Profitable winter cover crops

DROVERS CATTLE NETWORK – Cover crops for grazing can be as successful or as futile as your management makes them.

Gabe Brown and son Paul, from North Dakota, graze cattle throughout most winters now on cover crops. Mostly these are complex blends of warm-season and cool-season plants, and all are freeze-killed by the North Dakota winters. The cattle stay in good shape, the Browns say.

They control grazing in daily moves most of the winter to keep forage quality high, spread urine and dung evenly for soil health, and avoid the compaction and bare soil that results from long exposure of land to cattle.

Eight hundred miles south of the Browns, near Waverly, Kan., Darin Williams is working out a similar system to get his cattle and sheep through the winter and improve his soil at the same time. Williams also uses mostly multi-species cover crops for soil-building, and he plans, plants and stockpiles forages to get through the fall slump, the cold of winter and that difficult early-spring period before perennial grass greens up.

In the place Williams farms he says some plants, like cereal rye and triticale, will stay green a big portion of most winters. He is working with warm- and cool-season mixes at times, but also tends to use more warm-season mixes for summer and fall and more cool-season mixtures for winter-spring.

Williams also likes to stockpile cover-crop mixtures that are primarily warm-season plants for grazing deep into winter. Again, he finds the cattle do well when he controls grazing so they are getting fresh forage daily.

Williams says after five years of experimentation he’s close to getting through on grazing only. More than 80 percent of his land is crop ground, so in that way he faces a bigger challenge than the Browns, who have well more than half their land in grass. Nonetheless, Williams says, the soil is improving and his livestock numbers are growing.

Another 550 miles south, Jonathan Cobb is laboring in Texas dryland corn country south of Waco to build a grazing system on his family’s crop farm using multi-species cover crops and controlled grazing.

Cobb is a seed seller for cover-crop mixtures and says right now the biggest problem he has on his own farm is not enough livestock. Still, when he can get them, he follows the pattern Gabe Brown established years ago of no-tilling multi-species cover crops to build the soil, grazing cattle to capture value from those crops, plus using high-density, controlled grazing to protect the soil and keep a “ration” of good-quality forage flowing into the cattle so they can perform well.

The difference

These producers and many more are following the well-proven path on which well-managed, multi-species cover crops can do several things:

  • Improve soil biology.
  • Increase soil life.
  • Increase soil organic matter.
  • Improve soil structure.
  • Improve inherent soil fertility.
  • Increase water infiltration and water-holding capacity.
  • Increase production.
  • Decrease costs.
  • Increase profits.

When they plan and manage well, many producers also are finding they can decrease weed problems and provide higher quantity of forage for their livestock. Frequently, they increase forage quality over long periods of time, too.

Winter ideas

The species and combinations of plants that can work for you depend on where you live, how you manage and, to some degree, what kind of soils you’re starting out with.

The Browns frequently include all four types of plants in their mixes. They know winterkill will shut down everything at some point. But they want copious plant material to graze during the winter and plenty left over to shade the soil and suppress weeds next spring.

“By January we’ll have 2 feet of snow most years and the cover crops are mashed down pretty good. But the cows will dig in and get them,” Brown says. “They have to if they want anything to eat.”

Most of their winter and some spring grazing is done on cover crops on crop ground, he says. They are true summer calvers and so they wean in April most years. Then they can use the dry cows to really go after invasive grasses like smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass in perennial pastures.

However, for high-quality spring grazing, the Browns sometimes include in some fall cover crops a good portion of what they call “fall biennials.” Examples are cereal rye, forage wheat and triticale. These will overwinter in a frozen state and then burst out in the spring to create some great forage for grass-finisher cattle or sometimes to calve upon, Brown says.

Williams spends a great portion of his winters grazing frozen forage, too, although not as long as the Browns. In winter, he says his perennial grass pastures, which make up only about 10 percent of his total acreage, serve as relief for his crop ground. He finds this is still necessary on some locations which have not improved as much as others.

“I see the longer we no-till and cover-crop, the better our soils get,” he says. But after only five years he knows he has a ways to go to catch up with the Browns.

When Williams plants mixtures for winter grazing, he likes a significant portion in plants which produce a lot of carbon and stand up well when frozen. These are things like millets, sudan-sorghums and some sunflowers. He says if he’s planting them late in the summer he may include some cool-season plants in the mix, such as buckwheat, radishes and winter grasses like triticale or rye.

Don’t be afraid of tall forage, Williams adds, and plan to let it grow at least 45 days and maybe 60 days or longer before grazing.

Like the Browns, he has found his cattle like the quality in standing-crop mixtures, frozen or not. He says the first year he tried it he began to feel sorry for his small, newly acquired cow herd and put out some hay for them. Williams said they wouldn’t eat the hay as long he was partitioning out fresh cover crop daily.

Williams also says a cover crop heavy with cereal rye has proved to give great weed control in fields where he’s had problems with pigweed, so that affects his planting decisions for winter cover crops as well.

Williams has put cool-season grasses into warm-season cover crops, grazed the summer plants off early in the fall in time for the cool-season plants to flourish, and then had nice winter or spring grazing on those plots.

He says high-density grazing clearly gives him the best results, and he does it as often as possible, but he’s more likely to use that practice when he isn’t harvesting crops.
In the Southern Plains, Cobb and some customers are experimenting with mixtures that include some warm-season plants mixed in with cool-season plants for fall and winter grazing. He and others in southern climes also are grazing stockpiled warm-season plantings as dormant forage in winter.

As the cover-crop and soil health movements work their way south, there should arise more innovation and adaptation others can copy.

By Alan Newport      DCN

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