Published Jul 19, 2013

Good Cover Crops Make Good Neighbors!

By Margaret Chamas

Got enough of cover crops?

PFI’s interest in cover crops has always been big – and the face of Iowa is changing for it.  So many more people are planting cover crops that there are actually seed shortages; not only are cover crops an opportunity to keep soil and nutrients on the field, they’re becoming an alternative income source by selling seed.  (Next up…third and fourth crops?!)

Somewhat more slowly, practical livestock farmers are seeing all this green on their neighbors’ cornfields, and thinking that it’d make their cattle happy.  Grazing cover crops is popular in more small-grain-friendly areas like the Dakotas.  Could it work here?

Certainly, with some thought and care.  The situation is poised to benefit both parties – organic matter for the soil and for fodder! – but there are a few obstacles to making it perfect.


The most obvious, particularly after this spring, is the weather.  What if it’s wet and the crop farmer is concerned about soil pugging and compaction?  Maybe the grazier has to remove cattle as soon as thigns start to thaw, or has to reduce stocking density.  Maybe he can harvest the forage as greenchop instead of grazing it.  Or maybe the cover crop can only be grazed during the fall.  Remember, for the most part, early spring freeze-thaw will negate compaction caused by grazing prior to the thaw.

Who pays for the cover crop seed?  If the crop farmer has already been cover cropping and realizes the benefits, he may be happy to continue paying the seeding costs, and the grazier just pays a rental fee for grazing the fields.  This way, if spring conditions are such that no grazing can happen, the grazier is not out any money.  Perhaps if the grazier wants certain forages present – brassicas or a certain grass species – he pays for that extra seed.  However, if the crop farmer is not already into cover crops, the grazier may offer to pay for the first year or so worth of seeding, in return for access to the seeded fields for grazing or harvest.  With good luck and good management, the crop farmer will see the benefits to him, and in the future the two might create a different arrangement.

These are just two of the many potential snags in developing a cover crop grazing relationship.  It is essential for the farmers to sit down and discuss all the “when” and “what if” scenarios.  Writing up an actual agreement or lease solidifies the decisions for both parties.

Ed Cox of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center has developed sustainable farm leases in the past, and agreed to help me draft some ideas for cover crop grazing leases.  We did not come up with sample paperwork that people could fill in the blanks and call finished – each farm is different, Ed noted, so while he was happy to provide ideas and to craft a list of considerations, he prefers that the farmers sit down and write their own final agreement.  If they wanted someone to look over it with a more trained, professional eye, however, he’d be happy to help clarify rules and regulations pertaining to their custom lease.

Are you a grazier wanting to access cover cropped acres for early spring or late fall/winter grazing?  Check out the finished document.  The major legal and logistical issues are described and potential arrangements or solutions are noted.  Contact me (Margaret) for more information!

Cover crop lease work