Everyone has heard that, right? This post is the first of a series explaining the various windows for cover crops on most farms. Key word there is most, every farm is different and this can be adjusted in ways that work for you. Disclaimer: The dates of these windows will vary based on region!
This first window of the season is one that is often forgotten about because of the focus on making sure the fields are ready for a cash crop like corn or beans to be planted. However, with mildly favorable spring conditions, there is definitely time to get a cover crop growing if you do not have one from the previous fall. Some examples of spring planted options before cash crops are:
All of these could establish in the cooler spring temperatures to feed soil biology, suppress weeds, and take up nutrients that could otherwise be lost to spring rains. In the case of the legumes, the cover crop could also be fixing nitrogen and storing it in its tissues. Since this cover crop will be young and have a low carbon to nitrogen ration, the plants will quickly break down (soil biology snacks) releasing that nitrogen and other nutrients to your cash crop seedlings. Pop-up fertilizer anyone?
While this spring cover may not accumulate a huge above ground biomass, the underground root system that these fast-establishing perennials form will do wonders for your soil structure. You may be thinking, “No, way we need the soils to warm up and dry out as soon as possible.” It is true that in a heavy rainfall year, all ground, including those with cover crops, are going to stay wetter than we would like. However, on an average year, cover crops like oats and barley will be using moisture in your soil which could prep fields well for planting.
What about not planting corn or beans? This window is perfect if you are planning on using a summer annual forage. Since warm season annuals need to have 65 degree and rising soil temperatures before they can be planted, your spring window is even larger than for corn and beans. Instead of leaving that soil bare before planting, consider a legume-based cover crop blend that will build soil and fix nitrogen for you. Some blends may even provide you additional forage before the summer annual is planted!
Consider how this cover crop seeding window could work on your operation!
You know all about annual and biannual clovers link, so surely you were on the edge of your seat waiting to hear all about perennial clovers as well, right?
Red clover is a dependable, low-cost, readily available workhorse that is winter hardy in much of the U.S. Red clover is a go-to legume for many with its ability to create a moderate amount of nitrogen, help to suppress weeds and break up heavy soil. We like Freedom! MR Red Cloverspecifically for pastures and hay because it is free of non-glandular hairs improving palatability and dry-down.
Uses: Use red clover for forage, grazing and nitrogen production. It’s a great cover crop legume to frost seed or inter-seed with small grains where you can harvest grain as well as provide weed suppression and manage nitrogen.
Rate: Seeding a pure stand: 15 to 20 lbs per acre, Seeding with grass: 8 to 10 lbs per acre, Frost seeding into grass: 10 to 12 lbs per acre.
Many most likely already have white clover in pasture and hay stands. It is very common in the Midwest because it is a very persistent clover. PCS uses Stamina Intermediate White Clover for its more upright growth and larger leaves that increase tonnage and production. White clovers are resilient to heat, cold, drought, and flooding. What’s not to love?
Uses: Use white clover as the long-term legume in your pasture blends where you want a mix of persistent legumes and grasses.
Rate: Seeding a pure stand: 3 to 5 lbs per acre, Seeding with grass: 1 to 3 lbs per acre, Frost seeding into grass: 3 to 6 lbs per acre.
This short-lived perennial is also a workhorse like white clover with even larger leaves. Alsike handles more acidic soils and heavier soils that tend to flood thanks to its deep branching taproot. This clover is well adapted to the Midwest and has good winter hardiness.
Uses: Use alsike clover in your tougher pastures where you want a legume to enrich your sward and provide high quality forage.
Rate: Seeding a pure stand: 3 to 5 lbs per acre, Seeding with grass: 1 to 3 lbs per acre, Frost seeding into grass: 3 to 6 lbs per acre.
BONUS Legume! Birdsfoot Trefoil
Not a clover, but it is an excellent non-bloating legume. That’s right, this legume, has no concern of causing bloat when grazed and also provides excellent forage quality. This is a deep-rooted, short-lived perennial that can reseed naturally for persistence. For grazing, a longer rest period is needed for Birdsfoot Trefoil to perform best.
Uses: Use Birdsfoot Trefoil as a legume in your pasture blends or added into existing pasture to increase diversity. Another bonus: pollinator benefit, look at those yellow flowers!
