer oats, buckwheat, sunflower, rapeseed, radishes and millet.

The brothers baled and then wrapped 60 bales of their homegrown cover crop mix for feeding. It will ferment and be fed to their 80 milking cows and heifers. They want good forage, especially since they often run out of corn silage early in the season. With 300 acres and other crops to grow, they don’t have the land to grow enough corn silage for a given year.

“The heifers absolutely love that baled cover crop,” Wiliam says. “There’s feed there, might as well take it and use it.”

Cover crops have always been valued for soil health and conservation, but some dairy producers are taking their cover cropping to the next level, as a twofer — for soil health and feed.

William says the multispecies cover crop mix was planted after oats in mid- to late August. It is part of the farm’s multiyear crop rotation that includes four years of alfalfa, corn, oats and soybeans. It will overwinter and be terminated next spring, although he may get another cutting depending on weather.

The mix has been useful. He says that it replaced much of the farm’s haylage last year. The farm’s nutritionist tested it and found that it provided a lot of calories and starch, even comparable to corn silage. Butterfat was also a bit higher.

“It’s definitely as good as alfalfa and corn silage as feed quality,” William says.

Of course, it costs money to buy the seed. And there is the cost and time of having to mow, bale and wrap the crop. But William says it is almost comparable to doing dry hay in summer. A legume will even be incorporated into the mix if corn follows in spring.

“There is good feed value in there, and they break up compaction,” he says of the mix. “That’s kind of why we have those different species in there, try to do a little bit of everything. We’re not putting in just clovers, just radishes, just sunflowers. You know, they all have their purposes and different root systems.”

Not for everyone

The idea of harvesting cover crops for forage isn’t new. At Schrack Farms in Loganton, Pa., Doug Harbach and his family have been harvesting cover crops for forage for more than a decade and have increased the amount they harvest each year.

“We have seen firsthand the benefits of cover crops to our soil health and nutrient retention,” Harbach says. “We are going to plant cover crops anyway for these benefits. But when made properly, forage from cover crops can be very high quality. We can make a large amount of forage in a short amount of time, and it can be extremely consistent in dry matter percentage, as well as nutrient composition.”

But Harbach is the first to say that it isn’t for everyone. Cereal rye and triticale are the main cover crop forages on his farm. Both have their benefits and challenges.

“In our experience, rye is earlier maturing than the triticale in our area [central Pennsylvania with elevation between 1,300 and 1,700 feet] by 12 to 14 days,” he says. “This is a benefit for rye, as we want to get the forage harvested early so we can plant corn sooner.”

The big drawback is its very short harvest window. “We want to cut it at boot stage to optimize yield and quality. On a hot spring day, that window for optimal harvest can be a day or less,” Harbach says.

On the other hand, triticale has a longer harvest window. He has also found it to be easier to merge into windrows.

“It is a leafier plant that is not as tall as the rye. Both can be equally high yielding [2-3 tons of DM per acre]. The high yield itself can cause challenges. It can be difficult to get it dried down,” he says, adding that he has had to add equipment to help with this. “We have found being able to use a tedder, maybe several times, to fluff it up is important. We needed to add equipment to be able to ted large amounts of acres quickly.”

The other key is good fermentation, and this is where timing is critical.

“Once the crop is mowed, the sugar levels immediately begin to decrease,” Harbach says. “The higher the moisture level the forage is when it is ensiled, the higher sugar concentration that is required to fuel the fermentation process to lower pH. We store our small grain silages in a bunker silo. Our goal is to have the moisture level down to 70% to 75% and have harvested within 24 to 36 hours of mowing.

“We have had great fermentation results even at these moisture levels because the sugar levels are high enough to drive it. In our opinion, the biggest mistake you can make is spending a week or 10 days trying to get it dry. There is simply not enough sugars remaining to fuel the fermentation process. The pH will drop too slowly, and it will allow formation of undesirable acids such as butyric acid.”

