The changes that transformed Russell Hedrick’s no-till farm began somewhat innocently a few years ago, when he asked his NRCS conservationist for suggestions on suppressing winter weeds and controlling erosion.

He showed Hedrick a 30-minute video called, “Under Cover Farmers,” about three farmers who used multi-species cover crops to build soil health and still saw economic benefits the first year. Hedrick was sold — but the story doesn’t end there. The conservationist also convinced him to add livestock to his corn-and-soybean operation near Hickory, N.C.

Once they determined it was economical, Hedrick introduced 30 cattle to his system, using cover crops as forage. The combination of no-till, cover crops and livestock has resulted in rapid improvements in soil health on Hedrick’s farm, while also providing an additional source of income.

What he’s witnessed isn’t uncommon. No-tillers already having success with covers are finding that adding livestock is a win-win situation for both their land and their wallets.

Next Level In Soil Health

There are 400 acres on Gabe Brown’s no-till farm in Bismarck, N.D., that Brown knows will never reach the same level of soil health as the rest of his field. They’re missing what Brown considers to be the next step in achieving a healthy soil: the presence of livestock.

“As we advance soil health, there are principles that have to be met,” Brown says, explaining that it starts with no-till and follows with protecting the soil with residue, diversifying plant species and keeping a living root in the ground as long as possible. Livestock is the fifth principle.

Those 400 acres don’t have livestock due to housing development, lack of water source and other reasons, and Brown can see the difference between those fields and the ones that have livestock.

“Our yields aren’t as high on those 400 acres as they are where we’re able to integrate livestock because our soil health isn’t as advanced,” he says. “We have less nutrient cycling there.”

But on the rest of his 5,000 acres, Brown grazes 350 to 400 cow-calf pairs and 300 to 800 stocker cattle. The impact they have on his soil health is significant.

“If you have livestock on a living cover crop and they bite that plant, that plant will release root exudates in order to regrow,” Brown explains. “That will attract soil biology that feeds the plant to grow even more, producing more root mass. About two-thirds of the organic-matter increase will come from roots.

“Then, of course, as you increase organic matter you’re going to have higher water-holding capacity, more nutrient cycling and more nutrients available for subsequent crops. Those annual roots will decay and you’ll have better water infiltration. So it’s a compounded effect.”

Hedrick, who is only in his third year of farming, has already witnessed some of these benefits. He says his untouched forest ground has about 2% organic matter, while the areas where they’ve been using cover crops are up to 4.6% to 4.8%.

“This year we had about 30 days without rain, and our corn crop is pretty phenomenal compared to some other guys whose corn just burned up without having that organic matter during the drought,” Hedrick says.

In Courtland, Kan., no-tiller Dale Strickler started with no-till, cover crops and livestock all at once in 2005. That spring, he took 4-acre grid samples and learned his whole-farm organic matter average was 1.8%. Five years later, he took another grid sampling and saw it had climbed to 2.9%.

Around that time he counted as many as 46 earthworms in one shovel-full of soil. Now when his farm is hit with a 6-inch rain, he doesn’t have to worry about runoff.

“The soil looks different, smells different, and behaves differently,” Strickler says. “It’s a fun process to watch.”

Pumping Profits

The better soil health has also led to fewer inputs. Strickler says he used to have to spray every year for alfalfa weevils, but a few years into the system and they’ve pretty much disappeared.

“It’s almost spooky to walk out at night with a flashlight,” he says. “You see all the spiders — there’s just glowing eyes everywhere. It’s getting closer and closer to a natural balance.”

Weed pressure is also reduced for Strickler, and Hedrick has noticed the same thing. Having dealt with a number of winter and summer annual weeds, he’s seen an overall reduction, especially with the presence of resistant pigweeds.

On a farm where he’s doing a yield trial with North Carolina State University Extension, Hedrick learned through the Haney Soil Health Test that his cover crops produced about 125 units of nitrogen. He was able to grow 200-bushel corn on that field with no commercial nitrogen.

For Brown, it’s been about 20 years since he began adding cover crops to his no-till and livestock system, and he hasn’t had to use synthetic fertilizer since 2008. He also no longer uses pesticides, and fungicides haven’t been sprayed in more than a decade.

He’s been able to reduce his inputs so much it only costs him $1.44 to grow a bushel of corn. This season, corn was selling for $2 per bushel in his area. Even with the low prices, Brown was still able to make a profit.