Rate: Seeding a new stand: 4 to 6 lbs per acre, along with 15 to 18 lbs per acre of Renovator or a straight grass blend, Seeding with no-till drill: 5 to 8 lbs per acre into existing stands Frost seeding: 6 to 12 lbs per acre
This clover is an annual who’s winter survivability depends greatly on weather conditions. With snow cover or when planted with winter cereals, crimson will often be protected enough to survive to spring. It will not generally survive low winter temperatures with no snow cover. Also, if planted early enough that it heads out before winter, it’s lifecycle will be complete. Regardless of its winter survivability, crimson clover is a very strong nitrogen fixer and will scavenge nutrients for you. Crimson is also shade tolerant and can be used in early or late interseeding blends going into corn (Hint: that’s why we use it in Interseeder Plus).
The long and short: Use crimson clover as a fall planted or summer interseeded crop where you want to fix nitrogen, scavenge nutrients, and suppress weeds with the option of forage use.
Rate: 15-20 lbs per acre alone, 5-10 lbs per acre in a blend
Balansa clover is a the most winter-hardy annual that can be used as a cover crop or forage. Its growth begins as a multi-branched rosette which makes it apt to recover after harvest and grazing. Balansa has leaves all along the stems that form from the rosette which add to its yield and forage quality. This clover is cold tolerant and can withstand early frosts in the fall, but will winterkill is likely Iowa and north. As a cover crop, balansa will provide excellent ground cover to suppress weeds while fixing nitrogen for any following crops (why we also include this clover in Interseeder Plus ).
The long and short: Use balansa clover as a nitrogen fixing cover crop in spring or late summer planted blends where high quality forage is a goal.
Rate: 5-8 lbs per acre alone, 3-5 lbs per acre in a blend
Berseem clover can be planted after any chance of a frost until the beginning of August. This clover is flexible as a forage option as it can be in a grazing blend (we use it in Summer Blend) or you can treat it very similarly to alfalfa. Its taproot makes it productive in the summer and its upright growth makes it possible to be cut, wilted and dry baled.
The long and short: Use berseem where you want a clover in a summer cover crop or grazing blend. Also, if you have a thinning alfalfa stand, berseem can be used to fill in and contribute to your dry hay production.
Rate: 15-18 lbs per acre alone, 5-8 lbs per acre in a blend
Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover
Yellow Blossom Sweet Clover is a true biennial as it will quickly form a low growing rosette in the first year then, after overwintering, it will begin its flowering process. Beneficial pollinators will be attracted to this clover after it overwinters and forms its (you guessed it) yellow blossoms. As a cover crop, this clover will be a high nitrogen fixer in both seasons of growth, but will need terminated in a timely manner before spring seeded crops. Yellow blossom sweet clover does contain coumarin, which can come off as a bitter taste to cattle, so it would not be our first choice as a forage option.
The long and short: Use yellow blossom sweet clover as a late summer or fall planted green manure cover crop where forage use it not a goal.
Rate: 7-8 lbs per acre alone, 3-5 lbs per acre in a blend
These examples are just a taste of the annual and biennial clovers that exist. It is important to note that the rate recommendations are just guidelines and can vary from situation to situation. Clovers can be very useful in meeting goals of your operation!
I can plant my pasture or hay field, make sure it gets established and then do nothing ever again, right? Wrong... Pastures need attention too!
Just like your row crop fields, pasture and hay stands need checked on regularly as well! Sample your pastures at least every 3 years to monitor levels of everything from Phosphorus and Potassium to trace minerals like Magnesium and Sulfur (these are really important to the livestock you are feeding). This will ensure that you know what is happening in your fields and if there is anything that may need adjusted.
The type of fertilizer added can vary from farm to farm, but in the photos above, we see that manure matters! This manure injected in mid-August with a rain shower shortly after worked wonders for this hay field. A visual like this shows why nitrogen availability specifically is extremely important to grass stands as you can see right where the manure was injected.
Consider Your Grazing Rotation
A healthy soil may not need as much added fertility, think about what that could do to your input costs! Consider rotational grazing to improve your plant and soil health to make the above concepts less crucial to the productivity of your pastures.
