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Crops & Cattle Benefit From Cover Crops

09/03/2014 @ 2:13pm

Adding a cover crop of winter cereal rye into his rotation is good for crops and cattle, says Bill Yock of St. James, Minnesota. Beef cows graze contentedly in the spring, regaining healthy body condition after calving, and the green crop prevents erosion and keeps nutrients high in the soil when Yock plants soybeans in June. Though there are some challenges, he says it’s a good system that provides sustainability on a relatively small acreage.

Yock committed to a cover crop after a couple years when he had the rye tested to make sure it was nutritionally adequate for calving and lactating cows. A rye sample indicated 21.9% of crude protein and adequate amounts of calcium, phosphorus, and other minerals. “That was all I needed to keep me focused and to overcome any of the challenges that would come up,” Yock says.

What didn’t work

Nearly 20 years ago Yock and his wife, Joanne, added livestock to diversify their farm. They own 160 acres, with 115 tillable. They rent additional acreage for pasture and rotational-graze cows on a 40-acre field and a 21-acre field with a total of nine paddocks. They quickly learned what not to do.

“We began calving in the middle of April in the same small area where we wintered the cows. It was a disaster,” Yock recalls. “Knee-deep in muck, the calves would be lost, or they’d scour badly. If the calves survived, as soon as they were bonded to the cow, they were put out to pasture, which was just beginning to green up. The pasture never had a chance to get started. Something had to change.”

That fall, Yock put the cattle on cornstalks and let them calve there in the spring. That improved calving health, but there was no quality cattle feed in the field or stored. Yock only had road ditch hay to feed the cows.

What worked

A neighbor suggested that Yock plant winter rye after the soybean harvest and then graze it in the spring. The field of rye (drilled at 100 pounds per acre) was up about 3 inches before it froze. 

On April 15, Yock put his cattle on cornstalks to start calving. On May 1, he moved the herd to the field to finish calving and to graze the 6- to 8-inch tall rye. 

“We grazed the rye until June 1, and then we put the cow/calf pairs out on our permanent pasture,” says Yock. “The next day, we planted soybeans in the rye stubble.”

Yock notes there are many benefits. It allows time for the permanent pasture to get good growth before the cows start grazing. The soil health improves because of reduced soil erosion, increased organic matter, better water filtration, and less weed pressure due to the allelopathic effect of rye. 

Finally, the herds’ conception rate in July is high. The cows are in excellent health because of the high-quality feed.

Challenges/benefits

Experimentation has taught Yock to plant soybeans after digging the field by pulling a rolling basket to create a good seedbed.

“The downside of grazing the rye is compaction caused by the cattle, especially in a wet spring,” he says. 

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