From the June issue of Cow/Calf Producer.

While incorporation of cover crops into crop rotation plans is becoming increasingly popular, many growers still wonder whether the practice represents a trend or a fad. They have heard how planting non-commodity cover crops, within an optimal cropping system, can boost farm profitability by improving soil health, increasing plant nutrient availability and reducing crop pests. They have heard how the ultimate payoff comes through reduced inputs and increased yields from subsequent cash crops. They have heard, too, that returns on investment in cover crops can be variable and typically come slowly, over a period of years.

Of course, some growers do realize near-term returns from planting cover crops. While seeking the same long-term soil-building benefits, they also use cover crops as forage for cattle. Typically, cover crops yield forage during periods that these cattle producers need it most to extend the grazing season and reduce or even eliminate their dependence on harvested feed.

Jonathan Cobb says cover crops have allowed his family’s farm to transition from strictly commodity crop production to production of beef. There were no cattle on the place in 2007, when Cobb and his bride returned to his parents’ Rogers, Texas, grain farm. Within a few years, Cobb had lost enthusiasm for the 2,500-acre strip-tillage cropping system. He was on the verge of leaving the farm when he heard Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation agronomist Ray Archuleta speak about the importance of restoring soil health through practices such as no-till farming and planting of cover crops.

“It was one of the most impactful events of my life. It was so intriguing to think there might be a way to farm that didn’t involve chasing more and more acres,” states Cobb, noting his disappointment with conventional agriculture methods that required increasingly more inputs but produced minimal if any improvement in crop yield.

Archuleta talked about regenerating soil health by minimizing tillage and keeping the soil covered. He advocated the use of diverse cover crops to feed soil organisms, add organic matter and increase the soil’s moisture-holding capacity.

“Hearing Archuleta made me think there was hope for farming,” Cobb adds. “My wife and I decided to stay.”

Since then, his father has retired, a considerable amount of leased land was let go and Cobb has concentrated on deriving more income per acre from fewer acres. Cattle were reintroduced and are evolving into the primary source of income for Green Fields Farm, owned by Cobb, his sister and their respective spouses. Along with maintaining a small cow herd, the operation produces forage-finished beef that is marketed directly to consumers.

“Cash crops are (no-till) planted only on acreage that’s not yet fenced to graze. Everything else produces cover crop mixtures for grazing. Livestock and cover crops work well together, especially under intensively managed rotation using high stock density,” Cobb explains.

Long term, Cobb wants to establish a diverse mixture of native perennial plants on about 80 percent of the farm’s acreage, as permanent pasture. The other 20 percent will be planted to annual crops that can be grazed while permanent pastures are rested. Right now, the percentages are reversed — 20 percent in permanent pasture and 80 percent growing cover crops. Keeping some acreage in cover crops will continue to provide grazing alternatives for cattle but also allow for diversification of livestock enterprises.

     “We’re already marketing pasture-raised eggs, but we want to add more enterprises,” Cobb explains. “We plan to add broilers this fall and I’m confident we will add sheep too.”

Cover crops have played a big role in Josh Lloyd’s efforts to diversify his Clay Center, Kan., operation. Lloyd has been a no-till farmer for 15 years, raising wheat, grain sorghum (milo), corn and soybeans.  More recently, he added a cow-calf enterprise. By incorporating cover crops in his cropping rotation and an intensively managed rotational grazing system, Lloyd’s herd of May-calving brood cows can graze year-round.

“I wanted the long-term soil-building benefits of cover crops, but I also wanted some near-term return on the investment. You can get that by grazing,” Lloyd says.

Having only 80 acres of permanent pasture for summer grazing, Lloyd uses cover crops to fill in the grazing gaps. After the late-June wheat harvest, he plants those acres to a cover-crop cocktail that will provide forage for fall.

“To follow wheat, I like a cover-crop mixture with three species each of grasses, legumes, brassicas and broadleaf plants,” Lloyd explains. “Planting in the fall, after corn, soybeans or milo, is a little more risky. For me, cereal rye has been the most dependable. If I get it planted by October, I may get some winter grazing from it. If not, it’s more apt to be April before the rye is ready to graze.”

Lloyd’s cropping rotation also allows for some 90 acres to be planted to annual forage crops, most of which will be stockpiled for winter grazing.

“Diversity and intensity are keys to a no-till system and regeneration of soil. You grow different things in rotation and you try to always have something growing,” Lloyd says. “Cover crops make that work, as well as helping me reach my goal of having cows grazing all of the time and using no harvested feed.”

Chris Harrington still feeds his 80 cows during part of the winter. He’s located in northern Michigan, near the community of Paris, where “hard ice” challenges winter grazing. And Harrington still uses tillage in the production of commodity grain crops. But cover crops figure prominently in his cropping rotations, for the soil-building benefits and to extend the grazing season.

