Compromise happens everywhere in life from picking where to have dinner to how long you want to stay at the in-law's place. Compromises also happen in cover crop and forage blends...
While it may seem great to plant the full rate of everything in a mix to get as much in as possible, that often is not realistic agronomically or economically. Creating a balance of rates in a blend will ensure that nothing competes and everything shows up. This is especially important in pasture blends when it comes to that desired ratio of grasses and legumes. For cover crop and forage blends, we like to use our Cover Crop Calculator to put together a mix for you based on rate or budget needs to get the best of both worlds. Contact the office or your dealer for them to put one together for you! (Here are some guidelines for cover crop planting rates)
In general, large seeds are happier planted deeper and small seeds prefer to be kept shallower. In a blend of various species this can be difficult. The answer is compromise. In a blend planted too deep, only the larger seeded plants will establish. Planted to shallow, a stand will only consist of the smaller seeded plants. We like to pick a mid-range depth based off of what is in the mix. This ensures that everyone will show up to the party. (Check out ourPerennial seed depth toolandannual seed depth tool)
When to seed and when to terminate are two very important questions when making decisions about your blends. With blends that are all cool season or all warm season, the timing of planting is generally unanimous and no compromise is needed. For blends with both, you have to find mid-ground. Deciding when to terminate a cover crop or forage blend may take more discussion. Do you terminate when the grass components are young and lush so that they break down quickly? Or do you let the blend continue to grow so that the legume component can fix you as much nitrogen as possible? Again, a balance is best. In the case of crops like cereal rye, you have to look at forage quality and tonnage when deciding termination timing.
The answer to most questions when balancing these compromises is usually is “it depends.” Stay true to the goals of your cover crop or forage blend and you can achieve the balance that is right for your operation.
We know the benefits of rotational grazing. We know what it does for the pasture productivity, soil health and forage quality. Now, we need to start! So, I asked Karl “What is your advice for beginning rotational grazing?”
The day the decision to begin rotational grazing is made go out and document what is there. Get counts and photos of plant stands and various species. Dig around and get an idea of your soil structure across pastures. (This will be important in five years because you won’t remember what it was like when you first started.) There are multiple ways to accomplish rotational grazing, but not a one size fits all method. Determine what will be best for you, and start there. The physical items you need are polywire, a reel, and some step-in posts (plus some grass and livestock, of course). Bonus: Do not spend a lot on interior fencing and infrastructure. With polywire and step-in posts you can be creative.
The next step is figuring out what forage you have and how much you need:
1. Pasture sticks can be used to measure pasture height and a different side of the stick gives us a table that can be used to estimate the density of various pastures by counting visible dots.
For the 4 dots visible in this mixed pasture, the table gives a range of 150-250 lbs DM lbs per inch, so we will use 200#/Inch to estimate. We know they will graze the 10-inch grass to a 4-inch stubble with 6 inches eaten. (Stubble height can change and vary, and sometimes getting too specific can overcomplicate things.)
We can calculate our forage amount using those measurements:
(200# Density/Inch x 6 Inches) = 1200# DM/Acre
2. Now, take a look at your livestock and get rough idea of dry matter intake per day. An example is a 1000# cow eating 3% of her body weight in dry matter forage (30#/day). Calculate the need for your entire herd:
50 Cows x 30#/Day = 1500# DM Need/Day
3. How many acres will give them 1500# of forage? Use the Dry Matter/Acre estimate and the DM Need/Day that we found:
Knowing this, Karl recommends giving them enough for 2 days, so 2.5 acres (accurate acre measurement is important). The reason for two days when starting is it gives you wiggle room. If you underestimated, it won’t be grazed to the dirt before the next time you check on them. If there is more that 2 days’ worth, it can be adjusted to leave them on that longer or tighten that paddock. Eventually you will get an eye for what your cattle will eat and how long it will take them. Some may say that overgrazing at the beginning by accident will wreck pastures forever, but it won’t. If that does happen, it’s okay. It’s just the beginning and you will perfect it over time.
