Grazing cover crops

At Kellie and AJ Blair’s farm near Dayton, Iowa, you’ll find a circular system: grain to feed livestock and livestock manure to feed grain.

The Blairs have a diversified crop and livestock farm. They grow corn, soybeans, small grains, and hay. They custom-feed pigs and have a cow-calf herd and a monoslope barn for a feedlot.

“Each enterprise is separate yet connected, and what we do depends on our livestock,” explains Kellie. The farm’s individual fields look different each year. Plans change based on the rotation of their fields, if they bale cornstalks or do earlage, and how much corn is or isn’t needed for feed.

Decisions Driven by Cattle

Even though they’re the fourth generation on the well-established family farm, it’s a work in progress. The couple takes a
science-based systems approach, which they say is easy when they integrate livestock.

Instead of outsourcing, the Blairs do what they can to create savings on-farm. They bale cornstalks for bedding, add alfalfa hay into their crop rotation, use the manure from their cattle and swine as fertilizer for their fields, and grow cover crops for grazing.

“When we added cow-calf pairs to our operation, we needed a place for them to winter on cornstalks, so cover crops were a natural fit,” says AJ. “If we’re going to graze any of our fields, we want cover crops on them to supply more feed for our cattle.” 

Iowa farmers AJ and Kellie Blair
Photo credit: Sara Lambert Photography

While they’ve farmed with cover crops for over 10 years, the Blairs ramped up integration in the past five years. Cereal rye is their go-to for its flexibility and reliable growth in the fall.

“We know that ahead of our no-till soybeans, cover crops are pretty easy, but if we don’t do it right ahead of corn, we could affect our yield. At the end of the day, that cash crop is really what we’re in it for, so we need to protect that risk,” says AJ.

The couple says they first intended cover crops to be the main conservation practice on their farm but realized how planting cover crops lent itself to extending their rotation to a third crop.

“Research studies have shown yield benefit if we add a third crop to our rotation, which is something we want to improve every year,” explains AJ. “There is a little less pressure if we don’t make test weight on those small grains, because we have the cattle as a risk-management tool. We could add what we grow to their rations.”

Not the Cow but the How

Just as the Blairs base their farm management decisions on cattle, continuous improvement, and research, Meghan Filbert with Practical Farmers of Iowa guides the farmers she works with to do the same.

As livestock program manager, Filbert focuses on integration of livestock into cropping systems and how producers can reap financial benefits from this approach.

“In our research working with five farmers over last year’s cover crop grazing season, they were profiting $90 an acre, on average, when grazing cover crops,” says Filbert, who has worked with these farmers for the past four years. “Another way to look at that is saving $90 an acre on hay. What that equates to is about $2 to $3 a day in hay expenses per animal.”

While the research shows an average of $90 profit per acre from those five farms, farmer profits ranged from $30 to $145, which came down to cover crop and grazing management.

Filbert’s best recommendation on how to reap the largest profit is to plant cover crops as early as possible by interseeding. That will give the crop more growing days and, therefore, more forage for the animal to graze. Farmers who are saving the most money in hay get both a fall grazing and a spring grazing out of the same cover crop.

She also suggests waiting to plant corn on fields where cover crop grazing could take place until late April or even May to provide a greater window of opportunity to graze prior to terminating the cover crop. Shorter-season hybrids may be a good solution to secure yields while ensuring more biomass and number of grazing days.

The Added Benefits

Perennial pastures should be rested properly in the fall and spring on the shoulders of the growing season. “That is the time when producers would otherwise have to be feeding hay and, in the spring, may be tempted to turn their animals out as soon as possible into their pasture. Grazing too soon in the spring will stunt grass growth the rest of the growing season,” explains Filbert.

If you have a lush green field of rye to graze, that fills the gap. Grazing your cover crop means you won’t have to start up a tractor and haul feed, which is a savings in fuel and labor.

