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This week’s podcast, sponsored by Montag Manufacturing, features Dan Shike, Associate Professor, Animal Science, University of Illinois. Shike will discuss the benefits cover crop grazing can offer livestock producers, the planning needed to incorporate covers into a beef operation, how grazing cover crops affects soil health, and more.

The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs.  For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit www.Montagmfg.com or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

 
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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit www.Montagmfg.com or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

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Full Transcript

Sarah Hill:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies podcast. I'm Sarah Hill, Associate Editor. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website.

Sarah Hill:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies podcast. I'm Sarah Hill, Associate Editor. Today I'd like to introduce Dan Shike, an Associate Professor of Animal Science with the University of Illinois. Dan will be discussing, Integrating Cover Crops Into Beef Operations. Welcome to the podcast, Dan. So to get us started, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Dan Shike:

Yeah. So again, my name's Dan Shike, and I'm associate professor here in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois. Actually been here for about 20 years because I did all my graduate work here as well. But I grew up in Western Illinois, a little town called Lexus and actually my dad brothers still farm there, row crops and have a cattle operation. My research program here at the University of Illinois involves cow calf, nutrition and management. And I really like to look at a lot of different aspects of the beef cattle industry and approach it from a system standpoint. So of course, I have a lot of grazing interests and as well as looking at some grazing alternatives, extending the grazing season. And that's certainly where some of my interest in cover crops comes in.

Sarah Hill:

Absolutely. So I don't know how familiar you are with our podcast, but a lot of the time our listeners maybe are coming at cover crops from the other side of the system where maybe they have a crop system and they're looking to incorporate beef cattle and covers and grazing as kind of the last step, rather than looking at this topic from the other way around. So I'm kind of excited to talk today about this angle of cover crop grazing.

Dan Shike:

Yeah, there's no question that the majority of the focus on cover crops has come from the agronomy side and from a row crop interest. And in integrating that into those systems, and as you mentioned, oftentimes introducing cattle or grazing components kind of the last step there, but certainly those operations that are integrated operations already with a crop enterprise and a beef cattle enterprise have a lot of interest in this and they really do have a lot of questions and are curious how cover crops can fit in from an integrated system standpoint.

Sarah Hill:

Absolutely. So let's go ahead and get to today's topic. What kind of planning needs to be in place for a beef producer to maybe take that first step into cover crops and incorporating covers into their operation?

Dan Shike:

Yeah. So first of all, I think it's really important to kind of establish some goals. What are we trying to accomplish here? Are we interested in adding some grazing days in the fall? Are we wanting to have some grazing opportunities in the spring? Or are we looking at maybe putting in a cover crop to harvest and put up a stored feed to be fed at a later date?

Dan Shike:

And I think once we first establish what our goal is there, then there's certainly some other questions that are really important to the planning process. What crop is the cover crop going to follow, what crop is going to come in after the cover crop? And then on the cattle side, some additional questions that need to be considered from a planning standpoint would be what class or age of cattle are we wanting to utilize in this system? Do we have some wind feeder calves and we're wanting just more for a stalker, a backgrounding operation? Are we interested in running some cows or even cow calf pairs out there? And that will help us kind of identify what cover crop systems maybe would be the best fit and what we need to consider from planting and harvesting dates.

Sarah Hill:

What types of benefits can cover crops offer producers who traditionally have been more on the livestock end of things?

Dan Shike:

Yeah. So from a livestock enterprise standpoint and particularly in the beef cattle enterprise, our number one cost is feed costs, and really being able to control those stored feed costs or harvested feed costs are the number one determinant of profitability in cow calf operations. So anything we can do to extend the grazing season is certainly going to reduce those stored feet costs. And if we do have to put up some stored or harvested forages, if we can have an additional crop like this that fits into a rotation, that also is a good fit because sometimes those acres are just not available for growing an additional forage crop.

Sarah Hill:

So then how can grazing cover crops affect soil health for livestock producers? And keeping in mind, of course, that maybe soil health isn't the number one goal of a livestock producer, of course.

