Stick To Functional Forage Groups When Selecting Cover Crop Forages

Cover crops are on the rise in popularity as of late thanks to an increased focus on soil heath in row crop farming. In addition, many livestock producers are realizing the benefits of cover crops can also translate over into the pasture.

“Using annual forages in livestock production systems is nothing new.”

North Carolina grazier and cattleman, Johnny Rogers points out, "Using annual forages in livestock production systems is nothing new. We've been doing it for decades."

The North Carolina State University (NCSU) Amazing Grazing Program Coordinator believes the recent rise in cover crops' use in grazing is due to the increased desire among many producers to improve their soil's health.

"We've realized sustainable isn't good enough," says Rogers. "We need to improve the soil and leave it better than we found it."

The cover crop movement has also made livestock producers more aware of the environments they manage, says Rogers, in turn, encouraging them to better understand how the systems they manage -animals, forages, and soil - work together.

Unlike row crops though, Rogers explains pasture-based livestock operations should center their grazing plan on perennial plants. Cover crops, which are commonly annuals, ideally fit best into a forage-based livestock operation in four particular scenarios:

  • Finishing cattle on pasture when a higher quality forage is needed
  • Filling in forage availability gaps throughout the grazing season
  • Renovating worn-out perennial pastures
  • As a smother crop when transitioning pastures from toxic to novel endophyte fescue

Rogers is using cover crops in two fields on his multispecies livestock operation, Rogers Cattle Company, in this last capacity. Out of the approximately 300 acres he grazes, he manages approximately 29 acres in annual cover crops.

According to Rogers, economic analyses from University of Kentucky show at least 10% of a livestock operation's acreage should be maintained in annual forages to be profitable. In a region dominated by cool season grasses, especially toxic tall fescue, annual cover crops give Rogers a way to transition pastures out of this undesirable forage. At the same time, they serve as a beneficial grazing source for his cattle.

When considering bringing cover crops into a livestock operation, Rogers reminds producers to follow the Principles of Soil Health. This starts with good grazing management. Producers need to work on other facets of their operation before they jump into cover crops.

"Keep a living root growing in the soil year-round. Use rotational grazing. Include some diversity. Don't disturb (i.e., till it) much and don't overgraze," he puts simply. "You can have good soil health in a well-managed intensive grazing system."

Annual cover crops are not necessary, Rogers makes clear, but they can help immensely in situations where soil health needs improved or producers need alternative grazing options. For renovating pastures, in particular, annuals act as a biological primer to jumpstart soil health.

The types of cover crops producers choose will vary by region and climate. To select the right species and varieties, Rogers suggests starting by asking one simple question, "What is your main goal?"

"The goal might be to build soil health, provide livestock feed, or a little of both," says Rogers. "I'd say most people fall somewhere in the middle. They still want their cattle to do well."

For those who are more grazier than farmer, Rogers gives the following tips to help make the right cover crop choices:

  • Consider previous land use and current soil conditions.
  • Think about which species and/or varieties will fit best into the season forage is needed.
  • Research possible forage pest or disease issues which may be prevalent in your area.

In addition, Rogers says graziers should prepare for some challenges.

"Cover crops grow fast," he describes. "If part of the goal is to build soil health, you must be comfortable with letting some cover crops get past their peak in forage quality to increase soil residue."

While some people would consider this practice "waste," Rogers explains it actually feeds the soil microbial community which he refers to as the "microherd."

So what number and types of species make up the right cover crop mix? Soil health experts say the more complex the better, with some recommending as high as 17 species in a single planting. Rogers says, however, this might not always be the best idea for graziers trying cover crops for the first time. Instead, a keep-it-simple approach may be more advantageous starting out. The downside Rogers has noticed with more complex mixes is some producers think they are a silver bullet to solve soil health problems, which is not always the case.

"There's some value from a grazing standpoint to start out using a simpler mix," says Rogers.

A good guideline to follow when putting together a first-time cover crop seed mix, Rogers says, is include at least one species from each forage functional group - grasses, legumes, and brassicas. An example of a simpler mix he planted in his North Carolina pastures is millet, cowpeas, and a brassica hybrid.

For a successful planting into an existing perennial pasture, especially when transitioning from toxic tall fescue, Rogers says an herbicidal burndown is the best strategy. Grazing pastures closely will help, but ultimately, a clean slate will be necessary to get the best establishment results.

Overall, says Rogers, "It's best to just start with a small acreage. Find a field that needs renovated, maybe a sacrifice pasture or winter feeding area. Start out with a simpler mix. Then see what happens, take a lot of pictures, take a lot of notes, and keep up with your grazing days."

Along with variety selection and planting, grazing of cover crops requires a slightly different approach to management.

"You have to knock down some of the forage to set up temporary fence," says Rogers. "We use an ATV to do that at first. When it gets to tall, we use a tractor."

Rogers notes this mainly works best with brood cows. When calves or smaller livestock are involved, flattening out a larger area may be necessary to keep animals calm as they can initially get stressed in the jungle some cover crop pasture mixes can grow into later in the growing season.

Other grazing tips include fencing stockers in smaller paddocks to encourage better forage utilization. Additionally, grazing sheep through cover crop pastures first and following behind the flock with cattle can help to decrease parasite loads in sheep. And of course, water (and shade in extreme heat) should always be available.

Rogers leaves potential and current cover crop graziers with the following words of advice, "Remember, you're managing a biological system, it's never going to be perfect. So be patient and remember you have to give and take with nature."

Learn more about Rogers work with NCSU's Amazing Grazing program on their website, as well as their Facebook page. You can also follow Rogers on Twitter, @rccbeef.

Authored by Jesse Bussard, an agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

Cattle in Pasture
Cover Crops improve soil health
Sheep Grazing
Cattle in Pasture
Cover Crops improve soil health
Sheep Grazing

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