Winter Cover Crops Offer Beef Grazing

Winter cover crops on corn and soybean acres are a natural fit for crop-and-beef farms.

Cover crops offer beef profit potential for the time between fall crop harvest and spring planting, says Rob Kallenbach. The MU Extension forage agronomist sees a natural fit for cover crops with spring-calving cow herds in northern Missouri, southern Iowa and eastern Nebraska.

The winter cover, which can be grasses, legumes, brassicas or a mix, offers extended grazing into winter for stocker calves.

Instead of selling calves in October, traditional market time for calves, they can be kept another 65 to 85 days. Another 100 pounds of gain can be added to the calves. “Think what that means at today’s calf prices,” Kallenbach adds.

In past stocker-calf budgets, extension specialists would plug in a dollar a pound for calculations. Now those gains can be worth double that.

And, green growing forages offer some of the best nutrition for growing calves. Kallenbach says he wants producers to realize the variety of cover crops available, and the best livestock to capitalize on that growth.

In a grazing study at Linneus, Mo., MU bred heifers gained body condition and 2 pounds a day on winter cover crops, he said.

Cover crops are being promoted for soil conservation and improved soil health.

“Planting cover crops is not cost-free,” Kallenbach said. Without grazing gains, that cost comes out of the crop budget.

Long-recommended winter grazing species make excellent cover crops, he says. For livestock producers, this is not a new concept.

Cereal grains, whether wheat, rye or oats, are good cover crops and livestock feed. Wheat offers an added benefit of a grain crop, if grazing livestock is removed early. “There will be little loss of wheat-yield potential,” Kallenbach said.

“Rye doesn’t offer much demand as a cereal crop, but it offers more grazing than wheat.”

Oats offer grazing, and easy transition to spring crop planting as the cereal winterkills. There’s no herbicide expense next spring. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil and protein to the grazing mix. However, they are slow starters and add little fall grazing.

Brassicas—turnips or grazing radishes—make excellent feed. Cattle like them so much they can overeat, causing bloat. They do well when mixed with grasses to dilute the diet, or when strip grazing is used to control eating hours.

Cover crops added to a cropping system complicate management. The crops must be seeded early enough to get a good start on growth before winter. That may mean aerial seeding into soybeans before leaf drop, for example.

Then there is timing of ending grazing and killing the forage crop before spring crop planting. It works. It just takes close timing, which may be delayed by weather.

For livestock-crop farmers, it’s a natural fit. Getting a dollar return, in addition to more intangible benefits, makes financial sense, Kallenbach said. Also, grazing cover crops requires management of livestock fencing and water. Strip grazing improves efficiency and adds pounds of gain per acre.

The spring forage growth works best when harvested as haylage. That is bales wrapped in plastic, which allows ensiling the high-moisture spring forage.

Attention to management adds quick economic value to a conservation practice that offers slow returns in saving and building soil.

Source: University of Missouri Extension 

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