Though nearly halfway through April, it was still unusually cold on Michael Martin’s farm near Thompson, Mo.
“It’s the 101st day of January,” Michael joked as he studied the cattle grazing cereal rye in the field adjacent to his house. “I heard that the other day and thought it was appropriate.”
“It’s definitely still winter here,” his son, Lane, 28, agreed.
The longer winter meant the grass on their property still lay dormant, but the Martins were able to avoid some additional feeding costs for their herd because their cereal rye cover crop had started growing. For the last five years, the two have planted rye in the fall after harvesting soybeans or corn silage on the 22-acre field closest to their house. The rye greens up faster than fescue, making it useful for early grazing.
“I always plant rye behind silage for two reasons,” Michael said. “It cuts down on erosion, and the taller it is when the cows get on it, the more good it does for you. And this stuff grows like crazy.”
The Martins use the rye field for spring calving, rotating 124 cows through this pasture during the season.
“We want them in our backyard when they’re calving,” Michael said. “That’s why we have all of our facilities over here. We want to be able to get to them quickly. Those mamas need a steady supply of food, no matter how long the winter is.”
Cereal rye is commonly used as a cover crop because it’s inexpensive, easy to establish and does well even on ground that may be less than optimal. As ground temperatures begin to rise in the spring, rye will mature more quickly—even under a snowfall—if the soil conditions are conducive.
With cumulative forage shortages from last fall through this summer, having alternative feeding options will be more important than ever this winter, said Matt Hill, MFA natural resources conservation specialist.
“Crops seem to be maturing quite a bit earlier than they normally do this year,” Hill said. “An earlier-than-normal harvest will provide an excellent opportunity to plant a diverse mix of cover crop species soon enough to develop plenty of growth to be grazed going into the winter months.”
About an hour away from the Martins’ farm, Bob Ridgley has been incorporating cover crops into his own forage management plans for several years. The row-crop producer and cattleman sells beef off the farm and works with a local processor to distribute meat to a restaurant in St. Louis. With roughly 250 acres of total pasture and 130-140 cows, Ridgley began rotational grazing in the early 1990s.
“It was probably ’95 or ’96, though, when I really started taking these pastures and dividing them up,” said Ridgley, who recently retired as a district technician for the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District. “I have one farm with 60 acres all divided into three-acre paddocks. In the summer, I move the cows every two days.”
Several years ago, Ridgley began incorporating cover crops into that rotational grazing schedule. His management strategy is intensive. After his wheat crop is harvested in June, he bales the straw to use for bedding in his finishing hoop building. He then has a mix of small cover crop seeds—radishes, turnips, millet and rapeseed—spread with his fall fertilizer. Shortly thereafter, he drills in oats, soybeans and either corn or milo.
Ridgley said he’s had good luck with this method because the small seeds need to be planted about a quarter-inch deep, and the other seeds need to be deeper, about an inch and a half. Though he previously had the cover crop seed flown on the field, Ridgley said he’s been utilizing this particular planting practice for almost five years.
“It works well because when I go in and plant the other seeds, the drill will push the little seed down into the ground,” he explained.
Ridgley has about 80 cows on his main farm, and roughly half of those will calve in the fall.
“If I get the cover crops in early enough, I’ll get two or three grazings out of it,” he said. “Sometimes even through the wintertime.”
This strategy requires a mild winter and a little management, but Ridgley said there have been years when he has been able to graze nearly year-round.
“Where I have these cattle at the main farm, I will graze the cover crop that I plant after wheat,” Ridgley said. “During that time, I will stockpile my fescue for winter use. If the cattle graze the cover crop down, I will move them back to grass until it grows back. Then I’ll graze that again. Hopefully, by then, around Thanksgiving, the rye drilled into corn stalks will be big enough that I can graze it.
If I need to go back to grass once that has been grazed down, I will. If not, I might start them on some milo and strip-graze that through the winter.”
After the milo, Ridgley said he’ll use stockpiled fescue and finally his hay, if necessary, until the rye greens up again in early spring. Depending on his fescue quantity, he may feed hay for 60-75 days. Some years, however, his cattle have been able to graze without hay supplementation or additional feed—even in drought conditions.
“In 2012, I didn’t feed any hay during the summer drought,” Ridgley said. “But I was moving cows every day, and Mother Nature really has to cooperate for that to happen. She gave us some rain in August left over from a hurricane, and the grass took off, so I had stockpile that winter.”
Ridgley follows the same cover crop protocol on his corn fields to prepare them for the next year’s bean rotation. To compensate for potential late harvests and make the most of his cover crops, he typically plants an earlier corn hybrid.
He estimates that he bales and feeds half the amount of hay he used to in the winter, and he’s also seen his soil health begin to improve.
“We haven’t taken soil samples in about two years; we’re on a three-
to four-year schedule,” Ridgley said. “But we’re seeing the organic matter build up. I think introducing the livestock into those fields helps. It puts manure back on the ground, and I’ll take the bedding straw out of the hoop building and spread that back on there, too. We move those nutrients around the farm ourselves, so it doesn’t get concentrated in one spot.”
According to Hill, in the last few years, harvest has been too late to get the full benefit from cover crop mixes, except for a species such as cereal rye, because farmers haven’t been able to get them in the ground early enough. Due to early maturation in some areas of the state, however, more options are available to interested farmers.
“It depends on the species and the operation, but in general most cover crops can be grazed multiple times in a growing season,” Hill said. “MFA will have a variety of cover crop species available this summer and fall. There is cost-share assistance available from Soil and Water Conservation Districts, NRCS, and Missouri Department of Conservation for the purpose of establishing these cover crops.”
Hill advises that warm-season mixes can be planted as early as May 1 through mid-July. Cool-season mixes can be planted as early as Aug. 1 up until Nov. 1.