Published on 28 February 2017
PROGRESSIVE FORAGE – Selecting a cover crop mix is a lot like buying a bull: There are many good options to choose from, but not all of those options fit your environment, your goals and, better yet, your pocketbook.
Clint Cox, a cattleman and cash crop producer in north-central Kansas, can attest to the challenging aspects of selecting a cover crop, but what he can also attest to is the benefit he has seen in soil health and overall cow-calf production.
For the last decade or so, Cox and his family have used cover crops following wheat (when the market was good) or rye (in more recent years), which follows corn and soybeans in the fall.
The cover crop mix he utilizes for grazing is planted after the rye harvest. Cox says they will harvest the rye with a stripper header and then go in with a mix of sudangrass, cowpea, forage collards, radish, purple-top turnip, oat, sunflower and millet.
Once the cows start calving around the first of March, the pairs are moved to the rye as soon as it “greens up and gets going,” Cox says. The pairs will stay on the rye until the first of May, where they are then moved to rented grass until November.
“We used to put pairs on the cover crop, but I really prefer to wean my calves on the cover crop and let my calves go and get the good stuff, and then follow it with the cows,” Cox says. “Or, if the fall stays with us long enough, and the calves get everything we want them to eat, we’ll just consider the rest of it for the soil biology and will move the cows to stockpiled corn residue after harvest.”
Since weaning his calves on this particular cover crop mix, Cox has recorded gains of 2.35 pounds per day. Last year, he weaned 270 calves and grazed them out for 42 days, and only had to unroll $500 worth of hay due to some snow. He figures it cost him about $2,400 in cover crop seed and fuel to seed 133 acres.
“These have been cheap pounds to put on during the weaning phase, and the cattle have been healthy,” Cox says. “It’s been a great opportunity for the cattle, and it’s been a positive for when we go to the next cash crop, which in my case is usually corn.”
Cox points out that while his cover crop mix might not work for everyone, it can serve as a starting point or a blueprint for someone who’s interested. He says it’s really about being opportunistic with what’s in your area.
“I didn’t even think about fall-planted oats until, at harvest time, the local elevators were hardly paying anything for oats, and I said, ‘Well, let’s try them,’” Cox says. “People just need to pay attention to what’s available close to them so they can source to keep that cost down.”