Beef cattle in a field grazing cover crops.
MANAGEMENT REQUIRED: If you want to graze cover crops, be ready to invest extra time and management.

Turn cover crops into supplemental pasture this fall

Grazing cover crops and maintaining them through winter requires extra management.

Cover crops can serve several purposes, and one of those, with some precautions, could be for livestock grazing. That’s the word from Victor Shelton, state agronomist and grazing specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Shelton emphasizes that if the cover crop was planted with Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds, any grazing needs to be managed to guarantee that the original purpose of the EQIP project isn’t compromised. Grazing is a secondary purpose in EQIP; erosion control, compaction relief, nutrient management and soil health factors are primary purposes.

You also should check with the Farm Service Agency and your crop insurance agent to make sure grazing of a cover crop is permissible.   

There are two possible time frames for fall-seeded cover crops to be grazed — fall and spring — and it’s fairly specific to the cover crop being planted, Shelton says. Either time frame can reduce feed costs and extend the grazing season. In the fall, it allows for longer rest and more growth on regular pasture fields that aren’t being grazed. 

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

Grazing specifics
Most cereal grains planted in the fall don’t get enough growth on them to graze in the fall, such as wheat, triticale and cereal rye, Shelton says. They can provide a fair amount of grazing the next spring, if soil conditions allow it. In drier climates, it’s very common to graze cereal grains from late winter through early spring. In many areas, the spring tends to be too wet, but if good soil conditions prevail, livestock can graze early growth, and the annuals can still provide adequate cover to plant into, Shelton says. 

“If we really want quality forage for fall grazing, a brassica-oat-cereal-rye mix just can’t be beat,” Shelton notes. “Brassicas and oats grow quickly in September, with sufficient moisture, and can produce quite a bit of forage in a very short period of time. This can then be grazed. The oats, and possibly the brassica, depending on which one, will normally winter-kill anyway.”

Cereal rye planted with it will continue to grow and come on strong the next spring, providing good cover and possibly a second opportunity to graze, if conditions are favorable.

Other factors
Annuals planted into corn residue, especially ones with a lot of moisture like turnips or other brassicas, can increase the intake of corn residue. The combination provides better gains than either independently. 

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 soil conditions, or require tillage prior to planting, Shelton explains.

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

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