Using cover crops as forages can offer an economical, alternative feed source to growers who have livestock. 

Extending the grazing season with covers can help livestock producers reduce input costs such as winter feed, according to Victor Shelton, Indiana NRCS State Agronomist and Grazing Specialist. We asked Shelton a few questions about utilizing cover crops as forage when grazing. 

What are some of the soil health benefits provided by grazing cover crops?

Shelton: Grazing livestock are ruminant animals. They’re able to convert forages into energy and use that energy to produce meat and milk. Their stomachs are essentially fermenters. Utilizing livestock helps to add or increase microbes into the system and helps turn that rough forage into even more usable nutrients, faster.

Raising hoofed livestock helps feed the underground livestock. Two soil health principles are maximizing continuous living roots and biodiversity. Those two principles focus on feeding soil organisms and increasing the mycorrhizal fungi and soil organic matter. The other two soil health principles — maximizing soil cover and minimizing disturbance — protect the soil and soil life. Cover crops protect the soil from erosion and help maintain or increase stable soil aggregates and organic matter and more importantly, buffer against temperature and moisture changes.

Grazing livestock are another tool to help manage the system. They do help speed up the process by improving nutrient cycling through spreading manure across a field. Livestock can be a form of disturbance to the soil through their foot traffic contributing to soil compaction, so grazing must be managed. But if it’s done correctly, grazing cattle on covers can certainly help the pasture system rebound. 


“Livestock feeding themselves is almost always cheaper than anything you can carry to them…” – Victor Shelton

There are also benefits for the manure that is distributed across the field. If it’s managed properly, it’s going to get spread quite evenly. There are certainly some good nitrogen (N) benefits from the urine, especially from beef cattle, and that’s very beneficial for the next crop. Grazing cover crops helps capture and utilize that N.

What are some of the challenges growers may face when they’re thinking about grazing covers?

Shelton: A lot of crop fields are not fenced anymore. You go back 30, 40 years ago, there were a lot more fences in the countryside than there are today. Do you have the infrastructure or are you willing to build it?

Water also needs to be available at the field you want to graze. This can be accomplished by permanent or temporary pipelines, depending on the time of year. The amount needed by the animals depends on temperature, humidity and even the forage that’s being grazed. And, whether that livestock are dry cows or lactating or growing animals.

Water needs vary a lot, but we still must water them. Some years like last year, we have a lot of areas that were lacking in moisture, so it can also be challenging to get annuals up and growing. Unfortunately, it does take rain, but most of these things we can figure our way around and make it work. Maintaining good soil cover does help.

What strategies can livestock owners adopt to extend the grazing season with cover crops? 

Shelton: Probably one of the bigger things is trying to create a longer window to grow those annual forages. If you can, planning a shorter-season row crop, whether it’s corn or soybeans, so you can plant that cover crop earlier, or figuring out a way to plant that annual into a standing crop is going to gain you some extra growth and raise your opportunities for increasing the yield off that annual and creating more feed to be available.

The earlier you plant that cover crop, the more likely you’re going to have more to graze. When we plant most of these for fall use, moisture can cause an issue. Last year, I saw a big difference in cover crops, whether they were aerially seeded or drilled in, and the ones that were drilled in did a little better because they had better seed-to-soil contact.

Can growers fit grazing into a rotational system?

Shelton: For a corn-soybean rotation, a fall cover crop can work very well if you can get it either interseeded into a standing crop early or harvest your crop early enough. My favorite mix for late summer or early fall is a mix of oats, turnips or radish and cereal rye. The oats and turnips grow quickly.

If you’ve got moisture, you can create an opportunity for some early grazing or even cutting hay off those oats. That rye lies in the background until next spring, and if conditions are favorable, it could be grazed then, or just used as cover.

In a rotation, you also can include wheat in your rotation occasionally, especially if you have a corn-soybean rotation. Instead of doing double-crop beans, you could grow a summer grazing mix after the wheat. That could be either grazed or hayed and could be followed with another fall mix, so there’s lots of options. 

How can grazing cover crops help livestock producers improve their bottom line?

Shelton: Livestock feeding themselves is almost always cheaper than anything you can carry to them. So, if the livestock are grazing annuals, especially in the fall or late summer, then your perennial pastures can rest longer before they’re grazed again. All this helps to extend the grazing season. It’s all about economics. Winter feed is one of the biggest inputs, especially in a beef operation.