Cover-Crop Value

Corn growers see benefits of pasturing cattle on rye fields.

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Rye grows in one of Kerry and Angela Knuth’s fields, near Mead, Nebraska, Image by Russ Quinn

Kerry and Angela Knuth were hesitant to delay planting and shift to shorter-season corn hybrids all for the sake of letting cattle graze a spring cover of rye. They’re starting to see the benefits and possibilities, though, thanks to a University of Nebraska project.

The Knuths are part of the Beef Systems Initiative program, created in November 2016. Their project looks at the impact of grazing spring rye on subsequent crop yields.

Two of the Knuths’ fields, averaging 103 acres, were separated into three blocks. Each block included a negative control strip not planted to rye, a positive control strip planted to rye and not grazed, and areas planted to rye and grazed. Rye was seeded in fall 2016 and spring 2017. Once the rye reached 5 inches in height, steers were turned out to graze for 22 days. The steers averaged 700 pounds.

The rye was sprayed and killed at planting time, and corn was seeded in both fields in early May. Corn yields ranged from 189 to 211 bushels per acre last fall.

Knuth says he saw several advantages from using the cover crop.

“We are not cattle folks at all, but there are benefits to the soil by allowing them to graze,” Kerry Knuth says. “The spots where manure was, the corn grew like crazy.”

Knuth also notes the strip where rye was planted appeared to have more moisture in the soil, which helps create a better planting bed. That allowed him to decrease the downpressure on his planter and set the closing wheel out more to accommodate the softer-than-usual seedbed.

Concerning the later planting date, Angela Knuth says they believe a specific date on a calendar is no “magic bullet.” Many other factors matter when it comes to a crop’s success. She points out their best corn yields came in 2016, a year when their last fields were planted on May 22.

The Knuths did their homework on what to plant after the rye crop, selecting a 103-day high-yielding corn hybrid. Despite the later planting date, they say the positive effects on their soil from using cover crops and allowing them to be grazed far outweighed the negatives.

The Knuths will continue the cover-crop study for one more season. Cold weather this spring delayed the rye crop’s growth compared to last April. Being at the mercy of Mother Nature shows the importance of flexibility when using cover crops, Kerry Knuth stresses.

Still, these longtime row-crop producers say they would be willing to partner with a cattle producer in the future. They say there are clearly benefits to seeding and grazing cover crops.

“Like I said,” Kerry Knuth adds, “we are not cattle folks, but we like the positive aspects of cover crops.”

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Russ Quinn