Using cover crops is also saving him on the inputs for livestock. Brown says he’s seen a 75% reduction in the cost of wintering his cow-calf pairs by grazing them on cover crops versus feeding them hay.

The value doesn’t stop with the input savings. These no-tillers are also increasing their income with their livestock.

Strickler, who had livestock on and off prior to 2005, says low corn and soybean prices pushed him to making livestock an integral part of his operation. Running a primarily cow-calf operation, he finds livestock are a way to get more out of his acres throughout the year.

“I have a friend who says he’s a sunlight salesman,” Strickler says. “I think that’s pretty profound. We’re trying to convert sunlight and rainfall into usable products for the human race.

“In a corn-soybean rotation, we’re only doing that 4 or 5 months out of the year. If I can grow a cover crop that cattle can eat, and convert that into manure and improve the soil — while at the same time providing a little extra cash off that acre — why not?”

When Hedrick considered adding cattle, he wanted to make sure it paid off. His conservationist estimated the cattle would gain about 2 pounds per day. At the local market, beef was going for $2 per pound, so they figured each cow would make $4 per day.

They then determined there was enough cover crop biomass to feed 10 cattle on one acre for 10 days. Those numbers meant Hedrick was making about $400 per acre every 10 days on the livestock. The cost of seed and drilling the cover crops was about $50 per acre, so Hedrick is netting around $350 per acre every 10 days.

Actually, it’s been better than that, Hedrick says, since his 30 cattle are gaining around 2½ to 3 pounds per day.

Jim Gerrish, owner of American GrazingLands Services, an independent grazing consulting company, says that the value of gain right now is about $1.40 per pound of beef.

For 300-pound gain on a steer, that’s $420 gross income, he says. For pasture- or grass-finished beef, the rate is around $2 per pound, which would bump that income up to $600.

Consider Costs, Challenges

With all the benefits livestock bring to a no-till, cover-crop system, it’s still another component to manage, and there are certain factors no-tillers should consider before they head over to the local livestock auction.

“You have to figure out and address resource concerns first,” Brown says. “You’ve got to have a basic understanding of soil function.”

No-tillers must be able to read their soils and be able to judge whether they have enough residue on the soil, too little soil microbial activity, or how much nutrient cycling is taking place.

“Once they feel comfortable understanding how the soil functions, then it becomes a matter of, ‘Don’t gamble the farm,’ so to speak,” Brown says, suggesting they start small.

Gerrish recommends no-tillers with little to no livestock experience start with custom grazing for a neighbor or friend first before going out and buying their own cattle. To start with a herd of 50 cows would be about a $100,000 investment, Gerrish says — a high risk for an inexperienced livestock owner. He recommends finding a really good mentor who is willing to work with them on a regular basis.

“Custom grazing with someone you know and has experience is a very good starting point,” he says. “That person can come around, look at what you’re doing and give you some pointers on things or say, ‘Yeah, you’re going down the right path here.’”

If that isn’t possible, Gerrish suggests looking for potential clients by attending a local livestock auction and getting to know the auction owner and cattle buyers. He recommends no-tillers get at least 2 to 3 years of custom grazing under their belt before purchasing their own herd.

For someone who has had previous experience with livestock and is ready to own their own herd, Gerrish says to buy open cows they can fatten, or bred cows that aren’t going to calve until next spring, if they’re starting with a winter cover crop.

“Those are the two classes of animals that it’s hard to screw up with,” he says. “The open cow is the only animal in the beef sector that increases in value as you add weight to it.”

There are other considerations for no-tillers adding livestock to their farm — namely, creating the infrastructure if it doesn’t already exist. Adding fences could be as minimal as stringing a couple of poly wires around the field for about $20 an acre, Gerrish says. But he warns some states have laws on what constitutes a fence, and the risk of cattle escaping into risky areas, such as along highways, should be kept in mind.

If a no-tiller decides he’s making a long-term commitment to bring livestock back to the farm, he may want to consider putting up permanent perimeter and subdivision fences, which can range from $80 to $100 per acre.

Water availability is another issue, and the solutions can range from flood control structures, to chopping ice, to buried pipelines, with the costs ranging from around $50 to $200 or more per acre. While the initial cost may cause some no-tillers to pause, Gerrish says to consider the trade off of implementing a permanent water system.

