News and information from our partners

On grazing cover crops

Method gaining momentum for soil health, forage needs

Cow-calf pairs grazing cover crops. Grazing management is important for success when grazing cover crops. The grazing system a producer uses will be based on location and layout of the field, fencing, access to water and labor availability.

Jim Church
Cow-calf pairs grazing cover crops. Grazing management is important for success when grazing cover crops. The grazing system a producer uses will be based on location and layout of the field, fencing, access to water and labor availability.

Planting cover crops as a rotational crop to improve soil health has gained a great deal of momentum across the country. The farmers in the upper mid-West have been the leaders in adopting this practice. In addition to improving soil health, cover crops are providing an excellent forage source for cattle producers.

Cover crop grazing is a concept that is not new. Decades ago before the use of commercial fertilizer, farmers planted various crops to improve soil health and fertility. In many cases, these crops were grazed by livestock to utilize the forage and cycle back nutrients into the soil. With the adoption of modern fertility programs, the use of cover crops or green manure crops was reduced. Today we are seeing a resurgence of this practice.

In the dryland region of North Central Idaho and Eastern Washington, the use of cover crops is starting to be adopted by area farmers. The cover crops are being planted to improve soil health and provide forage for livestock, primarily cattle. This region of the country enjoys spring rains that produce abundant pasture and range grass during the months of April through July. Starting in mid-July, the rains stop and so does the growth of grass. Cover crops are providing much needed high quality forage for cattle during late summer and fall for cattle producers.

Farmers and ranchers considering planting and grazing cover crops need to evaluate several management practices in order to be successful. The first consideration is the planting date and what mix of species will be planted. Recently, demonstration research conducted by the University of Idaho Extension has shown that the ideal time to seed the cover crops for summer and fall grazing is the first week of May. There are several different crops that can be planted, legumes, cereals, cool season species, warm season species and other species such as forage radish and forage turnips. The University of Idaho Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has for information on what species will grow and work well.

Over the last few years, U of I Extension and the NRCS have been working with local cooperating farmers to develop a cover crop species mix for grazing. The recommended mix for growers includes these six species: spring forage oats, spring triticale or spring forage barley, forage radish, forage turnips, spring canola and spring peas. This mix has worked very well for producers, however, we have had some trouble with triticale volunteering the next year. It is a mix that grows well in the area, provides nutrients for both the soil and the cattle and produces adequate forage. In fact, some producers have had production of over three tons of forage per acre with this mix. In addition, forage tests taken at turn out time at several locations, have shown the feed to contain crude protein levels that ranged from 16 to 19 percent and TDN levels that ranged from 56.9 to 58.5 percent. This is very good feed for nursing calves, gestating cows and yearlings. Some producers in this region fall calve and this level of nutrition is great for the cows in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Grazing management is important for success when grazing cover crops. The grazing system a producer uses will be based on location and layout of the field, fencing, access to water and labor availability. Other goals also need to be considered including how much of the forage will be harvested and how much is left as ground cover. It is recommended to, “Take Half; Leave Half.” This will provide forage for the cattle and leave residue to improve soil health.

Rotational grazing using small paddocks is the recommended grazing system. Brummer, et al. (2015) North Dakota State University and Mount (2011) University of Wyoming, both recommended that dividing a field in small paddocks and grazing the paddocks with high stocking density for a short duration, provides increased utilization, improves forage and soil health and is advantageous for cattle performance.

With the high quality electric fencing available, it is easy to use a one strand electric fence as a cross fence for making the paddocks and a two strand electric fence as the border fence if a permanent border fence is not available. Paddock size will be determined by the size of the field, the number of cattle being grazed and how often a producer wants to move the cattle. This is a big decision because the more often the cattle are moved, the more labor is required. When designing a grazing system using paddocks, it is important to consider where the water source will be and how the cattle can access the water.

Producers also need to consider how quickly the forage will be grazed. In the dryland regions, forage growth comes on rapidly and when the dry season begins, the forage will stop growing and begin to dry down. When this happens, forage quality will decline. If a producer will not be able to graze the forage prior to dry down, swathing the forage into windrows and windrow grazing is a good alternative. This preserves forage quality while still allowing the cattle to graze. Another consideration is swathing the forage, letting it dry and baling the cover crop for use in the winter as a feed source or for bale grazing.

Cattle performance is a question that most cattle producers have in regards to grazing cover crops. Titlow, et al. (2014) predicted that yearling cattle grazing cover crops in Nebraska should gain 2.2 to 2.7 pounds per day. In 2015, a North Central Idaho producer grazed 75 head of spayed yearling heifers for 65 days on a cover crop field. The heifers gained 1.75 pounds per day. This was on a very dry year with limited rainfall. Cover crops appear to provide the quality and quantity of forage to allow cattle to perform well.

In summary, the use of cover crops, as a rotation crop, is becoming more common and in turn is providing cattle producers with a source of high quality feed. Successfully planting and grazing cover crops depends on: 1) determining if cover crops are a viable rotation crop option; 2) determining if incorporating cover crops into a rotation and grazing the forage will be economically viable; 3) identifying the species that you want to seed; 4) developing a grazing system that will work for you and 5) providing the labor needed to meet your grazing goals. There are professionals available to help design a program to insure your success with cover crops. Contact your local University Extension Educator and the NRCS for assistance.


Brummer, Fara; Sedivec, Kevin; Nester, Penny; Gaugler, Erin; and Schaunaman, Crystal. Annual Cover Crop Options for Grazing and Haying in the Northern Plains. North Dakota State University Extension Service, Bulletin R1759, May 2015. Titlow, Alex H.; Hansen, Jake A.; Luebbe, Matt K.; Klopfenstein, Terry J.; and Jenkins, Karla H.; Dryland Cover Crops as a Grazing Option for Beef Cattle. University of Nebraska. 2014 Nebraska Beef Cattle Report, Pages 56-58. Mount, D., Management Intensive Grazing, What is it and Could it Work for You? University of Wyoming Extension Beef Newsletter. Fall 2011.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment


Information from the Free-Press and our advertisers (Want to add your business to this to this feed?)