With your forage estimates made, walk all your pastures and see how much you have to get a big picture idea of your grazing plan. Parts of the pasture will all be at different stages, so some estimating will be needed. There are many opinions on the timing of when cattle should be moved, but this can be flexible. Generally, as long as they are not left for longer that 4-5 days, the pasture will not be damaged. With cow calf pairs, Karl has his cattle in the same paddock for 2-3 days. If his schedule allows, he will move more often, but the system has to work with your lifestyle to an extent.
Dairy and grass finished beef are a different story. Both need the best forage quality to be highly productive, so they would need moved as often as possible. Karl has finished cattle on grass and would move them 1-2 times per day. The movement encourages higher forage intake and the lack of fluctuations in forage quality throughout the time they are in paddocks will improve performance.
Your final task is determining a water source. One central location can require creativity in how they get there. You want to avoid creating a permanent lane where the cattle will form trails and dead areas in the pasture. Karl has been there done that and those areas can be difficult to heal. A hydrant at a high point of the operation can serve well as a water source with the addition of a garden hose or water pipe to start. The initial expense of that option will be made up for in being able to make the paddocks wherever you want and having that improved management.
The main point of beginning rotational grazing is improving soil health, plant health and animal performance. Get basic skills in place then look at what additional improvements you can make in seed options, genetics, and infrastructure.
If you or anyone you know has used warm season annuals for forage, you made a very good choice! But you have also probably heard of the concern of prussic acid. What is prussic acid and why is it a topic of discussion this time of year?
What is Prussic Acid?
Prussic Acid is a compound that exists in warm season forage plants such as forage sorghum, sorghum sudangrass, and sudangrass. While these are often harvested and grazed during the summer, this time of year can also be common. The concerns with prussic acid arise when we start having killing and non-killing frosts. When these types of plants are killed from a frost, the cells rupture releasing the prussic acid as a gas that will be harmful to livestock. Here are some procedural guidelines to follow this time of year if you have these crops:
Grazing: After a killing frost, keep livestock from grazing for 10-12 days
Mechanical Harvest: At, or before, a killing frost, the forage can be chopped or baled at any time the moisture is correct for the harvest type; however, do not feed forage for 30-40 days after harvesting.
What happens during those wait times?
Since it is released as a gas, the forage dries and the prussic acid dissipates through volatilization. This makes the concentration levels in the tissue safe for livestock consumption. It is important that the killing frost we are speaking of is truly killing to the entire plant. If the frost only kills part of the plant, it can attempt to regrow by sending out new shoots that can also higher prussic acid concentrations.
Still have concerns?
Forage samples can be sent in and tested for prussic acid concentrations at most forage sampling facilities. The cost of these can range from $50-$60, but can serve as insurance and be helpful in relieving worries about what you are feeding. Simply ask for a Prussic Acid Test. Keep in mind that since prussic acid volatizes as a gas, this is a time sensitive test that often needs overnight shipping to the testing facility.
Overall, the likelihood of prussic acid poisoning is very controllable by using the guidelines above. Feel free to give the office a call if you would like any additional information!
Bean, Brent, and Kim McCuistion. "Avoiding Prussic Acid." Sorghum Checkoff, 1 Nov. 2017.
Cover crops – they work! (When managed properly)Here are the general benefits of cover crops that we should all know:
1. Improving Soil Structure & Water Infiltration
Roots are your best friend when it comes to cover crops. Whether they are fibrous and spreading or a taproot that drives deep to pull up nutrients, varying root structures create channels that facilitate aeration and water infiltration. Beyond the physical abilities of roots, the biological magic that they induce is the real money maker for the soil life. Which leads us to the nutrient cycling that soil biology sparks!
2. Increase Nutrient Cycling
Your soil is the transforming factory that turns nutrients into a form that is able to be taken up by the plant. The biology in the soil is what facilitates this process. The previous mentioned root systems of cover crops give off exudates into the soil that the microscopic biology love to live in. A high population of soil life around the root system creates a zone that feeds the plant versions of the necessary nutrients and minerals in a form they can use.
