Cover crops serve several purposes. One could be providing livestock grazing. If the cover crop was planted with Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds, any grazing activity needs to be managed to guarantee that the original purpose of the cover crop isn’t compromised. Grazing is a secondary purpose for cover crops. Erosion control, compaction relief, nutrient management and soil health factors are primary purposes.
There are two possible grazing time frames for late-summer or fall-seeded cover crops that are specific to the cover crop being planted. Either time frame can reduce feed costs, extend the grazing season, and allow for longer rest and more growth on pasture fields not being grazed. The more days livestock aren’t fed something you must haul to them, the easier it is on your wallet. Plus, grazing forages return most nutrients back to the land and can enhance the biological life in the soil in the process.
A high-quality forage for fall grazing should include a brassica, oat and cereal rye mix. This combination provides potential grazing for both fall and spring. The brassicas and oats grow quickly in September with enough moisture. Oats and brassicas normally winter-kill, leaving cereal rye to grow through winter. Cereal rye provides good cover and possibly a second opportunity to graze in the spring, but only if conditions are favorable.
Most cereal grains planted in the fall don’t get enough growth to graze in the fall unless planted before Oct. 1, or ideally earlier. They can provide a fair amount of grazing next spring if soil conditions allow. Depending where you are, Indiana’s springs quite often tend to be too wet to graze cereal grains. But if good soil conditions prevail, livestock can graze early growth and annuals can still provide adequate cover.
Annuals planted into corn residue, especially ones with lots of moisture like turnips or other brassicas, can increase the intake of corn residue with the combination providing better gains than either independently.
It’s always best to allocate annuals and crop residues from one to seven days for the highest efficiency. Keep them moving forward. Livestock shouldn’t be left on fields all winter or on wet soils, or fed hay or other products that would negatively affect the cover crop.
When grazing cover crops grown on cropland, know what herbicides and other pesticides have been used and what the wait period is prior to grazing. Always follow label restrictions.
A properly planned cover crop can add numerous options in a livestock operation. As should be done with all cover crop programs, proper planning — such as the potential carryover of previous herbicides, cover crop seed selection, establishment methods and timing — will help improve your overall cover crop experience. Explore how you can integrate cover crop grazing opportunities into your pasture-based livestock operation.
Shelton is a state agronomist for grazing systems with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.