Cover crops are an answer to a variety of problems.

“A cover crop is something a farmer uses to protect the soil, help prevent erosion and build soil health,” said Miranda Meehan, extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist at North Dakota State University.

Producers select a crop based on various components unique to their own operation. While each cover crop can offer a multitude of benefits, Meehan urges ranchers to look at the big picture.

“Every year, we need to be thinking first of how cover crops fit into your operation and rotation,” she added.

Annual rye, winter wheat and various cereal crops are common examples of cover crops, but Meehan recommends a diverse mix of species when planting a cover crop to be grazed by cattle in the future. She said this increases the odds of growth in the crop. Mixing cool and warm season grasses will yield a high-quality forage, which Meehan said evens out the nutritional plane.

Meehan said there is no “one size fits all” recommendation when it comes to selecting cover crops. Her best piece of advice is to think big picture and what the cover crop should do for the operation at that given year.

“Know what you want that cover crop to do for you, and look at your ranch’s objectives,” she added.

Understanding the crops themselves is the key factor to gaining profit or success from the use of cover crops, said Jaymelynn Farney beef systems specialist at the Southeast Research-Extension Center from Kansas State University.

Farney said ranchers can face many repercussions if they plant a crop not suited to their operations. In Missouri, for example, Farney said there have been recent reports of cattle that were poisoned after eating sorghum-sudangrasses high in nitrates.

“Most cover crops grow rapidly. In growing rapidly, they accumulate a lot of nitrates,” she said.

Farney said ruminants’ stomachs convert nitrate to nitrite, which is absorbed into the animal’s blood stream where it in turn converts hemoglobin into methemoglobin, which cannot carry oxygen.

With this example in mind, Farney urges ranchers to understand the crops they plant as cover crops and to perform any needed tests before grazing these crops.

“A $15 test can save you a lot of money in the long run,” she said.

The nutritional needs of cattle can be met easily when the livestock are being grazed on a solid cover crop field. Meehan said the benefits of this are twofold – not only are cattle being supplied with the proper nutrients, but ranchers are saving money as they are required to feed less supplemental forage. If cattle are not put on the crop to graze, Meehan said haying the crop is also a viable option. As if the nutritional benefits of planting cover crops were not enough, Meehan said these plants also do a great job at suppressing weeds.

The positive effects of cover crops even extend beyond the soil’s surface, Meehan said. In addition to efficiently utilizing moisture, cover crops help prevent soil erosion and add to overall soil health.

Meehan said grazing cattle on a cover crop system actually accelerates the process of breaking down organic material while simultaneously enhancing the nutrient availability.

These crops not only help give back to the overall soil health, but Meehan said ranchers can either graze cattle or hay the crop after the season is over. This option has many benefits, including an extension of the grazing season and improving a rancher’s bottom line.

Despite all these benefits, there are some challenges and additional costs accompanying cover crops. Meehan said ranchers have many factors to consider to properly graze their cattle on these cover crops. 

In her area, Meehan said fields dedicated to cover crops are not often fenced adequately for animals. Access to a clean water supply is another common concern.

These challenges, however, are easily fixed. With the application of various temporary fencing options or waterers, Meehan said ranchers can begin to capitalize on grazing their cover crops.

“The money that you’re saving in feeding costs by grazing a cover crops helps offset the costs in the long run,” she said. “There is the potential to put in permanent fixtures and use strategic thinking to turn it into a long-term investment.”

Meehan said some challenges accompanying cover crops cannot be either easily fixed or prevented. Like all producers know, Meehan said a lot of crop production is dependent upon Mother Nature.

This reality has been proven to operations in many parts of North Dakota this year, she added. With the excessive rainfall and current snowfall, Meehan said ranchers in this part of the country need to think through all planting decisions.

“Looking at where we’re currently sitting, I think it’s safe to say there’s going to be excessive moisture this year,” she said.

With this fact in mind, Meehan encourages ranchers to look at all options when making decision regarding cover crops. She said claiming prevented plant acres is a viable option for ranchers affected by excessive moisture.

“Prevented plant acres refers to if you’re unable to plant a crop due to Mother Nature-related reasons,” Meehan said. “If you’re unable to plant a crop because of issues such as flooding, you can claim prevented plant and receive a payment – sort of like an insurance.”

Meehan also said the USDA program of prevented plant acres was revised in 2019, creating more flexibility for ranchers plagued by bad weather but still looking to utilize cover crops. At the end of the day, Meehan said cover crops prove useful to cattle producers through several different facets. From helping to improve soil health to adding balance to an animal’s diet, she said planting cover crops are a viable option in many different situations.