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Do your homework before grazing cover crops

Victor Shelton, NRCS cows grazing on cover crops
GROW AND GRAZE: Cover crops can stretch your feeding budget. However, such grazing requires planning and careful management.
Summer- or fall-planted cover crops can provide valuable forage.

By Victor Shelton and Robert Zupancic  

Cover crops could be used for livestock grazing. If these crops are planted with funds from the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the grazing needs to be managed to guarantee that the original purpose isn’t compromised. Grazing is a secondary purpose with EQIP. Erosion control, soil compaction relief, nutrient management and soil health are primary purposes. 

There are two possible times for grazing fall-seeded cover crops: either fall and winter or spring. It’s specific to the cover crop planted. Either time frame can reduce feed costs, extend the grazing season and, especially in the fall, allow for longer rest and more growth on pasture fields not being grazed. 

The more days livestock can graze and not be fed something you must haul to them, the easier it is on your wallet. Feeding hay normally means nutrients were removed from somewhere. Grazing forages returns most nutrients to the land and enhances biological life in the soil.

On prevented planting acres, forages can be grazed or harvested after Sept. 1 in 2019 only. Summer annuals such as sorghum-sudangrass, sudangrass and millets are best suited for this use. However, some forages — such as sorghum-sudangrass, sunn hemp and some millets — may become overmature by Sept. 1. Two other negative possibilities of summer annuals are nitrate toxicity and prussic acid poison.

There are other choices. Brassicas and oats grow quickly in September with sufficient moisture and can produce quite a bit of forage quickly. Oats and possibly brassicas will normally winterkill. Cereal rye planted with these crops will continue growing and come on strong next spring, providing good cover and possibly a second opportunity to graze if soil conditions are favorable.

Cover crop benefits 

Adding annuals can significantly increase intake and nutritional quality of corn residue. Higher moisture content and nutritional quality of growing cover crops balances the dryness and lower quality of corn residue. 

Most cereal grains — such as wheat, triticale and cereal rye — planted in the fall don’t get enough growth to graze in the fall. They can provide a fair amount of grazing the following spring if soil conditions allow. However, springs often are too wet to graze. If soil conditions prevail, livestock can graze early growth, and annuals can still provide adequate cover to plant into. 

It’s always best to allocate annuals and crop residues in one- to seven-day allocations for the highest efficiency. Livestock shouldn’t be left on fields all winter, nor fed hay or other products that would negatively affect the cover crop or require tillage to resolve problems prior to planting.

When grazing cover crops grown on cropland, it’s important that you know what herbicides and other pesticides have been used and what the wait period is prior to grazing. Always follow label restrictions.

A properly planned cover crop can add numerous options if you’re currently grazing or if you plan to add livestock for additional soil health benefits. Proper planning — such as the potential carryover of previous herbicides, cover crop seed selection, establishment methods and timing — will help improve your overall cover crop experience. Explore how you can integrate cover crop grazing opportunities into your pasture-based livestock operation.

Shelton is the state grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Zupancic is the NRCS southeast Indiana grazing specialist. They write on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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