3. Reducing Erosion
Everyone has seen the rainfall simulator, right? That is a perfect visual to show that it is a fact that something growing (or even dead) on the soil surface reduces erosion. In a rotation, cover crops protect the soil and keep it where you need it. This is especial important for highly erodible soils or areas with shallow top soil. You need to keep every bit that you have! Keep in mind the carbon to nitrogen ratio and rooting type of cover crops when choosing one specifically for erosion control. (We have some erosion control ratings of common cover crops here)
4. Managing Moisture
This benefit can go both ways: holding moisture in or getting rid of it. Need something to retain soil moisture? You need a low growing, ground covering option. Living or terminated cover crops can protect the soil moisture form evaporating away. Need a little less moisture in the spring (don’t we all…)? A living cover crop can uptake that moisture and transpire it away for you. Obviously, the extremes of both of these would not be beneficial, but when used correctly cover crops can be your moisture risk management.
5. Provide Forage
This one is a no brainer for those with livestock (or if you have a neighbor with livestock that might pay you to graze your cover crop *wink wink*). A cover crop can provide many of the benefits listed above and you don’t have to feed as much hay! Selecting the right cover crop for forage is important as well as the seeding rate. Higher rates are often needed to produce the maximum amount of tonnage.
And what do all of these combined have the potential to do? Increase yields and, more importantly, profits! Think about the examples above and consider what cover crops could do for your operation.
Cover crops are generally user friendly and successful with little stress, but there are a few things that shouldn’t be overlooked...
“Prairie Creek Seed, who do you give such a wide range for recommended seeding rates on your cover crop blends?” Good question! Different seeding rates have their place. Want a thick, full stand to achieve maximum forage for livestock? You better stick to the higher end of our scales. Looking for a cover crop that will not be harvested? Then it is more economical to stick to the lower end. There is such a thing as too low of a seeding rate, and that is the first way cover crops can be sabotaged. A seeding rate that is too low will result in not enough cover to establish and will not gain you any benefits.
Another way to mistreat your cover crops is not giving them a proper seeding method. While there are many cover crops that can be broadcast, not all of them can take that! Many large seeded cover crops need to be drill or incorporated in some way to have a strong establishment. Taking the extra time, and sometimes added expense, of drilling your cover crop will pay for itself. The establishment of many cover crops will be sped up by around 2 weeks when drilled. Getting seeds in the ground also makes them more tolerant of weather extremes by having a healthier established root system (this will be important later).
If you are planting a cover crop without the goal of harvesting, then this point is not as critical, but is still important! Growing anything desirable with low fertility is next to impossible. If you want your cover crop to get large enough for forage (or even just large enough to provide adequate erosion control) it does not hurt to provide some fertility as it fits into your operation.
Remember how cover crops that are drilled have a stronger root system to handle weather better? This leads us to the ways that good ol’ Mother Nature can sabotage cover crops. The same way that drought and heavy rain effect your cash crops, those events can also be damaging to your cover crop. While this point is out of your control, it is important to remember that cover crops are not indestructible.
Keep these points in mind to set your cover crops up for success!
Did someone say nitrogen credits? How about forage quality? Cool season legumes can provide both! Here are our favorite legumes to plant when the summer heat subsides:
In forage or cover crop blends seeded in August to early September, winter peas can be your go-to for generating nitrogen. These cold tolerant, bad boys can fix anywhere from 90-150 lbs of N per acre when given ample time to grow and nodulate. That “ample time to grow” can vary based on temperatures, but is important to remember when estimating the amount of nitrogen credits you are actually getting for the next crop. But don’t get caught up in just the nitrogen, these plants will also condition the soil with their roots and provide excellent feed quality.
Seeding Rate = 50 lbs per acre full rate, 10-30 lbs per acre in a blend
Seeding Depth = 1-2 inches in a blend
Ah, lentils. The even more cold tolerant cousin of winter peas! These will be your latest planted legume at they are most able to withstand weather extremes. While they aren’t indestructible, established lentils will be able to hold up against a few frosts. The roots of lentils are great for creating connections with mycorrhizal fungi and assist with water infiltration. Lentils can also be your early spring planted cover crop for green manure or forage, when weather permits.
