Cover crops have caught on like wildfire for corn producers in the U.S. and Eastern Canada, mainly because of their benefits for soil health. But some producers have found another bonus — a source of feed for grazing cattle.
Mike Buis has been doing it for about 15 years, seeing the overall benefits in animal health, crop production and soil structure. He’s even travelled to Nebraska, North Dakota and Michigan to share what he’s done on his operation.
“We made it a part of our whole farm structure,” says Buis, who farms about 750 acres in the Chatham-Kent area of Ontario. He has about 300 head of beef cattle, including 225 bred cows that graze crop residues and cover crops. “Those are part of our rotation and provide us with more alternatives to give us more options.”
Buis’s rotation consists of commercial (grain) corn, seed corn and sweet corn, commercial soybeans and seed soybeans, winter wheat and winter barley. He’s tried double-cropping soybeans on winter barley but has found that a challenge, although he pledges to give it one more try in 2019.
Buis has been able to feed dry cows during the course of the winter, after they wean their calves. He maintains that there’s enough feed quality in the corn stalks left after harvest. He also gets excellent nutritive value from rye and oats. If the cows are sent out in decent condition, with a little bit of fat and a good hair coat, they do just fine throughout the winter, he says. In years with a lot of snow, the cows can dig down through as much as a foot of snow to find their feed.
“To me, grazing on cover crops gives us an economical feed source in the winter, plus the fact that we don’t have to spread manure, we don’t have to store feed to haul it to the cows —they do all of the work themselves,” Buis adds. “And we find the cows are healthier, they calve easier because they’re walking.”
He says he’s also getting excellent nutritive value from the base of his cover crop regimen, which starts with spring oats, winter barley and winter rye. Other cover crop species include turnips, crimson clover and sorghum.
Grazing on a cover crop following corn was an initial challenge, so Buis began seeding covers into standing corn using a Hi-Boy spreader at about the five-leaf stage — well past the critical weed-free period. That translated into an additional two-week window for grazing the cows heading into the winter.
“In the commercial corn, that’s where we utilize the ryegrass, crimson clover and some brassicas,” he says. “Following winter wheat, we have a beautiful window to get crops established and that’s been working well for us.”
Most years, Buis can take a cut of the cover crop blend in September, wrap it and keep it as a supplementary feed for the winter. That’s one of his tenets with cover crops and grazing — always have a Plan B. In some years the weather won’t allow for winter grazing, which is why he’ll cut some cover crops, cutting and wrapping some for winter use.
Helping the soil
At one point, Buis was concerned about compaction, especially in some heavier clay pockets. But he says he grazes cows through the winter without problems.
“We actually did some measurements on the soils this past spring and found that we’re not causing any significant compaction,” he says. “In fact, you can tell where the tractor drove into the field but you can’t tell where the cows have walked. The shape of the cow’s hoof doesn’t pack the soil — it cuts in. We’ll pull cows off a field and no till into a field that the cows have been on all winter and spring. And aside from a few hoof marks, we can no till through that without any trouble, and have very good crops without any issues at all.”
But he notes that if a newcomer were to put cows out on a conventionally tilled soybean field without a lot of cover crop, they’d likely have problems.
“We’ve been building up the soil so we have good organic matter, and with the cover crops on top and combined with no till, we have that good surface protection,” Buis says. “The cows are walking on cover crops and corn stalks — they’re not walking on bare dirt, and that’s helped us a lot.”
Christine O’Reilly, forage and grazing specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, says grazing cover crops is an old practice that many growers are considering due to changes in economics and technology. She says one of the challenges, at least in Eastern Canada, is that much of the research and extension on cover crops has been on agronomics rather than feed value. OMAFRA staff are working with Beef Farmers of Ontario and the Grain Farmers of Ontario to provide some workshops on the topic this fall.
Fencing is often a concern for some producers, but O’Reilly says that it’s often the easiest factor to deal with. It doesn’t have to be a permanent fence — as long as the cattle are trained to an electric fence, a semi-permanent design is sufficient.
Balanced nutrition is another concern, but O’Reilly says to worry about picking the best crop first.
“When farmers are trying grazing cover crops, if they pick a crop that they’re comfortable growing and they’re familiar with, they’re setting themselves up for success, rather than trying to come up with the perfect nutritional blend. To get past the point where it might not be balanced, it’s very easy to take a forage sample, send it to the lab and when those results come back, talk to a feed sales rep or a nutritionist. They can walk a farmer through what might be missing.”
For choosing cover crop species, O’Reilly and Buis both recommend using the selection tool on the Midwest Cover Crop Council website. Another online tool is the Cover Crop Decision Tool.
“Luckily, most cover crops can be grazed successfully,” says O’Reilly. The only exception is some that might be toxic. “For example, in horticulture production, some growers are using a type of mustard as a cover crop because when they chop and pack it, it acts as a natural fungicide. But because that same compound is suppressing the fungus is also detrimental to animal health — that’s not a good one to feed.”
Most others are okay. O’Reilly adds that sorghum can produce prussic acid when it’s stressed (e.g. drought), but it’s manageable and can be fenced from grazing animals under those stress conditions.
Graze at the neighbour’s
O’Reilly and Buis say another option is working with a crop-growing neighbour. Although transporting cattle from one farm to another can be an economic and logistical challenge, working with a neighbour who shares a fence line can provide several benefits to both farmers.
“We did that last year for the first time; we had a neighbour that had a wheat field that he put radishes in and then he had another chunk of a corn field where he didn’t get his stalks shredded,” Buis says. “We approached him and he let us fence off his field — it worked great for us and it worked great for him.”
The cows took care of the extra cornstalks without the farmer having to go out and shred them, and Buis calculated that they left 200 tons of manure. His neighbour then made a deal for Buis to supply the cover crop seed and plant the seed on that field. That helped him with a cover crop, building the soil and preventing erosion while Buis took advantage of the grazing potential needed for his cows. It worked so well that they have agreed to do it again in 2019.
O’Reilly says this collaboration with neighbours will be one of the aspects they’ll cover in their upcoming workshops, helping to connect producers who are interested. She says the arrangement can also serve as a form of succession planning.
“Potentially there’s an opportunity for crop farmers to help the next generation of livestock farmers get in because they can build mutually beneficial business relationships grazing those cover crops. And it gives young people who may not have equity to buy land access to land for grazing that benefits their livestock business.”
This article was originally published in the 2018 Forage & Grassland Guide.