People often ask us at PCS “When will I be able to graze this?” “What is the best day to plant?” “How many days until this will be ready to harvest?” We can give estimates and date ranges to answer these questions, but the answer is often “It depends on the conditions and the plant.”
It would be great if we had set dates to plant each different crop. If we knew that on those exact dates for each it would not rain heavily after, go dry, turn cold, or get blazing hot too soon. But, unfortunately, that is not the case. Advisable windows to plant can be given, but the weather is too big of a factor to ignore on the actual day you get in the field. Always try to have fields fit when you get into them, even though that may seem impossible sometimes.
Aside from rain and dry conditions at planting, temperature requirements need to be met as well, especially for warm season annuals. No one can say the exact day soil temperatures will reach 65 degrees and rising, but that is the requirement that we have to be patient enough to meet for successful warm season annual establishment.
When should I chop or bale my forage? For cool season annuals like cereal rye, the timing is based off of maximizing tonnage as well as quality. The same goes for warm season annuals such as sorghum sudan, sudangrass, and multi-species blends. For many of the grasses, including warm season and cool season, where high quality baleage or silage is the goal, you often want to harvest at boot stage. This is when valuable nutrients and sugars are still throughout the whole plant before they are all sent directly to seed production. In the case of silage where you are wanting higher starch, then it would be advised to wait for the heads to fill out and reach soft-dough stage (when the kernals pop and feel like dough when squeezed). The timing of when those stages occur can vary largely based on weather. Specifically, for the warm seasons, the warmer the temperatures (with moisture available) the quicker their growth will be.
The decision of when to graze is going to be similar to the mechanical harvest, when grasses are at boot stage. Another factor that comes into grazing, and sometimes to the mechanical harvest, is planning to get multiple passes of grazing off a crop. Sudangrass, for example, can be planted early summer and be grazed 2-3 times when managed properly. This is another time where it is important to monitor plant stage and height when beginning grazing, as well as when to stop to allow for adequate regrowth. Setting up your grazing rotation does have to fit your operation, but plant height must also be monitored closely. Go off of the plant, not the calendar.
The moral of the story here is do not rely solely on calendar dates or number of days when making various decision like planting, harvesting and grazing forages. The truth is that weather conditions, plant stage of development, and grazing needs have to be taken into account for these decisions.
If alfalfa is grown on your farm, you know how important it is to choose an alfalfa that has the characteristics you need. It needs to fit your management, soil type and end user. There are many goals that you may have for your alfalfa, but here are a few common needs:
Need Fast Recovery?
In a system where you plan to cut alfalfa four to five times in a season, it is important to have an alfalfa that will recover quickly. This alfalfa also needs to be able to handle the stress that each cutting brings. PCS Pillar alfalfa is our fastest recovering alfalfa with high yield and produces dairy quality forage. It is highly resistant to all major alfalfa diseases and has a strong stand density at establishment. Pillar was developed in the Upper Midwest to achieve goals that match the region’s climate. Both the livestock producer and the commercial hay grower benefit from the fast growth and high forage quality.
Looking for Pest and Disease Resistance?
The risk of pest and disease in crops is unavoidable on most operations, but can affect some more than others. If your operation tends to have issues with alfalfa pests, it is important to plan for that when choosing your alfalfa. PCS Leading Edge is highly resistant to all major alfalfa diseases including Aphanomyces Race 2. Leading Edge still brings quality and fast recover to the table and will work well in a three to four cut system. Improved quality and palatability for livestock is an added benefit with the high resistance to diseases and pests. Healthy forages have less tissue damage and less anti-quality characteristics.
Have Heavy Soils?
Most alfalfas have a taproot that can be susceptible to freeze-thaw cycles and heavier soils that hold more water. On ground that is heavy, such as clay soil types, taproots do not always perform well in an unfavorable year. If this is common for any of your fields, a brand rooted alfalfa is a better choice. Branched roots are more stable when the ground expands and contracts in the cooler months. Prairie Creek Seed offers Prairie Thunder BR as a brand root alfalfa. Prairie Thunder’s root system is indeterminate so it will adjust to moisture levels and move deeper into the soil as needed. In heavy soils, Prairie Thunder will yield higher than the other taproot varieties and provide dairy quality forage.
Using Alfalfa in your Rotation Short-Term?
