Adding cattle to a cover crop system can be very beneficial for both livestock producers and cover crop growers, extending the grazing season and offering an additional source of expensive feedstuffs while providing soil health benefits. However, there are so many benefits to grazing that do not have a dollar value. In addition, the more a grower uses cover crops for grazing, the more benefits they will receive — particularly when it comes to putting dollars in their pocket.
A recent 3-year study by the University of Nebraska evaluated incorporating cover crops and cattle in a non-irrigated setting. The goals of the study were to increase soil organic matter and determine yield and economics of the entire system. The crop rotation included wheat (with a cover crop planted into stubble after harvest), corn and soybeans. Cattle grazed the cover crop in winter and grazed the corn residue.
The results showed no difference in soil physical properties, such as density and compaction, and no differences in crop yields. All the change had happened below the soil surface. Soil sampling showed greater total microbial and fungal biomass where grazing cover crops had occurred — indicators of improved soil health. These indicators become more pronounced over time and can really add to the bottom line.
When evaluating how economical it is to graze covers, remember that cover crops are quite versatile tools, helping with tasks such as weed control, erosion prevention, nutrient uptake, etc. Often, these benefits are not evident right away, sometimes taking years to see changes.
It pays to stick with cover crops. A farm budget analysis conducted by the Soil Health Partnership and K-Coe Isom found that growers with more years of cover crop experience were able to lower their per-acre operating costs to or below conventional costs. Growers were able to reduce their costs of cover crop seed, fertilizer and equipment.
Costs can be variable, depending on the type of cover crop seed used, selecting a low-cost seeding method, and even by growing your own seed.
Like any decisions in the agriculture industry, there are ways to make cover crops profitable for your operation. Sometimes, all it takes a little creativity, perseverance and some cattle.