The increasing cost of traditional feedstuffs has many livestock owners looking to alternatives for extending their available forages for grazing. The answer may be to consider planting cover crops for cattle to graze.

Not only do cover crops benefit livestock as feed – they also offer some attributes to the cropland such as reducing erosion, adding organic matter, penetrating compaction layers, and if legumes are planted, fixing nitrogen.

It can be a win-win situation for livestock owners and crop farmers to work together, says Brad Young, owner of Prairie States Seed in Wausa, NE.

Young says in past there was some concern that cover crops used up too much moisture and would reduce the yields of the following year’s crop. But research led by Dewayne Beck at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre has shown that is not the case. “Their studies show that if the moisture in excess of the soils water holding capacity is not used, you lose it by spring planting anyway,” says Young.

He emphasizes that another advantage with cover crops is that they capture soil nutrients. “For example turnips and other brassicas are excellent nitrogen scavengers and keep it from leaching away,” says Young. He adds, “Tying up the available soil nitrogen, encourages the legumes to fix more nitrogen. Research has shown that this in turn can help boost yields of the following year’s crop.”

Given the increasing cost of fertilizer, Young is already seeing landowners show more interest in legumes for cropland and pastures alike. He reports that his sales of red clover have tripled in the past year because producers are wanting to add legumes back into their pastures for the “free” nitrogen they fix.

When and What to Plant

Young says typically cover crops are planted in July and early August after the small grain harvest, and then the forages are ready to be grazed by late October. Some producers, especially in more northern regions, may also consider planting cover crops in the early spring, graze it in the summer, and then plant no-till winter wheat. “Both options can help extend the grazing season for livestock and allow for resting native pastures and reduce harvested feed expense,” says Young.

Young says forage brassicas – including turnips, rape, hybrids and radishes – make excellent cover crops. These are low cost, high quality, high yielding, fast growing crops and the stems, leaves and bulbs are well suited for grazing by livestock. He adds, “The brassicas don’t take a lot of moisture to get going; they commonly produce 1 ½ to 3 tons of dry matter/acre; and they are 15-25% protein, 75-85% digestible and very palatable.”

Adding legumes like common vetch or lentils to the mix offers that added benefit for nitrogen fixation.

Other cover crops that could be included in diverse “cocktail “ mixtures with the brassicas, vetch, and lentils, include sweetclover, sorghum/sudan, foxtail and pearl millet, spring and winter small grains, sunflowers, and peas. “The possibilities are almost endless,” Young concludes.