In the fall, pasture forages reach full maturity and, in the process lose much of their nutritional value, says Justin Fruechte, forage specialist for Millborn Seeds.
"This time of year many pasture grasses have lost their nutritional value and are dry or dormant," Fruechte said.
Warner, S.D., cattleman, John Braun isn't too worried. In just a few weeks his cattle will be treated to a high quality, palatable feed source when he turns them out to graze on cover crops.
"The cattle like the cover crops and they definitely do better than maintain on them. They put body weight back on," said Braun, who operates a commercial cow/calf and finishing operation.
Cover crops are quality fall forage option because they remain palatable and protein rich long after the first freeze, explains Eric Mousel, cover crop and alfalfa specialist with Millborn Seeds.
"The right cover crop mixture can provide cattle with as much as 22 percent protein. Cover crops are also much more palatable than mature grasses because they do not produce nearly the amount of cellulose that grass does," Mousel said. "Cellulose takes a long time to break down in the rumen. As grasses mature this time of year the amount of cellulose in the stem increases, decreasing the available nutrients in the plant."
Braun began planting cover crops in prevented plant acres five years ago to help absorb additional moisture and prevent nitrogen leaching. The fact that cover crops provide his cattle with inexpensive, high quality forage in the fall is an additional benefit he says.
"Feeding them on cover crops in the fall saves us money. If you figure that it costs about $1 per head per day to feed a cow once she's off pasture, every day she's on a cover crop adds up," Braun said.
The pure economics of cover crops make it a fall grazing option more cattle producers should consider, says Mousel.
"They are such a good quality, low-cost feed. When cattle producers turn calves out on cover crops, they can expect to see weaned calves gain between 2 to 3 pounds per day," Mousel said.
On a 500-pound steer, Mousel calculates that cover crops add up to about a 25 cents cost of gain and a $1.25 profit per pound of gain.
"That's huge," Mousel said. "Grazing cows on cover crops, is a savings of anywhere from 50 cents to $1.50 per head per day."
When working with cattle producers considering cover crops as a fall forage option, Fruechte says bloat is one concern many have. Any cattle that have an abrupt change in their diet can become ill. Offering grass hay to include a higher percentage of dry matter in their diet or slowly introducing the cattle to the cover crop are both ways to minimize the risk.