If you are planning on using alfalfa for just 1-2 years in a rotation, a more economical option may be best. An alfalfa that has good yield potential and solid disease resistance can still exist at a price that makes sense for a stand that is going to be taken out relatively soon. PCS Value fits that bill. Value is winter hardy and will perform across varying soil types. This alfalfa will work best in a three to four cut system and can also be used as a short-term alfalfa in a pasture seeding.
Need Traffic Tolerance?
Another option for alfalfas that are going into a pasture seeding is one that can handle hoof traffic. Alfalfa crowns often have placement right at or above the soil surface. A sunken crown variety like Veil SC reduces the risk of the valuable crowns being damaged from traffic as well as severe weather. A crown set lower on an alfalfa plant is better insulated if there is a winter with very little snow cover when other crowns would be more exposed. Veil SC is a high-quality alfalfa that will also suit hay production.
There are many variables that contribute to an alfalfa’s performance, but set yourself up for success by choosing the characteristics that will work for your situation and operation!
Last week a few members of the Prairie Creek Seed attended a Soil Health Academy workshop centered around increasing profitability through regenerative agriculture, here are some of their thoughts on the event!
The workshop took place in Hays, Kansas. Topics covered included soil health, cover crops, managing the farm as an ecosystem, as well as adaptive grazing. The entire event was filled with questions and answers about all related topics and specific scenarios that attending producers have encountered. The group also traveled to a local farmer’s field to look at his cover crop stand and analyze the benefits and possibilities.
One of the more all encompassing topic discussed was the 6 Principles of Soil Health which are as follows:
Know your context – Consider your farm’s specific environment and goals when working to improve soil health. This includes choosing the correct cash crops and management for your area as well as picking a cover crop that supports your resource concerns.
Minimize disturbance – Utilize chemical and mechanical disturbance wisely as tools in your tool belt. As your soil health improves, the use of these can lessen over time.
Cover and build soil armor – Having something on the soil’s surface to serve as a “skin” will be drastically beneficial to soil moisture and biology.
Diversity – Looking at your farm as an ecosystem requires diversity to be incorporated to your rotation, pasture stand, or cover crop blend.
Keep living roots in the soil – These will feed your underground livestock who will make nutrients available to your plants as well as improve soil structure over time.
Incorporate livestock – Grazing any kind of livestock throughout your operation can be a quantum leap in your soil health.
Those principles were expounded upon in many different ways like lessons on what soil biology is capable of as far as making nutrients available. This was the section of the event that stood out the most to me (Amanda). There is always more to learn about the life within the soil. The beauty of is it the more you have a healthy, functioning soil that is making nutrients available, the less inputs your farm will eventually need (saving $$$). A healthy soil also lends itself to healthier plants that can have less disease and pest issues.
After the event Kyle said “the Soil Health Academy is a road map to understanding, enhancing and monitoring soil life and productivity.” Dawn’s response to the event was “I love how Understanding Ag looks at the big picture. Soil health, the plant’s health, our livestock’s health and our own health - they’re all tied together. We can have an impact on all of these things simply by changing some of our practices.”
This is just a snippit of information about the event because one post cannot fit it all. There will be more to come with related topics on soil health. If you ever get a chance to attend an event like this near you, we say go for it!
We know the detriments to pastures when overgrazed but what kind of diet does a set stock pasture provide for your livestock?
When livestock are rotationally grazed, they enter a new paddock of high-quality forage after a certain amount of time. This means that they have a consistent diet of the highest possible quality of forage frequently. Conversely, set stock pastures never improve to a higher quality than the first day livestock enter. The quality will only decline leading to low protein and basically no fiber in the overgrazed forage. With this quality decline comes production decline which means less forage for livestock to consume. This can be especially detrimental to dairy cattle as rumen fill is vital to high milk production.
Speaking of the rumen, the lack of consistency that comes with lack of rotation really does a number on a cow’s gut health. After grazing where the quality has dwindled to low protein and fiber, then being switched to a higher protein and higher fiber area, the rumen can take a real shock. This is hard on the digestive system compared to the consistency of rotating to similar forage daily or multiple times a day.
