Editor’s note: The following was written by Deepthi Kolady, South Dakota State University assistant professor of economics, and Allen Deutz, graduate research assistant, for the university’s iGrow website.
Cover crops have been gaining a reemerging acceptance over the last decade, with very few producers disagreeing about the potential soil health benefits of adding them to their farming operation.
However, with low commodity prices, producers are trying to reduce expenses on inputs, especially on inputs with a varying or unknown return. This leaves cover crops in a peculiar place, with a somewhat difficult to measure or unknown monetary return from increases in soil health, fertility and nutrient availability.
This can leave some producers questioning, “How can I use cover crops and see an immediate return on my investment?” Recent research from South Dakota State University points towards one answer: livestock integration.
During spring 2017, we conducted a farm-level survey on adoption of conservation practices and precision technologies in South Dakota. Of the nearly 200 survey respondents, mostly from the eastern half of South Dakota, 51 percent raised cattle in some form, either beef or dairy.
Of those livestock producers, 94 percent grazed crop residue, but only 39 percent grazed cover crops. Additionally, of the total respondents, 31.3 percent used cover crops in their operation in 2016, with 64.5 percent of them using cover crops with livestock integration.
The producers were asked to score the importance of several reasons influencing their cover crop adoption decisions. We also asked non-adopters to score a list of reasons why they chose not to use cover crops on their operations. The scores show that “Improves soil health,” “Increases farm productivity” and “Improves water availability/water conservation” scored high among adopters, while “Planting time conflicts with harvest of cash crops” and “Satisfied with current practices” score high among non-adopters.
Profitability and feed
Comparing the results between cover crop adopters with and without livestock, the top three reasons remain the same. However, “Helps with livestock integration” jumps in ranking and increases its score by approximately 18 percent among producers with livestock. More striking is the increase in “Increases farm profitability” jumps in ranking from eighth to fourth, and the score increases by over 52 percent. Those producers who are integrating livestock see value in doing so.
Producers are doing so for profit motivations as well. The large increase in the score for “Increases farm profitability” tells us livestock integrators are using cover crops for the same top reasons as other cover crop adopters, but are doing so with profitability as a top driver as well.
The SDSU Southeast Research Farm in Beresford, S.D., has been collecting data on cover crop forage yields after small grains for the last several years. Data collected from 2010-16 of dry matter (DM) after small grains show an average of 2,262 lbs. DM/acre. The range has been anywhere from 0 (2012) to 4,540 (2013) lbs. of DM/acre.
There is an upward trend in the forage yields, with the last four years averaging 3,031 lbs./acre or about 1.5 DM tons/acre. Using the yield estimate of 1 to 1.5 DM ton/acre, and assuming a utilization rate of 50 percent (which can vary depending on the intensity of grazing management), actual feed available can range from 0.5-0.75 DM tons/acre.
If using a hay DM value of $90/ton, the potential direct gross return could be between $45-$67.50/acre. Most cover crop mixes will cost between $10-40/acre, depending on the type and complexity of the mix and seeding expense. The forage value alone can cover seed costs for cover crops.
Another way to evaluate this is on a per-head basis. The researchers at the Southeast Research Farm conducted field trials that focused on the different options for grazing livestock on cover crops during the 2016 crop year. One specific treatment was planting a cover crop after small grains, wheat and rye. A cover crop blend was planted on July 21, 2016, consisting of radish, turnips, peas, lentils, oats, sorghum, and millet.
Grazing began on Sept. 17 and lasted through Oct. 3, with 28 head of yearling replacement heifers on those 3.5 acres before being moved. This resulted in 448 head days or 128 head days per acre. To put this into perspective, by scaling these results up to an 80-acre field, if producers grazed from Oct. 1 through Nov. 30 (61 days), and assuming no additional forage growth potential, this field would support roughly 50 Animal Units Monthly (AUM).
Other variable expenses should be considered as well, such as costs to prepare the ground and seed the cover crop, fencing costs and labor. The seeding costs are dependent on the capabilities of the producer.
Fencing is also dependent on the producer’s situation. If fields already have the fencing available, then the maintenance cost is very small. If fencing is not available, there are options for temporary, high tensile fences that can be installed and removed rather quickly and easily. This will add expense and increase labor hours, but if this is part of a long-term strategy, the capital costs could be spread out over several years.
To best utilize the forage, it is suggested to paddock the field and mob graze to minimize trample loss.
These additional costs could be offset by the value of not having cattle in a yard and reducing the time spent feeding, bedding and cleaning, all of which incur machinery and labor costs. By grazing the animals on cover crops into late fall, producers are able to have their livestock feed themselves, spread their own manure, and maintain their own bedding situation.
These are just the a few of the clearly measurable benefits of cover crop use with livestock integration. Other potential benefits include increased soil fertility, reduced weed pressure and an overall increase in soil health.