On-Farm Research Investigates How Planting Techniques Influence Livestock Grazing
Harry Cope grazes 100 head of cattle, 400 ewes, and occasionally 400 head of feeder goats. He wanted to switch from supplementing pasture with harvested grains to a year-round grazing system that included standing corn interplanted with cover crops.
Getting good soil contact and enough light are challenges when planting cover crops into a standing corn crop. Skip-row planting (skipping some rows of corn when planting) looked like a solution that would allow Cope to establish a cover crop mix of oats, cereal rye, red clover, Winford turnip kale, Graza radish, and cow peas. If successful, he could extend the length of time his animals could graze forages (cover crops), reduce labor and input costs, and increase profitability. Skip rows would also make it easier to set up controlled grazing with portable electric fencing.
Cope planted the cover crops in mid June in 2010 and in late July in 2011. He seeded a mixture of the cover crop species into standing corn using available high clearance seeding equipment (John Deere high boy tractor with a spinner box attached). A skip-row planting of four rows out of six rows was compared to conventional solid stand six rows with two seeding rates. The two skip-row/corn population treatments were 26,000/acre and 32,000/acre. The solid-stand corn population treatments were 20,000/acre and a control of 26,000/acre. Cope used a randomized complete block research design of four treatments with five replications in a 20-acre field. There were 20 1-acre plots in the design.
In 2010, field peas and Winford turnip kale dominated the cover crops with some spring oats. Cereal rye and radish did not germinate. In 2011, weather forced a corn replant and limited corn yields. Cereal rye was dropped from the cover crop mix and annual ryegrass was added. Oats and Winford turnip kale dominated the cover crop mix. The radish did not germinate.
In 2011, to test whether the cover crop was sufficient for grazing in either the skip-row or solid-row treatment, feeder lambs were assigned to solid-row treatments and to skip-row treatments, to determine if grazing cover crops could provide enough nutrition to replace supplemental grain. Tagged lambs were individually weighed both in and out of the treatment replications. The balance of the lambs grazed free choice in the rest of the corn/cover crop field (both treatments) and an adjacent mixed legumegrass pasture. These animals were weighed as a group on a trailer. The treatment lambs quickly ran out of cover crops and started losing weight. To remedy the situation, a small square bale of hay was added each day to balance the treatment animals’ nutritional requirements, and they began to put on weight again.
In 2012, a water system and permanent fence was installed to make the trials easier to set up but no data was gathered due to drought. For 2013, some cover crop species were changed and seeding rates were increased to try to provide enough cover crop feed for livestock to gain weight. Radishes and kale were dropped from the cover crop mix; soybeans, crimson clover, and swede (a brassica) were added. Seeding rates for oats and annual ryegrass were increased. The skip-rows were planted with soybeans at corn planting to generate more pounds of dry matter per acre and prevent late-season weeds from reducing cover crop yields. The soybeans germinated but were killed by an herbicide application. The other cover crops, which were planted later, germinated and were used to continue the study.
The livestock feeding portion of the study was expanded in 2013 from just looking for weight gain to determining which system gives the most pounds of lamb per acre and at what cost. Individual lambs were selected and weighed prior to being assigned to one of three treatments: pasture grazing only; free choice standing corn/cover crops and pasture (animals choose what to eat based on their nutritional needs); and standing corn/cover crops only (with hay if needed). The results from the 2013 feeding study are being analyzed.
Cope presented the preliminary results of his study at the National Association of County Agriculture Agents national meeting, the Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Society conference, and via a SARE webinar and cover crop field days.
View a presentation on this project, from the 2012 Farmers Forum, through NCR-SARE's YouTube playlist. Visit www.youtube.com/NCRSAREvideo for this and other videos.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC10-817, Skip-Row Corn Planting Techniques with Cover Crops for Sustainable Grazing .
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This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.