Livestock are naturally selective in what they graze. In a set stock situation cattle have a space that is too large to sway them from being selective. This leads to them eating the “good stuff” first (candy) and leaving behind the plants that are not as fresh and lush (broccoli). This only leads to the “broccoli” forages to getting more mature, heading out, and, if those mature seeds are eaten by the cattle, they are reseeding the exact species they do not prefer! Not to mention that these stiff seed heads, if left unclipped or eaten, can cause other problems such as pink eye or mouth ulcers when cattle try to get down to new growth.
All of this to say, lack of rotation can be very hard on livestock’s diet and digestive system. Consistency is key.
Picture this: For a week, you are given the option to eat your favorite sweet treat or broccoli (without any thought of which is healthier). When there is a steady supply of that sweet treat that you love, why would you choose the broccoli if you didn’t have to?
This is a way to imagine the life of a cow in a set stocked pasture. When given free-rein to a large area, the first thing that cattle will eat is the most succulent, digestible grass they can find. This includes young and mid-maturity grasses. They will leave behind any roughage that is more mature and less palatable. What is grazed first will come back again highly palatable and digestible, so that is what the cattle will go for right away again. This cycle leaves room for problems...
Overgrazing of the individual grass plant induces a detrimental chain of events...
Young succulent plant is grazed very low to the ground – very little leaf surface area is left for the grass to photosynthesize and regrow – plant is forced to pull from any root reserves it may have to spark above ground growth – new root growth is put on hold because of this – above ground growth increases enough for cow to notice again – young succulent plant is grazed very low to the ground
This cycle is extremely hard on the plant. All of the stressors combined make the plant vulnerable to disease, drought, and pests. Eventually, this all ends with the tragic death of the plant, which leads to the next point!
The death of these species that cattle overgraze, lessens the diversity throughout that pasture. Surely you don’t want the diverse mix that you seeded to go from a 7-way blend to a 2-way blend. Diversity in a pasture is important not only for forage quality, but also soil health. Varying root and growth types improve the soil, increasing the longevity of your pastures.
Where there is a will, there is a way for weeds. Overgrazed pastures that become less diverse create a thin stand that makes weeds’ job easy. Thin stands leave room for bare soil. With the addition of moisture and heat, that bare soil will quickly fill in with weeds from the seed bank that have been patiently waiting for their time in the spotlight. These undesirable species can be difficult to rid from your pastures and take up space that could be producing valuable forage.
Aside from the detriments to the pasture itself, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the ding to forage quality for the cattle’s diet, but that is a different topic in itself... So, what is the solution for this unproductive cycle? A grazing rotation that fits your operation. This can look different for many, but see the tips for getting started here!
So, you know how legumes fix nitrogeninto their tissues, but how does that nitrogen get back into your soil? That takes other friends in the soil known as the microbes...
The Terminator -
When the nitrogen that your legumes fix leaves the soil and enters plant tissues, imagine it saying “I’ll be back.” (Come on, do the voice.) When your cover crop is terminated, whether that be from winterkill, chemical, or tillage, it is then exposed to soil microbes. Those critters go to work on the residue and break it down into inorganic N for the plant. The peak time that this occurs is 5-6 week after termination. This is why it is beneficial to seed legumes the season before a grass crop (hence, the usual corn and bean rotation).
Maximizing Nitrogen -
We know we need to terminate the legume, but when is the best time to do that? Minnesota State studies have found that when the plants are at 50% flowering, the nitrogen content is the highest. Any earlier than that, and we have not reached the peak. Any later than that, and the legume will be more mature and have a negative effect on nitrogen increase because it will use some up to be able to break down in the soil.
How much nitrogen will my legume supply?
This can be estimated by getting a biomass measurement and popping some numbers into a formula, or you can use this Nitrogen Calculator and it’s even easier. When we get our pounds of biomass per acre, we can multiply that times a constant to get an estimate of how much nitrogen those plants created for us per acre. The amount of this that we actually capture in the soil depends if it is incorporated or not. We retain 50% of this fixed nitrogen when the cover crop is incorporated, we hold on to 40% of it when the cover crop remains on the soil surface. This is mainly to volatilization from the surface of the cover crop exposed to the air and sunlight.
Moral of the story is consider using legumes to grow your nitrogen!
Visuals created by Associate Professor Julie Grossman and her team of grad students at the University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture Science.