Lake City cattleman sees economic benefits of cover crop grazing
By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
LAKE CITY – While cover crops can help protect soil and water quality, grazing them as forage are also helping Iowa cattle producers like Mark Schleisman boost the bottom line.
“Cover crops are nutritious, with about 22 percent protein,” said Schleisman, who runs 350 cow-calf pairs and grows cover crops on 1,300 acres of his family’s corn, soybean, popcorn and livestock operation west of Lake City. “While we set out lick tanks for the cattle, they don’t eat much of it until they graze the cover crops to the ground.”
Cover crops are nothing new to the Schleismans, although no one called them “cover crops” back in the day.
“For more than 20 years, my dad and uncles used about 70 acres of cereal rye to calve on, not recognizing it as a cover crop, but it was,” Schleisman said. “We started with the same 70 acres in 2011, but have expanded to about 1,300 acres of covers since then, with about 70 percent being grazed.”
A desire to control soil loss and improve soil health motivated the Schleismans to expand beyond the original 70 acres of cover crops. As they increased their cover crop acres, they identified opportunities to graze the cover crops and capture real financial benefits in feed value for their cow herd, in addition to improving soil health.
Since 2015, Schleisman, his father, Larry; son Matthew; and son-in-law, Colby Winter have worked with Practical Farmers of Iowa to quantify the value of their cover crops, including their 598 acres of cover crops in 2015-16 that were grazed.
PFI has determined that Schleisman’s cover crops – which include cereal rye, triticale (a cross between rye and wheat), radishes, rapeseed and more – equate to 570 tons of dry matter.
“This would amount to about $28,801 if you had to buy this back as hay,” said Schleisman, who hosted PFI’s Grazing Cover Crops field day on April 11, which attracted more than 40 farmers and other ag professionals from northwest and central Iowa. “That’s $39.99 per acre, which amounts to about $73 per cow.”
More farmers try cover crops
Schleisman is one of four cattle producers in the North Raccoon watershed who are participating in PFI’s demonstration project studying the economic benefits from utilizing cover crops as forage.
This project started in August 2015 and will run through 2018.
In the fall and winter of 2015, the four cattle producers reported that cover crops provided 0.07 to 3.74 tons of dry matter for per acre. Grazing this cover crop saved the farmers $1,306 to $22,801 in hay or other stored feed expenses, according to PFI.
In 2016-2017, Schleisman had 915 acres of cover crops for grazing.
The benefits from that season are still being computer, he said.
Utilizing cover crops not only provides opportunities to reduce feed costs, but produce more beef on limited forage acres. As more farmers and cattle producers discover cover crops’ many benefits, the number of cover crop acres in Iowa has increased dramatically in the past several years – from fewer than 10,000 acres in 2009 to about 600,000 acres in 2016, according to PFI.
Six keys to cover crop grazing success
It’s important to develop a plan ahead of time for best results with any cover crop system, said Schleisman, who offers the following six tips:
- Determine your goals. Do you plan to use cover crops in a row-crop operation, or will they be used for grazing? Schleisman recommends radish, turnip and rapeseed for grazing. Triticale is also palatable and offers a good option for fall grazing, he added. If you want to break up compaction, consider radishes. If you don’t plan to graze cover crops, annual rye is a good choice. “While you don’t get a lot of top growth like you’d need for grazing, annual rye gives you a lot of root growth, which is good for soil health,” said Schleisman, who added that annual rye can’t be flown on, since the small seeds are too light.
- Try developing your own seed blends. A mix of radish, cereal rye and triticale works well for Schleisman. “Rye and triticale are some of the cheapest cover crops to plant and are some of the easiest to grow,” he said, adding that triticale generally yields better than cereal rye. Schleisman harvests his own triticale seed (which usually yields 82 bushels per acre) and bales the triticale straw. “If I had to buy triticale, the seed would cost $12 per bushel,” he said. “I gross about $1,200 to $1,300 with triticale, when you consider the straw, silage and triticale seed.”
- Time seedings properly. The Schleismans start seeding their cover crops around Aug. 15, beginning with the fields where popcorn seed is grown, and try to finish seeding by the end of August. “Our primary way to seed is with our high-clearance Miller sprayer equipped with a Gandy air units to distribute the seed into the standing crop,” Schleisman said. “We also no-till drill some acres. On occasion our cover crop is seeded by an airplane if we have lodging that we don’t want to run our high-clearance sprayer through.”
1. Vary seeding rates appropriately. Schleismans seed about 120 pounds per acre for heavy grazing. They opt for 50 to 70 pounds per acre for general cover crops. Pay attention to minimum seeding rates that may be specified in cover crop cost-share programs.
2. Beware of winter kill. The winter of 2016-2017 was tough on cover crops in Schleisman’s area, due to a week of icy conditions in January and fluctuating warm and cold temperatures in February. These conditions took a bigger toll on the triticale than the cereal rye. Rapeseed suffered the most. “While the rapeseed overwintered last year, hardly any of it did this winter in my fields,” Schleisman said.
3. Pay attention to herbicide labels. Some common herbicides may prevent crop residues or cover crops from being used as livestock forage. “A lot of herbicides do not allow you to graze afterwards,” Schleisman said. “Harness, for example, says you can’t graze for 18 months after applying this herbicide.” He added that planters should be aware of planting restrictions. “About half of the herbicides we use say not to plant cover crops for four months after application,” he said. “You’re pushing the label is you go out there early.”
4. Terminate properly before planting. The Schleismans generally allow two weeks between the time they terminate the cover crop in the spring and the time they plant row crops on those acres. “It takes a little time for the cover crop biomass to break down,” Schleisman said.
Whether farmers are using cover crops for grazing or soil health, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey is pleased that Iowa producers like Schleisman are maximizing the benefits of cover crops.
“Iowa farmers’ willingness to make investments like cover crops to better protect water quality and provide other benefits is very encouraging.”
Please Enter Your Facebook App ID. Required for FB Comments. Click here for FB Comments Settings page