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Cattle producers assess cover crop as ‘offensive tool’

Cattle producers assess cover crop as ‘offensive tool’

cattle grazing cover crop

Cover crops provide forage and additional grazing in cattle operations.

ALTOONA, Iowa — Carbon and cover crops may provide plenty of possibilities for cattle producers, especially if they are able to think outside the box — or perhaps outside the row.

“You’re really well postured to hit this out of the park,” Mitchell Hora told a group of producers at a panel presentation Dec. 15 during the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association Cattle Industry Leadership Summit.

Hora, who farms near Washington in southeast Iowa, does not raise cattle. But he does work with cover crops and also with farmers dealing with carbon and cover crop issues. He says cover crops fit well in a cattle operation and also into the potential of the carbon market.

“Cover crops have been branded as a defensive tool,” he says. “But really, cover crops are an offensive tool.”

Hora says most farmers think of cover crops as costing them yield and money but improving water quality and staving off erosion or environmental problems. Instead, he says, they should think about how cover crops could actually make them money, both through the carbon market but also through the profitability of their farm operation and especially their cattle operation.

Just as important, he says, is the idea that cover crops don’t have to be a one-size-fits-all system. They don’t have to be all cereal rye put on after harvest in 30-inch rows. They can be seeded at different times with different species and different row widths. One example of that is the idea of planting corn in 60-inch rows with cover crops between those rows.

There are several variations of the 60-inch row idea. Hora says that on his farm, going strictly with 60-inch rows meant a 10-15% loss of corn yield but provided valuable forage and biomass. But tweaking the system to do something like planting two rows 30 inches apart and the third 60 inches apart may lead to no yield loss and could still provide valuable forage for livestock.

In either of these situations, he says he has seen better nutrient availability the next year and improvement in soil fertility. In both situations, he says he has seeded the cover crop in the corn when it is at the V3 to V6 stage.

All of this depends on the soil and on the type of farm operation. Jim Johnson farms in southern Iowa. He says getting additional grazing was important on his farm. And he says by going to a system that included 60-inch rows he dramatically increased the forage on the field without dramatically reducing corn yield. He didn’t go to straight 60-inch rows but instead to alternating 30- and 60-inch rows.

Meanwhile, Shane Wiese is a purebred cattle producer in western Iowa, and he says the goal on his farm has been to provide forage and grazing for his cattle. His family has been using cover crops for about 15 years, he says. They also use an intensive rotational grazing system. Between those two tools, they have reduced the amount of time they depend on feeding hay to their cattle.

Finally, Johnson says using the cover crops and other tools helps keep nitrogen on the field and out of the river.

“Water quality is going to be a huge issue,” he says. “If we don’t do it, they’re going to regulate it.”

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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Cover crops are often used by farmers for their soil health benefits. The benefits of cover crops go beyond the farm, as they have been shown to reduce nutrient pollution from fields to waterways through leaching or runoff.

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