“I take the cattle to leased pasture in the summer. When they come home, in early November, I’ve got to have something waiting for them to graze or start hauling feed to them. With cover crops, I can keep the cows grazing and delay feeding, usually until the first of the year,” Harrington says.

Early on, Harrington used cereal rye as a cover crop. He found it could be established quickly when planted under favorable conditions. More recently, Harrington has sought more diversity, by using mixtures of oats and red clover, or rye, oats, radishes and turnips. The mixtures provide relatively high-quality grazing during late fall and early winter.

“I’ve tried to do it on the cheap, shopping around for low-cost seed, and experimenting with mixtures,” Harrington grins.

Planting cover crops really isn’t cheap, he admits, but Harrington figures it costs more to harvest forage and then feed it to his cows.

“Plus, the nutrients in manure and urine go into the ground while the cows are grazing. That has value that’s added to the soil-improving benefits of cover crops,” Harrington says. “We are seeing improvement. Stubble and residues in the fields break down faster now, which tells me there is more soil organism activity.”

Harrington still applies commercial fertilizer to his fields, but he expects to use less as cover-crop production increases levels of soil organic matter. As part of an ongoing research project, Michigan State University Extension grazing educator Jerry Lindquist is monitoring soil quality changes on Harrington’s farm and others in the region. He cites the significant potential for reduced commercial fertilizer use as soil organic matter increases, fostering increased soil microbe activity and increased availability of soil nutrients.

“Some producers that have produced cover crops for 10 years or more have reduced commercial fertilizer inputs by 70 to 80 percent,” Lindquist notes.

Soil quality improvement occurs incrementally, while the cost comes up front. The cost of seed varies, depending on the type and number of plant species used. There may be regional price differences, but in Lindquist’s experience, the price of mixed cover-crop seed can run from $30 to $40 per acre, and the total tab for establishing the crop may range from $70 to $100 per acre.

“A producer can have that much at risk by just putting in a cover crop,” Lindquist adds, “but by grazing it — from October through December, for example — it is possible to realize an economic gain from hay feeding savings.”

University of Nebraska Extension educator Gary Lesoing agrees that the value of a cover crop as livestock forage can offset the cost of producing it, when the forage is utilized under well-managed grazing.  If so, the soil-building benefits might be considered a bonus.

That said, Lesoing admits that producer goals for controlling erosion, regenerating soils, and reducing fertilizer and pesticide inputs seem to be driving most of the new interest in cover crops — at least in his area. Those are worthy goals, but Lesoing thinks more producers should consider the opportunities for integrating livestock and cover crops.

“There is potential for grazing cover crops, even for row-crop farmers that have no cattle. They could grow a cover crop and offset the cost by renting it directly to a cattleman for grazing. They could partner with a cattle owner and possibly a young entrepreneur who would be a cover-crop forage broker and custom grazier, putting the row-crop farmer together with the cattle owner and then caring for the cattle during the grazing season.  An agreement could be established where the cattle owner would benefit from grazing the cover crop, the landowner would receive the soil improvement benefits and some land rent, and the young entrepreneur would be compensated for his services of caring for the cattle,” Lesoing suggests.

“Also, these are ways that an established farmer could help a young cattleman in need of grazing opportunities.  In my mind, these are win-win situations,” Lesoing adds.

Lest it all sound too easy, Lesoing and Lindquist advise producers to be aware of potential cover-crop complications. Certainly, producers will want to avoid problems associated with residual herbicide. Most herbicides used with commodity crops require a minimum time interval between herbicide application and the planting of a subsequent crop in the same field. This would apply to a forage or cover crop planted after harvesting a cash grain crop, or if a cover crop were planted where the original crop was hailed out.

The herbicide label restrictions have been established to prevent chemical residues from being consumed by food-producing animals that consume forage grown on fields to which herbicides were previously applied. Therefore, it is against the law to graze cover crops planted too soon after herbicide was applied to the previous crop. For certain herbicides, the time interval is as long as 18 months, so producers planning to seed a cover crop need to know how use of specific herbicides might affect them later.

Management of cover crops also may affect the insurability of a subsequent cash crop. Savvy producers will consult their crop insurance providers about any potential restrictions on grazing or haying of the cover crop. Typically, before an insured crop is planted in a field, following a cover crop, that cover crop must first be terminated. Crop insurance providers can advise producers regarding termination requirements applying to their respective regions.

Producers also need to be aware that, through NRCS-administered initiatives such as the Conservation Stewardship Program  and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the federal government offers cost-share opportunities for establishing cover crops to meet certain conservation goals, including soil restoration. However, grazing of cover crops established through these programs may not be allowed.

Lesoing calls these issues manageable, emphasizing that the complementarity of cover-crop production and grazing is too great to be ignored.

“Various commodity groups are promoting cover-crop research and universities are stepping up to provide it. I think it’s going to support the expanded use of more diverse cover crops and their value as forage for grazing,” Lesoing says. “I think it could change agriculture in a big way.”