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Grazing cover crops helps pastures recover

By Staff | Dec 5, 2016

KELLIE BLAIR provides background of their farming operation and experiences with cover crops during a Nov. 15 field day held at her family’s farm, near Dayton.



DAYTON – A cover crop field day last week in rural Dayton explained how using them has helped with grazing cattle.

The field day was hosted by A.J. and Kellie Blair, of rural Dayton, along with Iowa Learning Farms.

The Blairs have been raising cover crops for several years now, but recently began utilizing some of those fields for grazing their cattle herd.

THIS COVER CROP stand is a mixture of oats, turnips and cereal rye planted the second week of October. Cows will be turned out on to this field soon with plans of no-till corn being planted next spring.

Since grazing cover crops is a new practice for the Blairs, they said they are unsure of any exact profit or loss margins they will experience.

“We have a lot of different trials and we use those to keep learning,” said A.J. Blair. “Our original goal for cover crops wasn’t for cattle, but more for water quality and soil health.”

Although it is too early to tell if there are any benefits to grazing cover crops, he said they have seen an increase in their soil’s organic matter over the last several years and a potential of yield increases.

“The last five to six years our organic matter is up 1 percent and we are not seeing any yield loss of our cash crop by using cover crops,” he said.

The goal of the Blairs’ entire cover cropping process is to ensure they do not jeopardize their cash crop earnings in any way. And, so far, they are hoping to keep a successful trend going with utilizing the cover crops for grazing.

“We have a lot of different trials and we use those to keep learning. Our original goal for cover crops wasn’t for cattle, but more for water quality and soil health.” —A.J. Blair Dayton-area farmer

“Our goal has been to not disrupt the soybean or corn crop,” said A.J. Blair. “As we learn more, we do plan to get more aggressive.”

Some early-on benefits to grazing cover crops, he said, include keeping his cattle off pasture longer, giving those fields a longer chance to rejuvenate and grow.

Over their seven-year span of growing cover crops, Kellie Blair said they have applied the seed mixtures in a variety of ways including aerial applications and Hagie high-boy sprayer/applicators, with this year drilling in their cover crops.

The weather was conducive to allow the Blairs the time to drill, adding they are impressed with the growth they are getting from the drilled seed.

“We (planted) the cover crops from Sept. 21 to Oct. 24,” said Kellie Blair. “This year’s conditions allowed for that process and we had plenty of moisture so everything germinated well.”

“We have found the drill is more dependable and seems to be a great method,” A.J. Blair added. “It worked nice and we got a good growth out of it.”

Cereal rye is one of the main cover crops used by the Blairs and they have 20 cows grazing on a young growth of rye and corn stalks.

This provides the cattle with enough feed that they only need additional feed brought out to them every other day or so.

“We will feed them depending on their needs after grazing,” he said.

Grazing cover crops will most likely bring a demand of fencing and a water source to the field. Blair said last year he was able to dig down to a tile and use that to water his cattle.

This year, with the field just across from their farm; they used a culvert that goes under the road running a hose through it to the grazing cows.

They also installed a solar-powered electric fence.

Blair admits this is probably not a powerful electric fencing system, but has found that if you keep your cows fed, they will most likely not take off.

“I have found that feed is the best fence,” he said.

Kellie Blair said they have found cereal rye to be one of their go-to cover crops due to its simplicity.

“Rye seems to be the most simple to grow and is our major cover crop,” she said. “We haven’t had any issues getting it terminated in the spring in time to plant.”

They are also hoping to harvest some of the cereal rye next spring to use as feed, she said, before coming in and no-till planting beans.

On a field that attaches to their acreage, the Blairs have seeded a mixture of oats, rye and turnips that their cattle will winter on. They have plans to keep the cattle in that area until the middle of May then come in and plant corn that will be harvest for earlage.

The three-seed mixture was planted during the second week of October and again, the weather has provided for an ideal growing season thus far.

Russ Euken, a beef specialist with Iowa State University Extension, said that although the rye growth seems small cattle are still getting benefit from it.

There are many benefits to grazing cattle on a field with cover crops from not having any manure-storage issues and the fact that rye germinates in very cold weather.

“There are options for early spring grazing as rye will germinate when it is in the mid-30s,” said Euken.


Angie Rieck-Hinz, a field agronomist for ISU Extension, presented a brief discussion on managing herbicide residuals and cover crops.

Rieck-Hinz said it is important to read the herbicide label.

“This takes a little extra homework,” she said. “When seeding cover crops be sure to look at your herbicide program, the label is the law and you need to be thinking 18-months out with the potential residuals on some of those crops.”

After planting cover crops, Rieck-Hinz advises keeping a close eye on the early growth of those plants.

“Check your cover for a week to 10 days, because a herbicide might actually allow for that group then it could kick in and kill the crop,” she said.

Also, soils, she said, could have a huge effect on the residuals of a soil-applied herbicide.

In a cover cropping situation, Rieck-Hinz said growers assume all liability as the herbicide company will not pay for replanting.

“Herbicide tolerance is not established for cover crops and the likelihood that the chemical companies go back and look for at those tolerances and re-writing their labels is small,” she said.

When it comes to killing cereal rye in the spring, Rieck-Hinz said to be aware that neither grazing nor secondary tillage will kill cereal rye.

Rieck-Hinz said one method to try when terminating rye in the spring that has been being grazed on by cattle is to remove the cattle, give the rye a few days to start growing again then a herbicide application should kill it fairly easily.

This was an issue last year when the rye’s growth slowed; it wasn’t taking up the herbicide very quickly so it took a long time to kill the crop.


Sarah Carlson, an agronomist with Practical Farmers of Iowa, said through research, PFI is seeing many benefits to growing cover crops.

“Soybean yields are statistically higher when they have been planted after rye,” she said.

In addition, there has been some instances showing a reduced SDS effect after a cover crop was grown showing the possibility of adding a cover crop as a rotation could help with that disease.

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