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Harvest is approaching quickly and, with that, many people are thinking about getting cover crops seeded, if they haven’t already. As you plan for your cover crop, think about what your goals are. Do you plan on harvesting those cover crops for stored forages? Will you have livestock grazing the cover crop? Regardless of which you choose, these steps will help make sure your forage harvest is successful.

Cover Crops for Harvested Forages

Harvested forages can be an added benefit from planting a cover crop. When planning for your cover crop, there are some things you should consider before sending the seeder to the field. While other crops can be used, the most commonly harvested cover crops for forages in the Midwest are cereal rye and the other cereal crops.

Cereal rye, wheat, triticale, and others can all make good forages for livestock. Make sure to review your seeding rate. Typically with a harvested forage, we will increase a rate by 50-100% to increase our final yields. For example, my typical cereal rye cover crop rate may be 45-60 pounds per acre. When planning to harvest that cereal rye for a forage, I recommend increasing that rate to 90-120 pounds rye per acre. This will help to increase total yield per acre when we go to harvest.

Also, consider adding fertilizer to the cover crop. Since we are now looking for an increase in biomass and will be taking a crop off, as well as stover, we will be removing those nutrients from the soil and not returning them. Talk to your SHP Field Manager or trusted agronomist to see what they recommend for a cover crop nutrition plan.

When it comes to harvest of the cover crop, timing is key. When and how you harvest will determine the nutritional value of the resulting forage. With cereal rye and other cereal crops, chopping or baling at the boot stage will ensure the best palatability and nutrition quality. As cereals get to the point of heading out, the lignin increases, which decreases forage quality and palatability for animals. Late-harvested cover crops are more ideally used as a low-quality forage part of a ration or bedding.

Cereal rye, in particular, can be difficult to dry down, so chopping is a good option. You can also make sure the stems are conditioned into small pieces, wind rows are wide, etc. to ensure conditions are ideal for drydown.

If you typically focus on planting early, harvesting forages from cover crops may cause a delay in those fields by a couple of weeks. For this reason, soybeans are a good option to follow harvested acres.

Grazing cover crops

Having livestock harvest the cover crops themselves is also an efficient way to add quality feed to your forage plan and to extend your grazing season. If you plan to graze the cover in the fall, one of the first things to look at is timing. Will there be enough time between seeding and when you intend to graze the cover crop for it to get off to a good start and produce a decent amount of biomass? 

One consideration may be seeding methods. Aerial seeding the acres intended for grazing may give the cover crop the longest time period for growth. If you would prefer to broadcast seed or drill following harvest, prioritizing those acres you plan to graze earlier in your harvest schedule will help to make sure you have more time to get seeding and potential growth. Looking forward to future years, plan ahead and plant an early corn hybrid or soybeans where you plan on grazing to give the cover the biggest growth advantage. Adding a winter-kill cover crop species – such as oats, radish, turnips, etc. – can add additional nutrition and biomass value to a grazing system.

Fence is a large consideration too. Does the field have any current fence and is it suitable for the livestock you plan to graze? In some cases, electric wire is enough to keep livestock in safely, but also consider what your state considers “lawful fence”. In Iowa, a fence for cattle must utilize 3-barbed wires or meet the other requirements defined by Iowa Code 359A.18.  If your cows get out and cause damage to crops or an accident, a single hotwire would not be adequate to meet those requirements. Make sure to double-check what is recommended in your state and by your insurance company.

Once your perimeter fence is adequate to keep your animals in, do you plan to continuous or rotational graze? Continuous grazing would be the simplest route. Rotational grazing would help your cattle to have a more uniform graze, which also allows for more consistent nutrition due to the reduction of selective grazing allowed.

Consider what species would be best for growth and grazing purposes. Check out our blog post comparing different types of cover crops. Talk to your local SHP Field Manager or agronomist to figure out what seed will fit your operation best. 

Based on where your farm is located, cover crop yields for grazing can be highly variable. Early seeding can help to improve yields, but early frost, late harvest and other factors can all play into the amount of biomass that the cover crop will provide for grazing purposes. It’s always good to have additional stored forages available.

Lisa Kubik
Lisa Kubik
Lisa Kubik is a Field Manager for the Soil Health Partnership, covering eastern Iowa.