“A couple hundred bucks an acre to invest in a permanent water system that’s going to be there for 20-plus years — when you put that into perspective of what annual cropping costs are, the fuel, fertilizer and pesticide bills are usually going to be bigger than that on corn and soybeans,” he says. “One year’s annual crop costs generally will pay for most of the permanent improvements that you might make in the stock water development.”

In short, most no-tillers will find that the income from the livestock will bring a quick return on investment for the costs of adding fences and water.

Allocate Feed Effectively

Gerrish says the key to getting a return on investment is how the no-tiller manages grazing the cover crops.

“If you plant 80 acres of cover crops on what would’ve been a corn or soybean field, and you put 30 cows out there and say, ‘Okay, be out there for a few months,’ you’ll only capture a quarter to a third of the feed potential that’s out there,” he says. “So on a per-animal-day basis, it makes the cover crop look very expensive.”

If a no-tiller gives his animals a larger area and leaves them on it, the livestock will waste about two-thirds of the cover crop because they’ll trample it, bed on it and defecate on it, Gerrish says. He compares it to harvesting corn — a no-tiller wouldn’t go out and harvest 8 rows, skip 16, harvest 8 and skip 16 all across the field, which is essentially what’s happening when cattle are managed that way.

The solution is to feed-budget them by giving them a smaller area for a shorter period of time and then rotating them.

“This cuts down the time of exposure of the pasture to the animals, so waste can be dramatically reduced,” Gerrish says. “Each time you shorten the grazing period you make an incremental gain in harvest efficiency.”

Determining how much space, time and number of cattle a no-tiller should allot for grazing on his cover crops is determined in the same way pasture yield is determined, which is calculating the animal unit base per acre.

An animal unit base is the idea that an average 1,000-pound cow will consume 26 pounds of forage per day. So if a no-tiller has a ton of harvestable dry matter forage in a field, then that should feed 75 head of cattle for one day, Gerrish says.

“If you have a cover crop that’s going to produce 2 tons of harvestable forage out there, you should be able to harvest 150 stock days per acre off of it,” he explains. “To put that in an overwintering sense, if you consider the central plains, Iowa, or southern Wisconsin, winter is 150 days.

“If you could graze through that entire period, one acre of cover-crop yielding 2 tons to the acre should support one 1,000-pound animal through the 150 days.”

When a no-tiller is starting out, determining how much forage a cover crop has produced may be a little tricky, and will likely require some trial and error. For example, if a no-tiller has a 50-cow herd and he believes he’s got 100 stock days per acre of feed — or one acre of feed per day — then he’ll put the herd on a half-acre per day.

“So you set up your temporary fences and give them exactly one-half acre,” Gerrish explains. “Then you come back the next day. If the ground is mud and the cows are hollering at you, you were wrong. That wasn’t 100 stock days per acre — maybe that was only 60.”

The next day, he says, the no-tiller gives them a whole acre and comes back to assess what the field looks like and how the animals are behaving.

“Now maybe the cows are acting content, there’s 5 to 6 inches of forage left standing there,” Gerrish says. “You’ll say, ‘I could’ve done with a little bit less,’ so the next day we’re going to give them something in between those two acreage amounts.

“If you do that for one month on a daily basis, you can walk out, look at any pasture and within 90% accuracy you can estimate how much feed is out there and budget it out accordingly.”

The process trains a no-tiller’s eye to relate to what they see to their herd’s needs, and eliminates the need of measuring anything such as crop height, animal weight and so on, Gerrish says.

“Producers who learn how to do that and start allocating feed that way, they never imagine it could possibly be this easy,” he says.

Achieving Multiple Goals With Covers

The cover crop’s purpose isn’t just to feed the livestock, which means no-tillers must keep other goals in mind when adopting a system with livestock and covers.

“The first thing you’ve got to ask yourself is what’s your resource concern on that particular field?” Brown says. “Am I trying to increase organic matter, improve infiltration or put more armor on the soil surface?”

Identifying resource concerns allows no-tillers to choose which cover-crop species will work best, and when they can be grazed. For example, on Brown’s farm he’s allowed covers to mature on one field because his resource concern was keeping enough residue on the surface to protect the soil and feed macrobiology. He says that field was averaging more than 60 earthworms in a 12-inch by 12-inch by 2-inch soil profile.