Money to tinker

Gary and Dan Hendershot, who run Hendershot Dairy in Clear Spring, Md., have taken advantage of the state’s cover crop program to try new cover crop forage mixes for their 500 dairy cows.

About 120 of the farm’s 600 acres are enrolled in Maryland’s Cover Crop Plus program. To get a base payment of $125 an acre — up to $155 an acre is possible — farmers must grow cover crop mixes on the same field for three straight years.

The brothers have always planted a mix of barley and wheat “just because if the barley comes in and heads, you still have the wheat for protein,” Gary says.

However, the Cover Crop Plus program requires a legume in the mix. This past season, they included 18 pounds of crimson clover — along with 100 pounds of barley and 150 pounds of wheat. They go high on seeding rates, Gary says, because they want the forage for their cows.

"I like the crimson clover in there. Its sugar is real high in the forage, plus cows really do well off of it," he says. "We have to have forage, so that's why we do cover crops.” 

The program requires the cover crop to stay in the ground until May 1. In his area of Maryland, Gary says he can plant corn as early as April 10. This created an issue last spring as the wet weather made planting corn, which had to be planted within a week of the cover crop mix being mowed, very difficult.

The brothers have seen success with other cover crop mixes. For example, they have tinkered with oats and crimson clover — 100 pounds of oats, 20 pounds of crimson clover. The oats are harvested in fall with crimson clover remaining until the following spring. “So, we get double forage and that’s been good,” Gary says.

Another mix they are tinkering with — just 15 acres — is barley planted with 15 pounds of crimson clover. The barley gets combined, and the clover is sprayed and killed, but not before the barley is able to get the extra nitrogen from the clover.

Along with the forage benefits, Gary says cover crops have improved his farm’s soil health. “Yields have increased, and organic matter has also gone up,” he says.

The harvested cover crops go to a bunk, although Gary says he has also done baleage when the trenches are full. Dan Hendershot, who handles more of the dairy side of the farm, says timing is crucial to maintaining or increasing milk production from feeding cover crops.

“I haven’t seen direct effects on milk production itself, but it is just when you are taking your crops off for the best timing and quality,” he says. “The earlier you tend to get it off, it will make your protein higher, which makes the cows respond to it better.”

The brothers replaced their farm’s double-12 herringbone parlor with four Lely robots last year. The robots were installed in a renovated loafing barn that was built in 2006. Before the robots were installed, the cows averaged 55 to 65 pounds a day of milk. Now, the cows average 70 pounds a head, largely because of the fact they are pushing three milkings a day.

"We're feeding a little more feed, but it's definitely that the cows have picked up from that extra milking," Dan says.

Don’t judge your cover crop success or failure by just one year, Gary says. For example, he and his brother tinkered with radishes for a few years with mixed results.

When aerial-seeded in corn and with ample rain, the radishes came up great. In dry weather, the radishes didn’t do so great. The lesson: Just because you have success one year doesn’t mean it will happen every year, and vice versa.

“You got to stick with it,” he says “Don’t take it and judge it off of one year. Give it a couple of years before you make a judgment.”

More with less

Land is at a premium for William Thiele and his family. They must do more with less, and he values efficiency over getting bigger or gaining more acres.

They still milk in a tiestall operation, although they are replacing their milkers to get more accurate readouts on cows before they dry out.

Last year, they got a new TMR mixer with knives on the bottom, which allows them to throw in whole bales of dry hay and mix everything at once. “We saw that when we fed the dry hay separately, the cows didn’t always eat it all, at least some of them wouldn’t,” William says. “So, we thought this would be less feed waste. So, we did that, and now they’re wasting very little.”

Doing a cover crop twofer makes sense for the Thieles. To stay in business, they must think about the future and what land resources they’ll have to feed their cows.

“And if you’re not ahead, you’re way behind,” William says. “In the long term, having that mindset is going to help us no matter what happens.”

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like