The fine art of grazing cover crops

Cover crops can extend your grazing season.

Finding that balance between soil health, water infiltration and producing high quality forage for cattle to graze is like creating a picture. It also requires a lot of thought, a sharp pencil and some trial and error, according to Steve Grudzinski of Loup City, Neb.

Grudzinski first looked into cover crops as a grazing alternative in the late summer, and early fall when his grass quality was declining. “I was a corn grazer for a long time,” he tells fellow producers. “I would get 2 ½ pounds of gain on corn fields. Then we cut back the fertilizer, and planted soybeans in with the corn to get more nitrogen.”

Grudzinski wondered if there was more he could do, so he set out to plant a cover crop mixture, but tried to save money by not killing off the rye, which was part of his cover crop mix, first. “That really hurt the yield,” he says. “We ended up with about a third of the yield we should have, but on the plus side, I still got over 100 animal days of grazing per acre. The rye just got away and choked out the other growing plants.”

Next, he tried a corn-soybean-sunflower mixture with some turnips added in. “Looking back, I probably should have added some sorghum, and maybe some other small grains. I don't have a shortage of grazing. Our pastures are brome, western wheat, and cheat grass, so we don't really need to plant rye, but I will continue to just to keep the ground growing. The potential with cover crops is incredible. It puts traditional row crops to shame,” he states.

Some of the cover crops are planted on marginal ground that is steep and rough. “What I like about grazing cover crops is nothing leaves the place,” Grudzinski says. “Most nutrients go back into the soil, so the fertilizer bill goes down,” he says.

“I love that the system is a sustainable setup because nothing is going to the elevator. We figure we can get 200-300 pounds out of every calf that leaves this place, but 90% of that is water, so we are probably only losing 30 pounds of nutrients per critter,” he explains.

North of the small Nebraska community of Boelus, Greg Rasmussen is also experimenting with cover crops. He had purchased some farm ground with some severe slopes and hills throughout the field. The erosion was bad enough the former tenants were farming around washouts.

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Adopting a mostly no-till plan, Rasmussen planted oats, terminated those, and planted soybeans. He planted wheat into the soybean residue, and came back with a grazing mix in the spring since the wheat had winter-killed. Since then, he has planted rye, oats, and grazing mixes, and has seen a tremendous difference in the soil and the amount of grazing available for cattle.

Managing the cover crop for grazing is important to its success. Rasmussen divides his grazing area into four paddocks and adds stock tanks in key locations. “I have learned that the more concentrated the cows are, the less time they spend roaming, and they eat more evenly distributing their manure better,” he says.

Cattle should also be prevented from returning to an old strip, even to drink. “With this system, you are going to have to invest in a bunch of waterline and move the tank to where they are,” Grudzinski says. “They will hang out and graze, leaving all the nutrients right where they came from, so hopefully it is the perfect cycle. They are dumping where they got it, instead of just fertilizing one side of the field,” he notes.

When grazing tall crops, Grudzinski says it is important to have a really good electric fence, and that the cattle are scared of it. The hardest crop to graze is standing corn because it can be 8 feet tall, and the cattle can't see through it.

“You will have to knock at least eight rows down to put the fence in so they can see there is a wire and border there,” he explains. “Cattle don't like being in a small area where they can't see.”

Similar to reading the bunk in the feedlot business, Grudzinski has learned how to read his cattle. “You give them a strip, then go back in a couple hours and check on them. They will let you know when they are ready to move,” he says.

“If you check on them, and there is still a lot of feed left, you gave them too much. If they seem hungry, you didn't give them enough,” he states. “It gets to be like an art. You will know when they are satisfied.”

If the cattle are what Grudzinski calls a “freckle” hungry when he moves the fence, they will just line up and eat. “If they are not full, they will crash through the forage, running from one side of the fence to the other, and knocking a lot of stuff down. You don't want that,” he tells producers. “If there is stuff still standing, give them another hour to whittle on it.”

Rasmussen says it is important not to leave the cattle too long. “If you let them eat more than half, it will slow the regrowth,” he explains. “Grazing time is also important. If you wait too long to graze, the plants get tall and stalky, and the cattle will leave a lot behind. With a more timely grazing system, the cattle will just take the tops off, which lets regrowth occur. It is a win-win for the cattle and for soil health,” he notes.

 

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