Grazing beef cattle on cover crops is a great way to save on feed costs and it’s good for the soil, according to three panelists at the Grey-Bruce Farmer’s Week Beef Day.
Why it matters: Integrating animals into cropping systems creates a more complete nutrient cycle.
Adam Shea, who farms in eastern Ontario, has a multi-generational cow-calf operation and about 100 ewes. When he couldn’t convince his father that grazing the cattle on cover crops after winter wheat was a good idea, he approached a neighbouring farmer to work out a deal.
“He wanted instant gratification. He liked the idea of cover crops, but he didn’t want to wait several years for a payback,” Shea said. So for the past three years, Shea and his wife, Marie, have paid for the seed and fertilizer, cared for the portable fencing, made sure there was water for the animals and carried liability insurance. The neighbour has a no-till drill, so he seeds the cover crop, which currently consists of oats, barley, purple top turnips, daikon radish, hybrid brassica and crimson clover.
“Every year keeps getting better,” Shea said. Marie moves the perimeter fence for the cattle to graze in a new spot every other day.
In 2017 and 2018, they grazed about 20 cow-calf pairs. In 2019, they had 41 cows spend 50 days grazing 45 acres all in one field.
In terms of feed cost savings, Shea figures he saved $100 a day or $5,000 based on the cost of hay.
He doesn’t supplement with any other type of feed — the cows only graze on the cover crop. His total costs, including labour, trucking, fencing, nitrogen and seed amounted to about $70 an acre.
“If I can break even between stored feed costs and grazing, I’m happy,” he said.
While he’s experimented with a number of different species of cover crops, including Italian rye grass, forage kale and sunflowers, he finds his current mix is better.
“I really like the grass and brassica mix,” he said.
Shea warned that his system works better with cows, and he won’t be grazing calves any more. The little ones tend to get under the fences and between trying to get them vaccinated and rounded up for market, it was too time-consuming to get them off pasture.
He advised that anyone looking to graze on cover crops should know the site, plan how water is going to get to the pasture, make sure the cows are electric fence trained, and figure out ahead of time how the cattle will be corralled.
Ken Mitchell and his wife use cover crops whenever they can on their farm near Georgian Bay northeast of Owen Sound.
Two or three years ago, Mitchell had trucks go into a field to take some bush out and couldn’t believe the number of earthworms that had been exposed by tire tracks.
“A lot of water runs down through our farm,” he said.
“I thought cattle were my best livestock, but I’m convinced the earthworms do just as much,” he said.
In the beginning, he sowed oats after wheat and strip-grazed the field later in the fall. The first year, the oats were already out in head, so the cattle only ate about half of them, trampled the rest and fertilized the field with their manure.
Mitchell also uses biosolids from Owen Sound to fertilize his fields.
This year, he put the cattle in earlier, when the oats were just 10 inches high, and they seemed a lot happier.
Dr. Peter Kotzeff has 2,000 acres near Chesley in Bruce County. About half of it is in cash crops, a quarter in cattle grazing and a quarter in woodland and wetland. He has about eight kilometres of river running through the property.
“My main goal in my whole operation is to integrate cattle grazing, minimal tillage, cover crops and sensible crop rotations to improve soil health and water quality,” he said. “It’s quite challenging and quite interesting.”
He has 225 cows and bred heifers and 160 retained calves. In 2019, his late season grazing consisted of stockpiled forage, grazing corn, red clover, volunteer wheat cover crop, wheat pea and turnip cover crop and corn stalks.
“One of the main reasons I grow cover crops is to rest my pasture fields,” he said.
This year, he tried grazing his cattle in standing corn, and found it worked quite well, given that he got 700 grazing days at 10 pounds of grain per cow per day. He figures it was worth about $1,400, “and all I had to do was put up a fence.” The majority of his grazing is in corn stalks. As of the beginning of January 2020, the cattle were still out on the land.
Kotzeff has also tried a turnip, pea and winter wheat mix and said it’s very cost effective if you keep back some of the harvested winter wheat and use it as a base for the next cover crop.
He’s also aerial seeded rye into corn at about the V6 stage and grazed his cattle on the corn/rye mix.
Kotzeff is a big believer in letting the cattle graze through snow, provided it doesn’t freeze up or get too crusty. He also bale grazes later in the season.
All three cattle producers like oats as a cover crop.
“You could grow oats on this floor, and they pose no risks to cattle,” Shea said, adding that he usually puts 30 to 50 pounds into his mix.
Mitchell used to put 70 pounds of oats on, but has cut back to 50, and doesn’t need any fertilizer other than the biosolids he gets from Owen Sound.
All three say they have good, productive cattle.
Shea pointed out that the health of his animals was exceptional coming off cover crop grazing. He added that a further advantage is that the cattle consume a lot less water because the crops are so lush.