Integrate Cover Crops With Livestock

A Good Match

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
(Boyd Kidwell)

A marriage between Southern row crop production and livestock grazing is being looked at as a great way to extend a host of economic benefits to both sides of the agriculture family.

Technically known as an "Integrated Crop-Livestock System (ICLS)," the approach dates back generations. Researchers are increasingly finding the system's ability to boost soil health and manage production costs long term, bringing with it previously unmeasured advantages.

"The idea that you could marry two systems like cover crop production and grazing livestock, and have economic benefits with this integrative approach is not something producers are widely incorporating in this region," says Josh Maples, Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension agricultural economist. After two years of research with more to come, he believes the numbers suggest ICLS is worth considering.

Looking at three cover crop systems, daily rate of gain averaged 3.52 on an oats-only cover (O); 3.55 on an oats plus crimson clover cover mix (OC); and 3.03 on an oats plus crimson clover plus radish cover mix (OCR). The two-year project considered variable costs that differed across the production systems. Costs for cover crop production ranged from $81.25 per acre (O) to $85.64 per acre (OC) to $96.84 (OCR). Soybean-production costs behind each cover crop was $226.08 per acre.

Since the goal of the study was to specifically compare the three cover crop systems, costs that did not vary across those systems were not analyzed. However, Maples adds those costs, which include items like rent, fencing and water, would be important to consider.

Revenue per acre for the cattle value of gain from the cover crops was $399.73 (O), $411.72 (OC) and $340.28 (OCR). Soybean revenue was $637.12 per acre (O), $575.21 (OC) and $482.83 (OCR). Total revenue was highest on the oats-only cover, at $1,036.85 per acre. These are not profit estimates, Maples stresses, because a producer would need to consider all costs on his or her individual operation.


Brett Rushing, MSU Extension researcher and soil scientist, says today's ICLS is a form of sustainable production that relies on a "synergistic relationship" between plants and animals. He explains surveys show these systems can improve soil structure, regulate disease and pests, cycle nutrients and sequester carbon. He notes that while many farmers appreciate these benefits, there is a perception that cover-cropping and no-till decrease crop yields while adding in the cost of a cover crop, thus reducing overall revenue. That's where grazing those cool-season covers flips the picture. Rushing points to research from Alabama, where over 37 studies on stocker cattle have shown five out of 10 of the cheapest cost of gains came from cool-season forage crops.

He and Maples started their project in 2019 at the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station's Coastal Plain Branch at Newton and will expand their work to other areas of the state this year. Those first two years of research essentially looked at planting cover crops post row crop harvest, grazing stocker-weight cattle on those cover crops and then going back in the spring with a soybean crop. All three covers and/or mixes were planted in the fall, grazed late fall, winter and spring, and then desiccated prior to planting a no-till soybean crop.

Fields were divided into 2- and 5-acre paddocks. Cattle were 5- and 6-weight steers going onto the grazing. Total grazing averaged 45 to 60 days, depending on weather. Stocking rate was about 2,000 pounds per acre. Grazing started once forage was at 10 to 12 inches, and cattle stayed on the cover until it was down to 4 inches. At that point, they were pulled off while the cover crop was stockpiled, fertilized and allowed to regrow.

"I've had some people ask what we did when we pulled them off of this grazing, and we kept them on stockpiled oats to maintain the same nutritional plane and gut bacteria," Rushing explains. "Once they were on the trial, they were there the entire cover grazing season."

Asked if he has seen any effect on the need for fertilizer in the following row crop, Rushing says they were measuring point-available nutrients and did not observe differences. But, he adds, they anticipate as the work progresses, they may see a reduced need for applied fertilizer.

"In soybeans, for example, our main goal is to maintain soil pH and P (phosphorus) and K (potassium)," he says. "We are anticipating a rotation of corn and soybeans, which would involve applications of nitrogen, is where we'd see a difference. Especially with production costs being high right now, if we are able to reduce our nitrogen needs over time with this system, that would be important. We hope with these integrated crop-livestock systems, that through nutrient cycling of cattle, the cover crops and nutrient stratification from the covers, we'll see positive impacts on both grazing and on having live cover across these fields year-round."

Asked if this is going to be a money-savings option for many of the state's row crop producers, Maples says there are a number of factors to consider.

If stockers are going on the areas planted to cover crops, the row crop producer has to consider some type of fencing. There is also the need for a water source in each paddock. The researchers envision a row crop producer leasing out the grazing, allowing a stocker, for example, to potentially grow out more calves than he or she could on their own operation.

But, Rushing doesn't want to limit thinking to stockers. He points out that for the typical cow/calf producer, this may also be a viable way to carry cows over the winter with a minimal amount of hay or supplemental feed. Many Southern producers, he notes, operate diversified operations with both row crops and cattle. By integrating those onto a single land base, there is potential to offset costs of cover crop establishment through generation of revenue from livestock weight gain and savings from winter feeding.


-- Follow Vicki on Twitter @myersPF


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