“Another benefit is spring calving on a clean field of rye in March and April,” says Filbert. “The producers I have been working with who calve on rye fields set the calves up with a better plane of immunity for the rest of their lifetime.”

A fresh field of cereal rye helps water to soak into the soil profile, leaving a drier and clean environment as opposed to a muddy
lot. The first minutes of a calf’s life affect its productivity and wellness long term, and those born on cover crop fields are healthier. The producers Filbert works with see less calf scours and spend much less money on veterinarian bills and labor for treating illnesses. In addition, lactating mothers on cover crop fields have fresh forage in their diet, which is a component of a balanced ration.

The Next Frontier

For integrated crop livestock farmers, grazing covers may be a relatively straightforward management decision to make. For row-crop farmers without livestock, the economics, logistics, and soil health benefits of livestock integrations should be considered.

Custom grazing between livestock and row-crop farmers is what Filbert calls “the next frontier.”

In this grazing system, livestock farmers bring their cattle over to the cover crops on someone else’s land to graze. This system isn’t without its obstacles; farmers have to be creative to find solutions for temporary fence, hauling water, and sharing resources. Splitting the cost of cover crops, making payments per head for grazing days, or other lease agreements ensure both parties fairly share the profits.

“For livestock farmers, especially if they’re just beginning, land access is an issue. Custom grazing helps farmers access land while building an enterprise, extends grazing seasons, and contributes to soil health,” says Filbert.

Ted Smith and Tim Daly both farm in eastern Iowa and have been working together on custom grazing for close to 10 years.

“Early on, the Smiths noticed the fields I’d been cover cropping the longest would filter in the water when it rained. Water doesn’t run off or pond. There are worms and biological life in the soil, and my organic matter has been growing,” says Daly.

A no-till farmer, Daly is in his second year of 100% corn on corn and fourth year of 100% cover crops (oats, cereal rye, and radishes).

Photo credit: Meghan Filbert

Before custom-grazing with the Smiths, Daly would buy calves in the fall to graze on his acres. “My goal was to get more grazing days because it was cheap feed,” says Daly. “If I could get 21 days of grazing just cornstalks for 190 head on 160 acres, I was happy.”

“We fall- and spring-calve, and now within a day or two of Tim wrapping up harvest, we will get 100 to 200 mature cows in most of his fields,” says Smith.

Some of the value is hard to quantify, like giving the herd room to spread out and exercise on clean fields. Smith says the savings on feed is obvious.

“It depends on the weather, but this year, we had a group of 35 to 40 cattle out on some acres, and we didn’t have to feed them anything for about seven weeks,” recalls Smith. “We’re more than willing to make temporary fences, haul them from field to field, and haul water through the winter, because those things are drastically cheaper than feeding hay.”

For the Smiths, the biggest challenge they’ve faced is the misperception that grazing cattle on acres in the fall or spring when the ground isn’t frozen is a negative because it could lead to compaction.

However, if there are cover crops in cornfields, the roots of the cover crops help the soil act as a sponge and cushion the impact of cattle grazing, resulting in less compaction. The roots also contribute to biological activity in the soil, and when soil is active, it is better able to bounce back from the effect of hooves.

“In our experience, even when it’s muddy, having cattle on fields helps with the residue breakdown, which makes the field drier in the spring and easier to plant,” says Smith.

Daly echoes that there is little worry about compaction in the fields. “The advantage for me is the cow manure on my ground, and when I no-till, the ground is cleaned up. There isn’t any volunteer corn left, and the cattle punch the residue into the ground.”

Be a Forward Thinker

“I’m a believer and my dad was, as well,” says Daly. “He was 80 years old when we started grazing covers; he was a true forward thinker.”

Daly and Smith both recommend finding a like-minded partner who is willing to think outside the box.

“No one makes changes overnight on the farm. When you try new things, don’t just do it once; do it more than one year and in more than one field,” says Blair.

While your time and resources are valuable, asking the right questions, implementing small-scale changes, keeping an open mind, and ultimately investing in your farm
long term will help you build a successful circular system.

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