Dan Shike:

Yeah. And here's really where the questions for the most part have come when it relates to integrating these systems, what are the trade offs? We know that introducing cover crops has tremendous impact and benefits from a soil standpoint, whether it's preventing erosion, if it's increasing organic matter, water holding capacity, obviously the benefits are pretty well documented on that side of things. The bigger questions come, what happens to these benefits when we now introduce cattle to graze these cover crops?

Dan Shike:

And I'll be honest, I would say we're really kind of at the forefront of answering these questions in that there's been some studies conducted on this, but the amount of research really assessing the impacts of cattle grazing these cover crops is pretty limited. But in some of the work that has been done, and there's been some work done in Iowa, been some work done at University of Nebraska. For the most part, it looks like that the impact of cattle grazing is pretty limited, in such that we still maintain a lot of the benefit or the majority of the benefit that we see from introducing those cover crops.

Dan Shike:

Now, there's several factors that can impact just how much influence grazing can have. If we're grazing in the fall or spring can have an impact. And really it probably starts with where are we located in the country, and what's the soil type and what is the annual rainfall that occurs. Here in central Illinois, if we're trying to graze in the spring and it's a wet spring, the cattle can cause some compaction.

Dan Shike:

And honestly, that's probably one of the number one questions or concerns that we hear about, is surely cattle grazing out the there is going to cost compaction, going to cost some soil roughness. And in reality, it's pretty minimal. And in fact, if we're talking about grazing in the fall, honestly, there's really no noticeable differences in compaction or penetration resistance, or bulk density, any of our measures of compaction. And that's partly because of, it probably be a dryer when we do that.

Dan Shike:

And then also we have the benefit, at least in the upper part of the Midwest and US here of that freezing and thawing throughout the winter. And that's going to help alleviate some of that compaction that maybe occurs in the very, very top shallow parts of the soil.

Dan Shike:

Now, again, if we, if we are grazing out there in the spring and happens to be a very wet spring, there is the potential that we could cause a little more damage then, but that's why we need to have a plan for grazing. But then we also, if we do intend to graze these cover crops, we also need to have some backup plans or some emergency plans. If whether throws us a curve ball, we need to be able to adapt and be able to remove those cattle from those fields before we do any kind of damage.

Sarah Hill:

So earlier you were talking about the benefits of grazing cover crops and you addressed a lot of the economic benefits. Are those benefits more from a short-term or long-term perspective?

Dan Shike:

Yeah, that's a great question. And I think it's one of the reasons why there is interest in integrating cattle and grazing into these systems because for a producer to integrate these covers, some of the economic benefits are a little more longer term, and it does take some time, even though there starts to be some immediate return, the economic benefit tends to be a little longer term. However, if we can put cattle on that cover crop in that very first season, we're going to get some immediate economic return because like I said, every day that we're grazing a cover is another day that we don't have to feed a stored or harvested feed. And so, there's been several cattle grazing studies now. I mentioned earlier, there's limited work looking at the impact of cattle grazing on the soil, but there are a few more studies looking at the benefit to cattle grazing from a cattle performance standpoint.

Dan Shike:

And there's a wide range, as anybody that's dealt with cover crops knows that it's probably a little less predictable, and part of that has to do with when we get it seated and what kind of stand we have. But if we get a good stand and there's been some studies that have shown there could be up to $300 per acre of net return by putting cattle out there. Now those are big numbers. And I will tell you, that's probably up the upper end because also I've seen in some studies where they had poor stands and they had really just a few days of grazing, and in some cases weren't even hardly able to recoup the costs of putting in that cover crop. And I think on average, it would be more reasonable to think that it would pretty easily net $50 to $100, $150 per acre, assuming kind of average conditions.

Sarah Hill:

How then can growers go about quantifying that feed value that cover crops can offer?

Dan Shike:

Yeah, so it really probably depends on what class of cattle we have. If we're talking about a set of weaned feeder calves that are grazing in more of like a background in your stocker operation, obviously we are quantifying that by the pounds that are added, right? So we're going to put calves out there, lets say, seven weight and if they add 100 pounds, well, we know what that added value is then from the added weight. And so that's part of how that's quantified in addition to the feed savings.

