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Cattle producers using cover crops to extend forage, conserve soil

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 05/20/2013 9:35 AM

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ALLISON, Iowa —Allison cattle producers Edward and Randal Johnson and Scott Bruns have been using cover crops to protect soil and extend forage supplies for several years.

They shared their experiences during a recent cover crop meeting in the Butler County Extension office in Allison.

The Johnsons have 70 cow/calf pairs, finish out their calves and grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa. Bruns has 90 cow/calf pairs, also finishes calves and has a corn, soybean, meadow rotation.

Edward said they've grown cover crops for five years. They started by seeding rye or triticale after they chopped silage.

Bruns has planted cover crops for three years. He's tried oats and rye.

"When we chop silage, we harvest early and so we have bare ground," Edward said. "The cover crops prevent erosion and give us extended forage."

They chop corn silage and then drill rye or triticale to chop the following spring. They follow that with no-till soybeans or Teff grass.

"Teff is a really fine grass," Edward said. "We get two cuttings, graze it in the fall and then it dies with the first frost. We follow that with corn the following spring."

For the first time last fall, Edward and Randal aerial seeded rye into standing corn in mid- to late August. They combined the corn and baled the stalks. This spring they will chop or bale the rye for their cattle.

"We removed all the stover so we wanted something to cover the ground so it wasn't all black," Randal said.

In another corn field that was aerial seeded with rye, the cattle grazed last fall once the rye was three to four inches tall. This spring the Johnsons will kill the rye and no-till plant soybeans.

Edward said he's never followed rye with corn the next year. He has taken alfalfa and then followed with corn for silage. Research shows that rye can have an allelopathic effect on corn if farmers don't wait at least two weeks after killing the rye before planting corn, said Terry Basol, Iowa State University Extension field agronomist.

The Johnsons increased the seeding rate when they aerial seeded rye.

Edward typically chops the rye cover crop in late May or early June. He said he knows that to insure a spring crop following a cover crop, the cover crop must be harvested or killed by May 10, but he needs the forage more than he needs the crop insurance.

In another field, he drilled rye with an endgate seeder after he chopped silage. Because of the excellent seed to soil contact, Edward said it seems like every seed grew and there is an excellent stand.

The first two years he planted cover crops, Bruns drilled a 50/50 mix of oats and rye, and he normally tries to kill it out. Last spring he let it grow out but there was a wet spell that made it hard to harvest at boot stage. It was just at the flowering stage, pre-head when he cut it.

"I wasn't able to chop it, I baled it and I'm feeding it in TMR right now," Bruns said. "It's decent feed."

He had Klinkenborg Aerial Spraying seed cover crops last fall into standing corn and silage ground, and he drilled some as well. He only seeded oats last fall.

"I was a little concerned with how dry it was whether I would have any luck and I chickened out on the more expensive rye," Bruns said. "Conversely, I'm also planning on going back to corn. After seeing the allelopathic event last spring from that bigger rye, it was too close. If you could get it killed out two weeks before planting corn, it would be fine."

Klinkenborgs flew on 45 pounds of oats last August, and it came up great.

"I was pleased with how it went, especially considering the weather," Bruns said. "I will vouch for aerial seeding. If it worked last year, it will work any year."

Bruns has had no experience with turnips but has heard they have fantastic feed value.

"I have heard you want to feed the cattle first before you put them out on turnips because they tend to overgraze on that," he said. "I've also heard that turnips and radishes tend to rot after they freeze so make sure to keep some distance from your neighbor's house."

Bruns said he'd like to try some turnips or radishes. Edward said he's thought of trying radishes but hasn't looked into it yet.

Bruns hopes to do some testing this spring to see if the oats held the nitrogen. He has grazed oats and rye in the fall, and it worked well. Spring weather sometimes makes grazing more difficult especially with crop insurance deadlines.

Dale Thoreson, retired ISU Extension dairy specialist, said that producers who plan to harvest rye need to watch for ergot, a fungus which takes over the seed and can sicken livestock. If they harvest the rye before it heads out, that should not be a problem.

Bruns has observed weed supression from cover crops.

DOsage farmer Dana Norby said last spring where he and his brothers had rye from the year before was the only place that they didn't have to use a burn-down herbicide.

"That was an added benefit," Norby said. "My number one goal with cover crops is erosion control, number two is organic matter and three is compaction. Weed suppression was an added bonus."

Rye planted in the fall for forage can extend the growing season, is a flexible forage, is an excellent cover crop, recycles nitrogen, suppresses weed growth and can be an emergency forage crop in cases of alfalfa winter kill, said Russ Euken, ISU Extension beef specialist.