Tim Forkner

Tim Forkner stands in front of the drill he uses to plant cover crops on his farm in Vernon County, Mo. He grazes cattle on the cover crop to offset the cost.

RICHARDS, Mo. — After 40-plus years of farming in Vernon County, Mo., Tim Forkner decided to switch to no-till. His son Nathan had joined the operation and believed there was a benefit to improving soil health.

Forkner wanted to preserve the land and knew that was the key to long-term profitability. But to make it successful, he needed cover crops.

Planting more than 1,500 acres wasn’t a small investment, and Forkner knew he needed diversification to make money.

“We attended the national no-till conference, and it seemed like the next step was to integrate livestock,” he said. “Livestock recycle the nutrients, and there is a benefit to getting more income by grazing cover crops.”

Forkner visited with local cattleman Bob Walrod and offered to graze his cattle through the winter. Walrod knew producers in South Dakota who grazed cover crops and wanted to try it.

The arrangement started in the fall of 2014 with a group of stocker cattle.

“The first year we grazed stockers and were just paid per pound of gain,” Forkner said. He used rotational grazing to manage the covers, running 100 calves on 10 to 20 acres and moving them once a week.

“All the ground we own has permanent three-strand high-tensile fence,” he said.

In 2015, Forkner bought his own stocker cattle and custom grazed cow-calf pairs with Walrod instead.

“I like a cow because she leaves more manure,” Forkner said. “But I don’t want to be a cow-calf guy.”

Last year Forkner grazed 200 pairs and 150 stockers on his farm. He divided the pairs into four groups and rotated them weekly through 10-acre paddocks. The cattle arrive at the farm around Thanksgiving and leave in the spring.

“It all depends on when we get the cover crops planted and when they come up,” he said.

The goal is to move the cattle by April 1, but some years they stay until early May.

“That ground normally goes to beans after the cattle graze. But we normally don’t plant beans until the first week of June,” he said.

Walrod pays Forkner per head per day for grazing and custom care. Forkner provides most of the inputs and has his hired help check cattle daily. It’s a good business decision for both parties. But Forkner focuses more on how it impacts that land. The cover crops reduce soil compaction, increase water retention and build organic matter.

“People say you can’t build organic matter over a short period of time. But we’re seeing small increases and a larger increase of cation-exchange capacity,” he said.

Adding livestock to the equation increases the benefits. The urine and manure add extra nutrients to the soil. And hoof traffic works leftover plants into the ground, which builds organic matter.

“As dry as it’s been this summer, you can see a huge difference in the crops,” Forkner said.

The cattle perform better too, he said. Walrod has more cows than Forkner can graze, so the rest of the herd gets hay through the winter. When the pairs come home in the spring, the calves will weigh 50-100 pounds more than those that stayed on pasture.

“You can take the nutrition from the cover crops and add a little creep feed to the calves. They will do 90 mph. It blows my mind how good they do,” he said.

Forkner uses a variety of cover crops to get the best results. Ryegrass comes up first, providing fall and winter grazing.

“We’ve used triticale for several years and like it because we can plant it mid-November or later and still get it up,” he said. This extends the grazing into late winter and early spring.

“This fall we’re doing a seven-way mix to add more diversity,” he said. The mix includes triticale, spring oats, turnips, radishes, winter peas, hairy vetch and crimson clover, along with a little annual ryegrass.

“We’re not sure how the grazing will be, but we’re also wanting to make the soil healthier,” he said. “There’s not a farmer within 100 miles of us that couldn’t benefit from this. As long as we get the gains it’s a win-win situation,” Walrod said.