Dan Shike:

Now, if we're looking at a cow-calf operation, the goal of a cow in gestation, or when she's lactating, really she's just maintaining weight, right? So we're not talking about selling pounds, but really what we're talking about there is our feed savings. So really we could just compare it to what it would cost to feed that cow hay, and it's going to vary region to region, but if we value hay at whether you want to pick 100 or 150 or more dollars per ton, we can pretty quickly calculate what our savings would be if we're able to graze those cows for 30 days, or 40 days, or 50 days out on those cover crop.

Dan Shike:

And so that's really how we get down to the math of what is the economic return. It's how many days are we able to graze out there? And every day kind of a general rule thumb, I would say is it's about $2 a day if we have to put that cow on a dry lot and feed our stored feed. So every day that we can get a cow out there graze, then we're saving $2 per cow. So, we get to 30 days per cow grazing. We've probably offset the cost of seeding and the cost of seed to establish that cover crop and anything after that is [inaudible 00:13:07].

Sarah Hill:

We'll be right back to the podcast. But first I want to thank our sponsor. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag Manufacturing website. And now back to the podcast.

Sarah Hill:

Have you seen that there are certain cover crops or cover crop mixes that are better for grazing or harvesting as forage to feed to beef cattle?

Dan Shike:

Yeah, great question. And again, I would say this is one of the areas where we need more research. And I'm not going to claim to be the agronomy expert. I'm sure you have plenty of other people you've had on this that could speak to that. But from what I've observed, that there's certainly trends to mixes and more species, the better, and a lot of interest in that. I would say from the cattle standpoint, there's not a lot of data comparing how these different mixes air to some monocultures. I think a lot of the initial cattle grazing work was probably done on monocultures, whether it's straight cereal, rye, or maybe some triticale. We did recently conduct a trial here at the University of Illinois, where we looked at monocultures of rye and triticale. And then we also had some blends that included crimson clover with either the rye or the triticale.

Dan Shike:

And we did get an increase there in yield and a little increase in quality. We are currently feeding those cover crops. So in that particular study, we actually harvested and inside those covers and we are wrapping up that feeding study. Those cows actually are going to come off test here this week. And so we'll be able to kind of see how those cows performed on those various cover crops. But that scenario that I hope to see a lot more work in, because I know there's a lot of interest in going with several of these blends and really trying to identify which blends are going to be best for cattle is an interesting question.

Dan Shike:

And when cattle graze, particularly when there's multiple species out there, cattle are selective grazers. So it's not like they're going to go out and take a bite that will have every species present there. They may, but more than likely as those different species are kind of at different maturities and different palatabilities and different digestabilities. The cattle will kind of select them. And so it would be really interesting as we use some of those blends to kind of observe and characterize the grazing behavior within those blends.

Sarah Hill:

Okay. So the method that is used to seed those cover crops, does that influence the resulting feed value?

Dan Shike:

Certainly seeding method and seeding date is very important. And it's probably less about feed value or quality, and it's primarily about feed quantity. And certainly also what you're wanting to do. If you want to graze in the fall, we have to get it seeded early enough. And it's going to vary region to region here. Where I'm located in Central Illinois, if we want to graze in the fall, we need to be getting that cover crop seeded in August, if at all possible. Maybe we could get by with an early September if we have a little later frost. But that really then leads to seeding method because depending on what crop you're following, that crop may not be harvested by then. And so you're going to be limited on seeding method. And there are certainly plenty of examples of aerial seeding, overstanding corn that have been successful.

Dan Shike:

For that to be successful we need a timely rain after that aerial seating. If we don't have timely rains after that, we can have some pretty poor stands. But if we can follow maybe a corn silage harvest or even a high moisture corn harvest where it's coming out a little bit earlier, then we can still get in and drill seed that. But again, depends on what crop you're following, on what seeding method you can use.

Dan Shike:

Another project that we worked on here or this fall in a collaboration with some faculty in our Ag Engineering Department is the use of robots to do under canopy seeding. So again, same concept. We want to be able to get those covers seeded prior to corn harvest. But instead of flying over the top and broadcast seeding, actually the robot is traveling in between the rows underneath the canopy.