“That’s a lot of earthworms. We need a lot of residue on the soil, because they consume a lot,” he says.

But the maturity of the covers on that field wasn’t conducive for maximum gains — so if maximum gains were his goal with livestock he wouldn’t graze them there.

If Brown’s resource concern is achieving maximum gain on the cattle, then he’ll tweak the mix to favor species that are most productive and offer the highest nutrient density.

For fall-seeded biennials, triticale or forage winter wheat, along with hairy vetch, radish and maybe sweet clover are covers he’ll often focus on in his mixes — which typically have between 15 and 20 species — for optimal gains. In the spring, stocker cattle will easily gain 2 pounds per day on the mix, and cows can see around 4 pounds daily gain, he says.

Brown also utilizes Brix readings to determine if the cover crops are at a stage that will provide the gains he’s aiming for.

“As you improve or advance soil health, the Brix readings on forages increase,” he explains. “On a grass-finish cover crop, you’ll always have higher Brix readings when the plant is photosynthesizing the most. So we’ll move cattle once during the morning and then several times in the afternoon.”

On Strickler’s operation, he’s looking to use cover crops that will be the most beneficial for the following cash crop.

For example, if Strickler is seeding cover crops into wheat stubble, and the following cash crop is corn, he’ll use cowpeas as the primary focus of his mix because it’s a highly productive summer annual legume. If his soybeans were the next crop, then he’d use a more grass-dominated blend, selecting species such as sudangrass, oats, cereal rye, triticale or annual ryegrass.

Strickler likes to have between four and five species in his mix. It depends on the species he’s using, but his general rule of thumb for determining a seeding rate is to use 30% to 50% of what the cover crop rate is if it were seeded alone. So if he has a 4-way mix, instead of seeding each species at 25%, he’d bump that rate up to get a higher biomass.

Gerrish agrees that no-tillers should use higher seeding rates, and recommends bumping them up by 50%, which he says will often provide a solid canopy cover 2 to 3 weeks faster than the recommended seeding rates.

He also suggests growers use at least five to six species for forage, but going up to even 12 or 20 species would be better to provide the animals a broad diversity.

“If there’s something they won’t eat, that can be part of what’s left behind as residue,” he says.

For Hedrick, his cover crops are used to control erosion, suppress weeds and feed the livestock. His ultimate goal is to leave his children a farm that has had the soil built up and left in good condition.

Hedrick’s winter cover-crop mix consists of cereal rye, triticale, oats, crimson clover and radish seeded at 45 to 50 pounds per acre. The blend is designed so that it’s continuously releasing nutrients to the following crop as the cover crops break down.

Hedrick also has cover crops growing during the summer for his cattle to graze on.

He seeds a mix of sorghum-sudangrass, sunn hemp, sunflowers and radishes around 35 pounds per acre. The mix is high in protein and feed value and allows him three to four grazings.

Hedrick says he sent an analysis off to a university lab and they reported the mix has 17% to 20% protein, with a feed value of 70% to 75%.

While the mixes he’s using have been serving him well, Hedrick is also trying new cover crops to accomplish other goals. For example, this year he’s looking to try black oats and the Defender Radish, both of which are supposed to help suppress nematodes.

The class of livestock no-tillers are raising are another consideration they should keep in mind when addressing their resource concerns. A common mistake Gerrish sees new livestock owners make is trying to terminate a cover crop by grazing it down to ground level while also trying to put weight on their cattle.

“A class of livestock such as growing steers from 500 to 800 pounds will not gain weight on that kind of grazing regimen,” he says.

The animal best suited to accomplish that goal is a dry fall-calving cow that had its calf weaned off in early April, Gerrish says, because then her nutritional requirements are very low.

But for no-tillers focused on protecting the soil, they should make sure they’re not letting their livestock graze covers too much. On Brown’s farm, he aims to have the livestock eat a third and trample two-thirds, so there’s still plenty of residue to cover the soil.

Another common mistake Gerrish sees is when no-tillers want to get two or three grazings off a cover crop and it’s grazed too severely the first time.

Determining when to pull the livestock off is similar to when a no-tiller is learning if there’s enough forage out there — it’s based on trial and error. But generally no-tillers want the cover crop to still be capturing about 30% to 40% of incoming solar radiation.