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Relationships crucial for farm-to-farm cover crop grazing

Neighboring farmers find mutual benefit in livestock grazing, farming arrangement

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There’s opportunity for the grazing of cover crops, whether it’s livestock farmers using their own cropland and animals, or offering services to cash-cropping neighbours.

That was the overarching message delivered over three successive Tuesday evening Zoom meetings, hosted through November by the Cover Crop Grazing Committee — a collaboration between OMAFRA, Beef Farmers of Ontario, and Ontario Sheep Farmers. The sessions each began with one producer speaking about their experiences, followed by an OMAFRA staffer offering their perspective.

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Why it matters: Cover crops and the spreading of manure by grazing livestock are both seen as soil quality best management practices, so it makes sense that combining them could also be effective.

Cover crop grazing can be straightforward, as was the case this past summer for Eighth Line Farm in Leeds County.

According to Kim Sytsma, guest producer for the first Zoom session, an 11-acre piece of pastureland that was trampled and weedy, was seeded to a multi-species cover crop this spring and subsequently grazed by cattle over the fall.

The Sytsmas had planned to reseed with pasture species, but a wet spring forced them to delay seeding until it was deemed too late. Instead, on June 5, they no-tilled 22 pounds per acre of a cocktail provided by their seed supplier through General Seed, that included oats, turnips, sorghum sudangrass, phacelia, sunflowers, sun hemp, clovers, fava beans and others.

The plan now is to plant traditional pasture species early next spring.

On Aug. 20, the Sytsmas turned 130 cow-calf pairs into rotationally managed paddocks. The cattle grazed everything including the weeds. And the cover crops — at least some species — came back strong for a second round of grazing some three weeks later.

By November, Sytsma predicted they would eventually get five passes through the field, with a few of the cover crop species regrowing well into the cold weather.

“The turnips and radishes have continued to grow even after a couple of hard frosts.”

And if you think that version of cover crop grazing isn’t all that straightforward, consider the example highlighted during the second Zoom session.

Temporary fencing worked

In that case, Dufferin County sheep and beef producer Mike Swidersky weaned lambs early from about 375 ewes, transported them two miles away using herding dogs, and rotationally grazed them on a cover crop of red clover that had been underseeded in his neighbour’s winter wheat crop. On a farm that had none of the fencing or water infrastructure you’ll find on a pasture farm, he used solar power to fill the void, and two guard dogs to fend off potential predators.

His crop-farming neighbour, Jon Blydorp, participated in the Zoom session, and confirmed the arrangement — a first-time venture for both farmers — worked well. The manure, Blydorp said, was the biggest benefit. But an unexpected surprise was that the palmer amaranth in the field, which he had begun to see as a problem, didn’t get to go to seed this year. It was pretty much the last weed species the sheep ate, but they did eventually eat it before being moved into the next paddock.

Animal traffic in wet soils a concern for crop farmers

OMAFRA soil health specialist Jake Munroe recently conducted an informal survey about farmer-to-farmer cover crop grazing arrangements. Fencing, potential escapes, and compaction were at the top of the list of barriers holding people back from trying the practice. There are also concerns about grazing intensity, and if there would be any cover left after the livestock are gone from the field. Some crop farmers were concerned about grazing animals in wet conditions.

Manure topped the list of perceived benefits. Many respondents to Munroe’s survey had fields that hadn’t seen manure in years.

Residue management was a less commonly cited benefit.

“That was the flip side with some of these clays, where there might be a concern about compaction,” Munroe commented. “That field might also be warming up a little earlier in the spring if there’s less residue after it has been grazed in the fall.”

For the livestock farmer, the benefits of cover crop grazing — either on their own farm or on someone else’s — were highlighted during the first Zoom session by OMAFRA’s pasture specialist Christine O’Reilly.

In the early spring, winter cereals such as fall rye can fill the gap between the last of the stored forage and the onset of the May/June flush of pasture.

Those who graze cattle on these fall-seeded crops will need to ensure the field is dry enough to prevent damage from hooves.

After the spring flush of pasture, in typical years, comes the summer slump. This gap, O’Reilly says, can be addressed with sorghum species or pearl millet. “They love the heat.” In mid-to-late fall, following another typical flush of pasture growth through early September, cover crops like those used by Sytsma and Swidersky can carry livestock through to the onset of winter.

In both the summer and late fall strategies, O’Reilly noted, producers must be aware of potential health problems. The sorghum species, in particular, can produce lethal doses of prussic acid when stressed, or in early stages of rapid regrowth. “The best thing to do is wait it out” for a few days following such events.

Legumes and brassicas, due to high protein content, can cause bloat — although Swidersky said that risk can be managed by ensuring livestock don’t transition directly from a diet of totally dry hay onto a lush cover crop.

“I’m pretty confident in my sheep and their ability to adjust,” he said.

O’Reilly says some of the concern from crop farmers stems from a lack of understanding about the current state of fencing technology. She suggested many crop farmers’ most recent experience with fencing was ripping out pagewire that was buried in a fencerow, so they could turn what was multiple small fields into one large plot.

Nowadays, some corner posts might be all the permanent infrastructure necessary for a well-managed and well-trained flock or herd to be brought onto the field.

Modern approaches to rotational grazing, meanwhile, mean there’s less risk of compaction.

Relationships are key

The best way to ease a crop farmer’s concern, though, is maintaining a solid relationship. Swidersky said he never would have been able to graze his sheep on Blydorp’s farm if the two farmers hadn’t developed a mutual respect over several years observing each other and the way they maintained their respective operations.

And in the end, it’s the soil that must be top priority. With his sheep, he decided not to regraze the red clover paddocks because he wants to leave Blydorp’s field in good shape to go through the winter.

“My number one goal is to promote really good soil for my cash crop neighbour.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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