Selecting a Cover Crop Menu for Cattle

Consider Region, Operation Goals When Choosing Cover Crops for Grazing

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
Connect with Russ:
Radishes are a popular cover crop that are also good for grazing. (DTN\Progressive Farmer file photo by Greg Latza)

OMAHA (DTN) -- When it comes to selecting the right cover crop for grazing, there is no one-size-fits-all option.

Instead, cattle producers need to study up on different plant species before planting and select which ones will work in their particular region and for their specific operation, according to livestock and grazing experts.


The wide diversity of plant species available for grazing is both good and bad. It's good because there are so many different options to choose from. But the downside is that the number of species of cover crops that can be used for grazing can be confusing.

Jaymelynn Farney, a Kansas State University Extension beef systems specialist at the Southeast Research-Extension Center in Parsons, Kansas, told DTN those interested in grazing cover crops need to think about their objectives and goals when it comes to grazing cover crops. Different mixtures can be created for grazing at different times of the year, she said.

Cover crops can be grazed at various times during the growing season and even through the winter. Those who want to graze should have specific goals, such as putting gain on animals or grazing rotationally. Then, they should work with local retailers or Extension experts for the right cover crop mixture to fit their particular area, she said.

"There are so many regional differences when it comes to grazing cover crops," Farney said. "I would visit with a local Extension person to know what works where you live."

Chris Lee, small grains forage product manager for Mustang Seeds in Madison, South Dakota, said his company has 10 different cover crops mixes available.

The first thing he does when customers ask about cover crop seed is ask them what they are looking to do with cover crops and what their goals are, he said.


For those most concerned about soil health, Lee said his company offers a mixture of crops that produce nitrogen. This mixture features such plant species as forage oats, turnips, radish and grazing sudan.

As for grazing specific mixtures, Lee said his company offers an early-season grazing mix as well as a mid- or late-season grazing mix. Knowing when you want to graze is important to selecting the best mixture, he said.

Lee said the early-season mix is planted early in the spring for supplemental grazing and consists of forage oats, hay millet, grazing sudan, crimson clover, radish and forage turnips. The mid-to-late-season mixture is seeded in mid-June to mid-July and consists of forage oats, grazing sudan, lentils, forage turnips and radish.

Lee said the mid-season mix can be grazed in as little as 21 days after planting with cooperative weather and can be grazed until snow falls.

"I always tell customers, if you are trying grazing cover crops for the first time, try it on 5 to 10 acres of your worst piece of ground," Lee said. "Then, the next year, most likely they will seed down 40 acres."

Lee estimates most of his customers use cover crops as an alternative feed source for their cattle operations. Roughly 75% of his customers are using cover crop mixtures for grazing, he said.


While mixtures are popular when grazing cover crops, not everyone goes this route.

Jacey Hoegh farms in southwest Iowa near Atlantic where he raises corn, soybean and cattle. He said his cattle graze rye. He seeds the grass down in the fall after harvest.

As with many who use cover crops, Hoegh said, originally, about 15 years ago, he began using rye as an erosion-control method after chopping corn in the fall. The cows loved grazing the rye, so he continue to plant it, he said.

The biggest challenges he faces are establishing the rye stand in plenty of time for it to grow before winter begins and also getting enough growth to graze in the spring before he terminates the rye.

"For instance, this year, we had an early cold fall and a late spring, so we only had great growth on chopped (corn) ground we planted early," Hoegh said. "Combined or later-harvested crops meant later-planted rye, which grew slower and had limited biomass."

While he is only seeding rye right now, Hoegh said he would like to try other cover crop mixtures with grazing in mind. He would be willing to try some turnips, radishes or legumes but is concerned about the cost as well as the need for cooperative weather in the fall.


Cover crops can provide an alternative source of forage, but grazing certain plant species can lead to toxicity issues in cattle, Farney warned.

Farney said sorghum-sudangrass can at times be high in nitrates and can kill cattle. If you are feeding sorghum-sudangrass hay, have it tested for nitrate. A $15 test can save producers a lot of money, she said.

One particular cover crop species -- hairy vetch -- is often responsible for metabolic disorders in cattle. Hairy vetch works well in fixing nitrogen in the soil profile, but the species is not recommended for grazing.

"The thing that concerns me the most about hairy vetch is we still don't know what the direct toxin is that causes issues with cattle," Farney said.

Research has shown black-faced animals -- both cattle and sheep -- are more at risk for exposure to the toxin in hairy vetch, she said.

Common vetch, on the other hand, is safe for all classes of livestock, but it has issues competing against other plant species. Hairy vetch is a popular choice in mixtures because it's a legume that can hold its own against other species, she said.

Research is being done at Kansas State to try to figure out these types of issues, Farney said. For instance, the Southeast Research-Extension Center has done some research into what plant species cattle prefer to graze. They seemed to like forage radish, turnips and rape seed but are not too keen on species such as kale, mung beans and okra, she said.

Kansas State Extension issued a news release regarding risks to livestock grazing cover crops. It can be found at:….

Kansas State also has a report about toxic plants in forage crops, which can be found at:….

Russ Quinn can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN


Russ Quinn