Dan Shike:

And so we had some success with that. Again, it's still in the developmental stage, but we'll certainly be continuing to explore that as an option as, as we move forward as well. Now, if you're only interested in grazing in the spring or harvest in the spring, it's probably less important to have that really early harvest. It's obviously going to be more important to select the appropriate species over winter well. But we can get that cereal, rye out in later September and be fine and still have a very good stand in the next spring degrees or to mechanically harvest.

Sarah Hill:

Great. Well, I look forward to hearing about the results of that research done with the robot planting cover crops. I'm sure that's probably something not very many of our listeners would've considered certainly.

Dan Shike:

Yeah, that's definitely. And again, it's a little off in the future, and I don't think anyone foresees that being the only method, but it certainly could be another tool. I think we need to be ready to consider drilling, aerial seeding, and if there's also another option to go under canopy with some acres that just gives more flexibility.

Sarah Hill:

Absolutely. I know some growers have been experimenting with using a drone to do some seeding of cover crops. So taking that to the next step of a robot is not a very big leap certainly. So kind of thinking about timing of grazing, when during that beef animal's lifespan is best to graze cover crops? Is it better if it's a young feeder calf, or is it a better choice when it's a mama cow and calf? What have you seen with the age of the animal influencing performance?

Dan Shike:

Yeah. And so I don't know of any study where they've really tried to compare to come up with, which classic cattle will do the best on cover crops, but I will tell you I've seen experiments with the full spectrum. And so what that tells me is, is I'm confident that really at any stage of production, we could utilize cover crops, whether it is that weaned feeder calf. And I think even if someone was doing a forage-based finishing system, cover crops could be part of that. And there's no doubt that we can utilize them in the cow-calf sector, whether that's a dry gestating cow, a spring calving cow in the fall there after she's weaned or calved, or even a fall calving cow with the calved side. I've seen pairs graze this.

Dan Shike:

The biggest thing there I'll go back to one of the first questions you asked me about planning is just making sure you know your goals and once you know what classic cattle and what timing, you'll want to utilize that. Then making sure that we understand what are the nutritional requirements for those cattle at that time, and knowing what are the nutritional value or feed value of the covers at that time. That'll help us be able to determine if we do need to have any additional supplement and what other considerations we need to have. But I'm confident these covers can be utilized.

Dan Shike:

And the other thing we got to remember is more than likely it's short-term. I realize in some situations, maybe we are talking about a 60 or a 90 day, but for many instances, we're looking at more like 30 to 45 days of grazing this. And so really I think it can fit in, in a variety of different scenarios.

Sarah Hill:

Great. What about stocking rates for cover crop fields? I know the mathematics of us determining stocking rates sometimes leaves both crop growers and livestock producers scratching their heads. So talk a little bit about maybe easy ways to determine stocking rates for cover crops.

Dan Shike:

Yeah, I wish it was easy. And so I'm not surprised that as you mentioned, it might leave you a scratch on your head a little bit, because there's such a wide variety of approaches you can use. And you can have a pretty good plan, you can have a good assessment of how much forage availability you think you have, and what the requirements are of your cattle, and you do the calculations, you get the stocking rate, you put them out there. And five days later, it rains a bunch and it gets really muddy. And we trample some of that cover crop in, and all of a sudden there's not near as much out there to graze. And so that's what causes some problems. And it's also why I think there's several different strategies for grazing that have been explored.

Dan Shike:

One of those being strip grazing, where we don't allow access to the entire field. And so, we have to be careful with that too. I think one of the mistakes you can make by strip grazing is having that first strip be too small, because then we're really concentrating cattle in a small area there. But as long as that first area is big enough, then we can, whether it's every few days or every week, whatever it is, some people it would be every day, move that fence and allow a little more access. What that does is, is if you do have a rain on the fourth or fifth day out there, the cattle don't have access to that entire grazing area, and they're not going around and trampling in some of that other. They keep getting access to new area, like I said, every day or every few days.

Dan Shike:

And so some will go with the approach of they'll put quite a few cattle out there because they don't intend to graze for very many days. If it's such that you don't think you have a very long window of days that you can graze, then you're going to want to put more cattle out there to make sure you get a greater utilization.

