As more farmers use cover crops to improve soil health, there is more opportunity to use the crop for live-stock feedstocks, says Jeff Goodwin, range and pasture consultant for the Noble Foundation. Cover crops serve several purposes:
- Reduce erosion due to wind and water.
- Maintain or increase soil health and organic matter content.
- Reduce the degradation of water quality by utilizing excessive soil nutrients.
- Suppress excessive weed pressures and break pest cycles.
- Improve efficiency in soil moisture use.
- Minimize soil compaction.
While the Natural Resources Conservation Service doesn’t include live-stock grazing as one of the purposes for a cover crop, many producers use mixed-species cover crops in both cropland and pasture to improve soil conditions, and graze livestock to add the benefits of animal impact and distribution of manure.
Once livestock grazing is introduced, these crops no longer have a sole purpose of improving the soil, Goodwin adds. In order to receive the soil health benefits of cover crops, producers should closely manage the grazing activity to leave the proper amount of residue for ground cover, etc. Depending on rainfall and location, different rates of forage use (i.e., how much forage is grazed) can be planned.
A rule of thumb is to determine the amount of production required to meet your residue goals then graze any additional production, he says. For instance, if you need 3,000 lb. of forage residue to keep soil covered and you produce 6,000 lb., plan on using 50% of the available forage. The remainder will be trampled and left for residue.
“Keep in mind grazing these crops recycles the majority of their nutrients while haying and/or cutting for silage cover crops intended to add organic matter defeats that purpose,” Goodwin says. “Grazing mixed-species forage crops adds flexibility in beef production systems. However, the focus should be on balancing livestock forage demand with addressing the soil health concern that prompted planting the cover crop in the first place.”
Note: This story appears in the November/December issue of Drovers.