Cover crop cocktails are more than a salad bar

Take half and leave half is a reasonable rule for cover crops, like it was once considered for pasture.

Alan Newport, Editor, Beef Producer

February 15, 2017

2 Min Read
This webpage from USDA-NRCS reviews many cover crop plants and classifies them to help producers decide which will help them most in a mixture.USDA

Conversations I had last week with producers in western Kansas reminded me of the struggles people have in thinking about multi-species cover crops.

The biggest problem beef producers seem to have is the idea they need the cattle to eat … everything! This goes against two of the primary reasons to use multi-species cover crops:

  • Keeping the soil fully covered and protected from heat, cold and rain

  • Growing a variety of species and types of plants to build soil life, including the tremendously important mycorrhizal fungi

Put another way, some of the seeds you plant are really there to feed the soil more than the cattle.

If you aren’t up on the cover-crop, soil-health craze, perhaps a refresher is in order. Farmers are finding if they use these so-called “cover-crop cocktails” between cash crops and do things well, they can increase soil organic matter and thereby reduce or nearly eliminate herbicide and fertilizer usage, increase rainfall infiltration, and increase water-holding capacity of their soils. This can lower their costs dramatically and increase profits, and all this can be sped up by grazing those cover crops with livestock, preferably under high stock density.

The issue with beef producers who farm is they tend to think of every blade of grass or leaf of plant as forage that must be consumed. Au contraire!

The primary rules for increasing organic matter, whether in crop ground or pasture, are these:

1. Less soil disturbance

2. More plant diversity

3. Living roots as long as possible

4. Keep soil covered at all times

5. Graze with livestock under high stock density

Jay Fuhrer, a soil health NRCS expert from North Dakota, recently explained that 1.0% soil organic matter contains 10,000 pounds of nitrogen, 100 pounds of phosphorus and 100 pounds of sulfur. At a mineralization rate of 2-3% per year from organic nitrogen to inorganic nitrogen, that supplies a usable 20-30 pounds of nitrogen per year. The key is to build the soil so the organic matter continues to build.

To watch Fuhrer talk about four case studies in North Dakota go to this YouTube video.

Also, a series of fact sheets about building soil is available from NRCS on a page labeled Soil Health Matters.

To learn more about the individual species of plants in cover crop cocktails, you can download this publication called the NRCS Cover Crop Chart.

For a more interactive experiment, try Green Cover Seed’s online Smartmix calculator for creating a custom blend that helps accomplish your goals.

About the Author(s)

Alan Newport

Editor, Beef Producer

Alan Newport is editor of Beef Producer, a national magazine with editorial content specifically targeted at beef production for Farm Progress’s 17 state and regional farm publications. Beef Producer appears as an insert in these magazines for readers with 50 head or more of beef cattle. Newport lives in north-central Oklahoma and travels the U.S. to meet producers and to chase down the latest and best information about the beef industry.

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