Seeding Rate = 20-30 lbs per acre full rate, 10-20 lbs per acre in a blend
Seeding Depth = 1-2 inches
Whether you spell it with a “b” or a “v”, it doesn’t matter. Vicia faba is a plant that does a little bit of everything. Pollinator benefit when flowering? Check. Vigorous tap root? Check. Tall, stalk-like growth? Check. The only down fall of this legume is the seed is so big! That being said, it can work well in a blend to fit the slot of cool season legume with attractive advantages and nitrogen fixing ability like the other legumes.
Seeding Rate = 60-75 lbs per acre alone, 10-30 lbs per acre in a blend
Seeding Depth = 1-2 inches
Fixing nitrogen is a super power of these legumes, but where do they actually store that nitrogen? Within plant tissues, meaning the full plant has to be left whole to break down and release the nitrogen back into the soil. While mechanically harvesting these crops can provide great feed, you have to take that removal of the top of the plant into account when figuring how much it is giving back. You will still have the benefit of the root breaking down to release some nutrients back into the soil. For grazing, many of the nutrients will still go back into the soil after they pass through your livestock. Keep this in mind when balancing the forage vs. soil building goals of your legume!
The story of Prairie Creek Seed started long before its official launch. Along the winding road, everyone involved in the company has been placed in their correct seat to keep the bus moving forward. Bringing on those with a passion for not only soil, plant, and livestock health, but also human health and the future of the world we live in.
Here is Karl’s story –
After a career in the seed corn industry, I switched gears and began working exclusively with pasture grasses and forages through Barenbrug. With the company being the leader in grass breeding, I had the ability to travel the United states and Canada to work with different grass-based farms that had varying practices. This time period provided priceless, hands-on education and created an important pool of knowledge to see what makes a farm successful and, in some cases, what not to do.
In 2003, I ended my time with Barenbrug and went to work at Midwestern Bio-Ag. This time in my career was spent not only with individual grass species and their management, but also creating the connection between soil health and forage production. Midwestern Bio-Ag also led me all across the United States and Canada. It was during this period of time that I made the decision to go into business with the family to remain closer to home. I asked Kyle if he wanted to start a seed company and then it all began.
We started out of the basement of our house in 2009. The journey started with distributorships for Blue River Organics, Masters Choice, and Barenbrug. It was not long before we outgrew the basement and spilled into the rest of the house and warehousing off-site in Peosta, IA. The current location near Cascade, IA was purchased in 2015. It was our goal from the beginning to be a true independent seed company with our own brand and products. We wanted to make sure all of our products had the very best genetics and were of the highest quality possible. Relationships built my early career were important to this. The early growth was exponential!
As forages and cover crops have grown, we have established as truly independent and able to lean into our passion for products in those categories and expand them even further. Key things that I would owe our success to would be years of observation across the nation of pasture management. Through this, being able to watch what works where and why and working with screening trials on individual varieties. Also, my hands-on experience raising grass-finished beef and selling to wholesale market in Minnesota. This taught us a lot, because the venture had to be financially viable, so we learned the best ways to make that work. The final integral point was developing that soil health to forage quality connection getting a really good understanding of what it takes in the soil to affect above ground growth.
Karl looks forward to the future of Prairie Creek Seed!
Cereal rye is the simplest cover crop to get started with for a wide range of producers and is an all-around great option to plant in the fall. Here’s why:
As just a cover crop, cereal rye is anything, but boring. With spreading, fibrous roots cereal rye will create a web of tilthy soil as it sends root exudates out. This root system will keep your soil where you want it over the winter.
No time to plant a cover crop after your cash crop? Yes, you do! Cereal rye is one of the latest planted options for fall. This characteristic paired with its ease of establishment makes it a simple option. The extremely reasonable price makes it a smart option.
