For growers who use cover crops, grazing is the next level of utilization if the proper opportunity presents itself.
If a grower owns their own livestock, cover crops are an additional feed source, especially during winter months when hay and other forages are more expensive. However, even if a grower doesn’t manage their own livestock, they can still take advantage of the synergy that occurs when cover crops are grazed by renting out their cover cropped ground to a neighbor who does own livestock.
A 2017 study by South Dakota State University found several measurable benefits of cover crops when integrated with livestock. However, the study stipulated that growers should consider other variable expenses when deciding whether or not to graze covers, such as costs to prepare the ground and plant, fencing costs and labor.
In the 2020 Cover Crop Strategies Cover Crop Benchmark Study, 70% of growers who indicated they grazed cover crops in 2019 grazed less than 300 acres with animals they owned. Another 9% grazed 300-499 acres of covers and 14% did not graze cover crops at all.
Those percentages look nearly the same when growers were asked how many acres of cover crops they plan to graze during the current growing season. Sixty-four percent of growers grazing covers expect to graze less than 300 acres, 15% will not graze any cover crops, and 10% will graze between 300-499 acres.
The study found the vast majority of growers don’t rent out cover crop acres for grazing, coming in at 83%. Twelve percent of survey respondents rent out less than 300 acres of covers, while a mere 3% rent out 300-499 acres. If cover crop acreage is not being used as feed for a farmer’s own livestock, then another income stream opportunity is being missed by not renting out those acres for grazing.
Similarly, growers did not anticipate renting out cover crop ground for grazing this year, at 83% of the responses. Another 14% of growers were going to rent out less than 300 acres, while 2% planned to rent 300-499 acres.
When evaluating the cover crop species that were grazed, radish was the favorite at 54%. Rounding out the top 10 species were cereal rye, at 51%; oats (45%); turnips (42%); sorghum-sudangrass (38%); crimson clover (27%); annual ryegrass (26%); hairy vetch (25%); sunflower (24%); and red clover (24%).
By far, beef cattle were the livestock of choice for grazing, with 87% of survey respondents saying that was the type of livestock they graze on their cover crops. Sheep were the next most popular choice, at 15%, and 8% of growers graze other livestock species, such as horses, pigs, chickens, wildlife and bison.
Rotational grazing is the most common type of grazing system used. Half of growers indicated they used rotational grazing, followed by open and/or unrestricted grazing at 40%. Another 28% of survey participants utilize mob/high density grazing on their cover crop acres.
Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz have utilized their cover crop acres for year-round grazing on their farm near Redwood Falls, Minn., for the past two decades. The Breitkreutzes graze 180 Red Angus cross cow/calf pairs and operate a 750-head custom cattle feeding operation, so they need a lot of feed. The couple has 27 paddocks of 4-5 acres and split their cattle herd into groups of 50 head per paddock. Nineteen watering stations provide hydration for the cattle.
“We’ve learned that when we bring our calves home from where they’re out grazing all summer long, we try to keep our calves still grazing something that’s very high in nutrition with the same water supply,” says Grant Breitkreutz. “We move the cows, instead of moving the manure with a manure spreader. When we first brought 58 cows home, we burned 400 gallons of diesel fuel hauling out manure. Now, we still may use diesel to haul feed to the cows, but we’re not hauling manure and we’re handling 4 times as many cows.”
Grazing cover crops is a long-term commitment for most growers, with 54% stating that they graze livestock for more than 90 days. Only 29% of survey participants chose 45-90 days, with 17% of growers indicating less than 45 days.
More than two-thirds of growers don’t bale cover crops for livestock feed, coming in at 69%. Thirty-one percent of survey respondents do bale cover crops with the intention of feeding them to livestock.
Since covers are typically grazed as a supplemental feed source, it makes sense that the top two seasons for grazing cover crops were fall, at 64%, and winter, at 54%. Forty-six percent of growers graze cover crops in the spring, compared with 38% who graze covers in the summer.
Livestock producers who graze their livestock on cover crops not only gain the soil health benefits from the practice, but also see substantial rate of gain per day. Nearly a quarter of livestock producers (24%) see a rate of gain of 2-2.49 pounds per day, compared to 14% of livestock on pasture and/or regular feed. Another 23% noted a 1.5-1.9 pound rate of gain per day, compared to 26% on pasture and/or regular feed. An additional 18% added 1-1.49 pounds of rate of gain per day for their livestock, compared to 24% on pasture and/or regular feed.
Cost of gain per pound for livestock seems to be a fairly inexpensive way to grow livestock. More than half of livestock producers, at 53%, paid $40 per pound of gain for their livestock, compared to 39% who paid the same price to get the same pound of gain using pasture and/or regular feed. Another 18% paid $50 per pound of gain on cover crops, versus 24% who paid $50 per pound of gain on pasture and/or regular feed. Another 10% of livestock producers paid $60 per pound of gain, compared to 16% of livestock producers who fed cattle out on pasture and/or regular feed for the same cost per pound.
For the financial incentives, grazing livestock is a fairly safe bet. Ninety-three percent of livestock producers did not have any health problems related to grazing cover crop mixes. Another 4% of survey takers indicated they were unsure if any health problems could be traced to grazing covers, while another 3% stated that their livestock did have health problems because of cover crops.
Grazing their own livestock on cover crop acres offers some profitability for growers. Some 39% of survey respondents made under $50 per acre of their gross income from grazing livestock on cover crops, followed by 28% who made $51-$75 per acre. Thirteen percent of survey participants boasted a profit of $100-$150 per acre income from grazing livestock on covers.
The majority of growers who rented out their cover crop acres made less than $50 per acre in gross income, with another 12% making $51-$75 per acre in gross income. Only 6% of survey respondents could claim adding $76-$99 per acre to their gross income.