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Cover Crop Experience

A tour at the Burleigh County Soil Conservation plots near Bismarck, and hearing producers talk about their experience and use of cover crops integrated into a cattle operation, stimulated my interest in the potential for using cover crops as a feed resource in the fall to extend grazing and reduce cow costs. Since these early innovators, considerable additional attention and efforts on the subject have spread across the state including some preliminary studies (quality/yield data), establishment of cost share programs for producers, and growing producer experiences (local tours, meeting presentations), much centered on benefits to diverse cover cropping from soil health sustainability and economics.

A need was realized to try and work with a few interested cow/calf producers on demonstrations on their operations to investigate production and economics with some cover crops due to their feed value and utilization. Looking to minimize cost input, the demonstrations wanted to put the cover crop after a primary crop so as the land cost had been already accounted for, and to try make use of low cost seed sources.

The first operation had limited farming with most acres spring planted to oats or barley harvested as hay. This seemed like a great opportunity as most of the hay would be up by early July leaving a fairly substantial portion of the growing season left. We blended bin run canola, left over sugar beet seed, with a little oats, lentil, carryover Proso millet and on one field added some turnip seed. Several fields were seeded in early July with a no-till drill in hard dry ground. The location remained hot and dry for the next several months with an increasing grasshopper infestation. Almost none of the oats, canola, sugar beets, or turnips came leaving mostly just millet with a scattering of lentil plants. Plant growth was very poor and by the time a fall rain perked things up a frost occurred and killed off the millet. No attempt was made to measure the forage or grazing as it was very minimal.

On another operation a mix of oats, millet, canola, and lentil was no-till drilled into barley stubble after grain harvest the end of August. This was a more favorable environment with greater moisture. The cover planting emerged with some late showers as did a lot of volunteer barley. The field greened up nicely in September; however most of the growth was barley and although canola, oats, and lentils were present, plants were small, and they were pretty much out competed by the barley. The field was grazed in late October and into November with the cows cleaning up the barley regrowth which still represented fairly low dry matter yield per acre.

A couple of things were however learned from these experiences from a cattlemen’s point of view to extend grazing with cheaper feed option. Sometimes moisture will be too limiting for much of a prospect for a second crop. Cool season crops as oats, canola, and beets won’t work planted in the hot season very well. Plantings in northern ND are not likely to have enough growing season if planted the end of August or latter to make significant growth and be much of a feed source. For fall plantings leave out millet or warm season crops that can’t take a frost or two. And finally be careful about putting in too much cost for a post-harvest cover crop for feed as there is a risk of too little production to cheapen feed costs.

Now I would like to share a bit of a success story about an experience this past summer. A field of green field peas was combined on August 4th. The following day a cover crop mix was seeded with the intention of covering the land and using forage for fall grazing. The mixture was 20 lbs of oats, 2 lbs of radish, and 1 lb of purple to turnip. The field is 37.5 acres and the seed was obtained from Pulse USA and shipped in a tote. It was seeded with an air hoe drill set at about .75 inches deep. It rained shortly after seeding and as you recall it rained much and often the fall of 2010. For the light seeding rate it came well and started to look better every day. The peas had not been burned down pre-harvest, but it did get sprayed with a quart of roundup shortly after seeding; hoping to clean up some pigeon grass, bindweed and whatever else was there.

Now we fast forward to October 20th. The favorable moisture and growing conditions have resulted in the cover canopying at about 4 wheeler height. The oats has not headed, the radishes have all bolted, and the turnips have made a lot of top growth with bulbs under then ranging from golf ball to baseball size. We have had a number of fairly heavy frosts but the cover crop seems little affected. Biomass was estimated at about three ton/acre from clipped and dry samples.

Cattle had been brought home from summer pasture in the proceeding days and were allowed to fill up on fall grass and some poor hay before turning out on October 21. There was an old stack of straw bales on the field the cattle could and did use if they were looking for fiber. The cattle herd being grazed included 25 pairs with steer calves which were contracted for delivery November 9th, five mature bulls, and 32 yearling heifers. The cattle loved the feed seeming to prefer the heaviest oats areas first and looked to be very bloomy and gaining weight. The steer calves without creep and with the first born mid-April had a pay weight of 625 lbs. Shortly after we got several fairly heavy wet snows, cows continued to graze but were trampling a fair bit into the muddy ground. Also as they were grazing the turnips the bulbs pulled out and on the ground and in the snow there were turnips all about. At about Thanksgiving supplemental haying began with cows continuing to go out and pick until early December when it became snowed under.

While only an estimate, it produced about 1900 cow days or 50 days per acre. If there was three ton out there and these cows could eat 40-50 lbs per day, a lot was trampled and left for the soil utilizing 30-40% as feed. Seed and freight cost $14.60 and the roundup $2.00 per acre, plus if you put on a $20/acre charge for spraying and seeding the cost back to the cows was between $.70-75 per day or $22/month. With these costs, production, and degree of utilization there is good value to the cow calf producer. An extra month of grazing without feeding chores and associated yardage costs, a high quality feed that puts gain on calves and flesh on lactating cows in a season where most other grazing alternatives don’t have sufficient quality to do so. Hopefully this field is in good shape to raise a quality grain crop next year and there isn’t a yield impact.

I realize this year was probably an exception, and represents only one real success of three trials. However even with risk of failing to produce cheap feed if I can keep input costs low it is a good roll of the dice.

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