Dan Shike:

If you do have a long enough window before you want to put in the next crop, depending on what the plan is there, then you can go with a lighter stocking density that will allow the cattle to be out there for more days. So I know that wasn't an exact answer, there's not a real quick and easy way of doing it. And part of that is really because of the weather factor. If we knew that there was definitely two tons of available dry matter per acre, and no matter what we did, there was going to be two tons out there. Well, then I would be able to give you some very hard answers on how many cows and how many days you could be out there. But unfortunately, those two tons could turn into one ton pretty quick just due to some trampling loss.

Sarah Hill:

Fair enough. If a grower chooses not to graze, but still harvests a cover crop to use as forage, what options do they have for harvesting methods?

Dan Shike:

Yep, great question. And because of the concerns over spring grazing, and are we going to trample some in and how much is available, some want to be able to go in and mechanically harvest that. Now we still have some weather consideration and we have to be dry enough in good enough conditions to get the equipment out there to mechanically harvest as well. So certainly mechanically harvesting doesn't eliminate weather influences, but it is a nice alternative. I would say that, for the most part, that's probably going to be chopped and ensiled or wet baled and ensiled that way.

Dan Shike:

Just again, in the spring time there, given the nature of those forages and how wet they are and the time of the year and the difficulty to have enough days to get some of those crops dried down, that's probably going to be the method that's most commonly utilized.

Dan Shike:

Nice thing about chopping and ensiled, if we put that in an ag bag, then we can store that and save it until the next fall or winter to feed because more than likely there's... If we're talking about a cow-calf operation, if we don't harvest it until they're in that late springtime, we really don't have the need for that feed until the next faller winter, but it'll store very easily in those ag bags for that period of time. Yeah, I would say that in silence the most common method, that's the method that we've utilized here with some of our research on campus.

Sarah Hill:

So once a grower goes to feed those cover crops as forage or even grazing, are there any health issues that growers should be careful about and look for in those cattle?

Dan Shike:

The first thing I would say is whenever any forage... As a nutritionist, my recommendation is always going to be to get a sample and get that tested for nutritional value. And that's how we're going to be able to determine what we need to do from a supplementation standpoint if we're grazing, or if we're trying to come up with a total mixed ration for a dry lot setting, we'll know what other feed ingredients we should consider.

Dan Shike:

But then to your point about health considerations, there's some good managed grazing management practices that we should utilize. You know, these crops, if we're going out and grazing them when they're really lush and immature, we do have to be careful. There can be some metabolic issues. Bloat can be a problem on some. It's always good practice to turn cattle out to grazing something like that full.

Dan Shike:

So we don't want to turn them out hungry and let them overeat that way. We'd want to make sure that they were full on some hay. And then we turn them out, so they don't go right out and overeat. And if you have the opportunity to maybe adapt and still feed a little bit the first few days that can help with transitioning. I would say that that isn't often done, but it can be helpful.

Dan Shike:

There are a few other things. Again, depending on cover crops, a broad category, right? And I've talked about some specific options, but there's a lot of... There's cool season. There's warm season. We can graze really anytime of the year. And some of those, if we're talking about like a sorghum-sudangrass and we have a drought situation, well, then we can have some issues with nitrate. If we're talking about sorghum-sudan and after a frost, then we can also have some issues with prussic acid.

Dan Shike:

There are some concerns with some toxicities, and Kansas State has a put together a little guide on some of those cover crop concerns. Hairy vetch is one that certainly comes up and need to be aware of. And there's some others, depending on varieties can have some issues. So certainly it you've only been using cover crops on the crop side and it's the first time to look at using cattle and grazing, make sure you do a little homework there, make sure you understand what species you have present, and make sure there isn't any grazing concerns for the particular monoculture or blends that you have.

Sarah Hill:

Fantastic. Well, that's all the time that we have for today. Thanks so much for joining us, Dan, and talking about Grazing Beef Cattle on Cover Crops.

Dan Shike:

Well, thank you for having me. I enjoyed it and appreciate the time.

Sarah Hill:

For more information about All Things Cover Crops visit us online at coverstrategies.com. Once again, I want to thank our sponsor. Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag Manufacturing website. For more information about All Things Cover Crops, visit us online at covercropstrategies.com.