More Forage From The Land,
Rather Than More Land!

With the renewed optimism in corn and other cash crops there is more pressure on each acre of land to produce. More corn acres are being grown, with little of this increase coming at the expense of soybean and wheat acreage. The additional cash crop acres are coming from ground formerly used for hay and pasture production, which is putting pressure on livestock farmers to improve forage productivity on a diminishing land resource. An opportunity to grow more forage for your livestock is to double crop after a cereal, using a cover crop such as oats. Research has shown that oats seeded after winter wheat harvest can yield 1 to 3.5 tonnes per acre where manure is applied. Even in fields without manure, oats can yield ½ to 1 ½ tonnes per acre for forage. At hay prices of $85.00 per tonne, cover crops give a good return in addition to the cereal crop harvested!

Photo of Grazing Cattle
Figure 1: Strip Grazing for Efficient Utilization

Farmers have used a variety of species for cover crops, such as barley or mixed grain, oats, rye, turnip-cereal mix, peas, or triticale. Figure 2 shows the results of a 2005 Cover Crop Study comparing oats, oilseed radish, peas, red clover, annual ryegrass and sudan grass. In this study, oats produced the most forage yield, with the exception of red clover with no manure or annual ryegrass with manure applied. This study and others have shown that volunteer cereals yield only 50 to 75% of the oat forage yield.

2005 Cover Crop Study Results
Figure 2: 2005 Cover Crop Study comparing Oats, Oilseed Radish, Peas, Red Clover, Annual Ryegrass and Sudan Grass

It may seem early to be thinking about August seeding, but now is the time to start planning. Establishing a cover crop can be done using a no-till drill or by broadcasting the seed on the field followed by a light tillage pass such as a cultivator or rotary harrow to incorporate the seed. Ideally the seed should be planted at 1 ½ inch depth. Some tillage can reduce disease pressure from the preceding cereal crop. Under dry conditions, following with a packer will firm up the seed to soil contact and help retain mois-ture for better emergence. Manure can be ap-plied immediately at planting and incorporation will capture more of the readily available nitro-gen in the manure.

Strip grazing by cattle or sheep can be as effi-cient or even better than cutting and baling the cover crop. Cereal crops seeded as a cover or second crop are usually ready to begin grazing about 45 to 60 days after planting. They should be grazed before the cereals reach the head stage as forage quality will then begin to de-cline.

Does late fall/winter grazing compact the soil?
Research from Nebraska with beef cattle showed winter grazing crop residues had no significant effect the following year on grain crop yields, and additional tillage was not required. However, spring grazing increased the soil's bulk density and decreased water infiltration rate, therefore cattle should not graze crop residues in March.

Photo of Cover Crop
Figure 3: A Cover Crop Can Yield a Significant Amount of Forage

There are several benefits to using cover crops following a cereal crop. They protect the soil from wind and heavy rains in the fall months before freeze up, build soil organic matter, and the livestock component improves nutrient cycling. With crops like red clover, nitrogen can be fixed for the following crop. It also gives the livestock farmer a place to spread manure in the late summer and reduces the nitrogen that could be lost to the environment. The direct economic benefit to the livestock farmer is the extra feed produced from the same land base. This allows the producer to get more forage from the land, rather than using more land!

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