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News Release

There’s Time Yet for Cover Crops to Help Feed Livestock

Colette Kessler
(605) 220-1765

There’s Time Yet for Cover Crops to Help Feed Livestock

NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE, Huron, SD, July 17, 2017– Livestock producers looking for alternative feed options during North and South Dakota’s ongoing drought might want to consider planting cover crops. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) regional soil health specialist for North and South Dakota Stan Boltz said producers have a multitude of cover crops species to choose from, depending on what their goals are.

“If producers are more interested in grazing this fall or winter, it’s probably better to go with cool-season species like rye and oats and some of the brassicas. If the goal is to have forage in the summer, they’re probably better off with warm-season species like milo and sorghum and some of the warm-season broadleaf cover crops,” he said.

Boltz encourages producers to know their target goals and objectives. He pointed out that having a diverse mix of cover crops will often do better in drought conditions than a typical annual mono crop producers put in. Keeping a living root growing in the soil is important. Getting cover crops in this year would provide some benefits for crop producers, such as wind erosion control and providing a food source to keep the soil biology sustained.  Nothing growing in the field is detrimental to the soil microorganism populations.

Producers can contact their local NRCS office for help with selecting cover crops specifically for grazing. The NRCS also has a cover crop seeding tool and a guide for selecting different cover crops mixtures. Before deciding to plant cover crops, Boltz suggests producers talk to their crop insurance agent first to make sure everything’s ‘OK’ first. Another major consideration is potential herbicide carryover from the main crop. After that, producers can basically plant cover crops whenever works.

“In a normal year, covers can be planted basically at any time up until probably the first of October. Although, at that point at the end of our growing season, you probably wouldn’t get as much benefit out of them,” he said. “Of course if the soil’s dry, you’re taking a risk. In a drought situation, a diverse mix of cover crops is going to more likely produce some production for grazing.  It is surprising how much cover crops produce, even with limited summer moisture.”  If producers are considering covers this drought year, Boltz recommends planting now through early to mid-August. “We have time yet in the next three weeks to month to get something growing and hopefully catch a rain.”

As far as maturity goes on those cover crops, Boltz said producers want them to get to a certain production but not too long where plants start seeding out. However, in drought conditions, they may only get to be 6 inches tall. He noted they would not be losing anything by grazing it, but be sure to keep sufficient residue to protect the soil.

Boltz cautions grazing cows on cover crops from extremely dry pasture. “There’s some cautions if you have cattle right now on pasture and it’s very dry. When you go to a cover crop situation, typically cover crops are going to be a lot greener, more succulent and higher in protein. When you make the transition, you want to feed the cows right before you move, make sure they’re good and full. Because if they’re really hungry when you move to a different forage, they’ll eat too much and that can mess them up for a few days and set them back,” Boltz said.

Every operation and their resources are different. Farmers and ranchers can contact the NRCS for free help to discuss options that consider the health and long term productivity of their resources and considerations for other management decisions involved for dealing with drought.