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Rotationally Raised, Episode 11: Livestock II, Grazing Summer-seeded Cover Crop Mixes

For farmers that grow small grains, the harvest is just the beginning. After harvesting the crop in July, the possibilities for cover crops to plant on that ground are endless. “The world is your oyster,” says Jon Bakehouse of Hastings. Because you can seed cover crops as early as July 1, there’s plenty of time for those plants to soak up the long, hot days.

Cover crops like radishes and turnips – which, in most years, would not provide much benefit planted in late fall between corn and soybeans – have time to develop large tubers and bust up compaction layers. There’s also time for legumes to fix plenty of nitrogen and forages to put on plenty of biomass. This gives livestock farmers the option to rest perennial pastures in order to graze them later in the fall or stockpile for winter, cutting back on hay costs. In this week’s episode, we talk with farmers who plant multi-species cover crop mixes in the summer for their cattle to graze.

Grazing Summer-seeded Cover Crops

Paul Ackley of Bedford says that he relies on a summer-seeded cover crop mix to cut his hay cost and feed his cows economically through the winter. “This fills the gap in the winter when we would be feeding hay. The cattle really do well on it,” he says, “their health is just really good, they’re happy, they’re finding their own meal. We’ll strip off about enough to last them for three or four days with polywire electric fence, and then move it for them every third or fourth day.”  He follows the cover crop mix with corn in his rotation to take advantage of the manure from the cows, so he also includes nitrogen-fixing plants in the mix.

Root diversity to improve the soil is a big consideration for Jon Bakehouse when considering species for his cover crop mix. “Get something on there that’s growing aggressively, and at different rooting depths,” Jon says. “with our corn and soybeans, they’re very shallow rooted crops, so if we can get something that has a taproot drilling down, I think that’s a benefit.” He says that all those different types of roots create more channels for water to infiltrate, helping to cut down on the amount that runs off the surface. He says that he also wants to have warm-season and cool-season plants to provide different types of rooting patterns under different weather conditions.

Tim Sieren of Keota agrees. “Each plant has its own conditions,” he says, “One plant will take advantage of warm weather, and another will do better in the cool season.” Last year after harvesting his rye crop, he planted a mix of grasses, legumes and brassicas. One of the legumes he planted, a cowpea, didn’t respond well to the wet weather he had on his farm in August. “It’s just kind of an insurance policy,” he says, “if you’d have put all cowpeas in here, you’d have bare ground.” But, because he planted a mix of rye, radishes and rapeseed in addition to cowpeas, he had a good cover. “One of them will take advantage of the conditions,” he says. He says it also helps soil microbes to have different species growing together: “Some microbes like some plants better than others.”

Next week, we’ll wrap up this season of Rotationally Raised, and we’ll hear from farmers about why consumers need to understand the benefits of crop diversity and crop rotations so they can support food and agriculture products that benefit farmers, rural communities, and the soil that these communities and farmers tend and protect. For more information on small grains, check out practicalfarmers.org/small-grains.

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