In the spring, your cereal rye will be the first to green up, making your lawn jealous. This early spring growth adds even more to the soil protection including erosion control, moisture maintenance, and weed suppression. Varying termination methods exist for cereal rye, but we recommend shallow tillage, chemical termination, or crimping (higher seeding needed).
When in your rotation as a forage crop, similar benefits exist. Easy establishment and flexible planting time make it one of your least fussy forages. You can graze your cereal rye in the fall, but not too low so that it has to fight to thrive in the spring. Leaving growth over the winter will give you the earliest possible green-up when old man winter leaves.
Once those shoots and leaves pop up, you have options of grazing and/or harvesting in the spring. When mechanically harvesting, a balance between highest forage quality and highest tonnage occurs; when one is higher, the other lowers. Harvested at earlier stages of development, your cereal rye forage will have its highest protein (20-25%) and digestibility. Harvested at later stages of development, you will achieve the maximum tonnage potential (3-4 DM tons/acre). The most balanced point of the two that we have found is right around boot stage of development and would have levels around the averages of this University of Wisconsin Chart:
Cover crop = 50-80 lbs per acre
Forage = 80-100 lbs per acre
Your Cereal Rye’s Best Friends – when planted before Mid-September
Oats can be combined with for some growth in the fall to supplement fall grazing.
Brassicas will add soil building benefits by pulling up nutrients and forage quality during grazing with high-protein leaves.
Legumes will supply nitrogen fixing when planted early enough in the fall to develop nodules (Beginning of September). Legumes that overwinter will improve forage quality for grazing and mechanical harvest.
BONUS: All of these options will benefit the soil with their varying root systems!
I know no one wants to talk about it yet, but do we remember last winter in most of the Midwest? The ice? The freezing and thawing? Super sub-zero temperatures? That paired with the wet spring caused PCS to see a lot of winter kill in alfalfa stands. While we can’t control the weather, we can follow some guidelines to set your alfalfa up for success going into fall and winter.
Cutting alfalfa is always stressful to the plant, so the timing of that cutting in the fall is very important. Alfalfa should not be cut during the Critical Fall Harvest Period which “is the 6-week rest period (450 Growing Degree Days) preceding the average date of killing frost” (Bagg, 2012). It is important to note that this definition does not give specific days. This will vary throughout the Midwest and even throughout a state.
Why does this critical period exist? Alfalfa needs a full energy reserve (charged battery) to be best prepared for the winter.
This first illustration shows that after the final summer alfalfa cutting, plant begins to regrow using up its reserves into that above ground growth. At a certain point of above ground growth, the plant transitions into returning energy to its below ground reserves (battery). This charged battery is what best quips plants to have strong survival in the winter (depending on how crazy mother nature gets). If you do need to cut the alfalfa, this “safe time” would be after the Critical Fall Harvest Period. It is crucial to leave at least a 6-inch stubble for this cutting. This would be later in the season with weather conditions that would not induce the alfalfa to regrow too much and pull from its reserves. This keeps the battery charged!
What happens when you do not adhere to the Critical Fall Harvest Period? A dead battery.
Again, after it is cut, alfalfa puts on above ground growth using its reserves. Unlike the first, the second illustration shows alfalfa cut too early, before the end of the Critical Fall Harvest Period. This means that plant has some heat units left in the fall to try to regrow again, but what reserves will it then pull from? An already low battery! This means this alfalfa will have the same winter stressors thrown at it as the first illustration, but not have any energy saved up to bounce back from them. Result = more likely to winterkill.
Take care of your alfalfa this fall!
Bagg, Joel. "Taking That Fall Cutting of Alfalfa?" Field Crop News, 21 Aug. 2012.
Created for you – Prairie Creek Seed wants to create a place with all the resources you need for forages and cover crops as well as their management.
Beyond Agronomy serves as a reliable platform for producers to gain information from Prairie Creek Seed. We love talking to customers about our products and experiences and look forward to reaching everyone in one place. We offer useful take-away information on forages, cover crops, and soil that can be applied across various farm types and methods of practice.
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The success of farmers and ranchers is our highest priority – so come back for information that goes beyond the seed to provide tangible, practical information that you need!