Cover Crops Offer Graziers a Low-Cost, High-Quality Winter Feed, Research Shows

For Release: October 7, 2015

AMES, Iowa — For forage- and grass-based livestock farmers, the cost of stored feeds, like hay, is often the single greatest cost of maintaining their animals over the winter. Thus, extending the grazing season as long as possible can translate into significant savings.

Two research reports by Practical Farmers of Iowa show that farmers with access to cover crops have a high-quality, low-cost source of cold-weather feed that – with proper management – can extend the grazing season, reduce the amount of hay needed and let pastures rest longer in the spring.

The projects – “Grazing Cover Crops on Corn Ground,” and “Grazing Cover Crops for Winter Feed” – were conducted by farmers, in real-world conditions, through Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cooperators’ Program, which helps farmers design and conduct rigorous on-farm research projects to better answer their most challenging farming questions. The reports are available to view or download at https://www.practicalfarmers.org/farmer-knowledge/research-reports.

In the first project, “Grazing Cover Crops on Corn Ground,” Maxwell-based farmer Bruce Carney rotationally grazed his herd of 184 cattle on winter cereal rye planted in a neighbor’s corn field, measuring soil compaction as well as the body condition of his animals. The cover crop gave him eight extra days of hay-free grazing in the spring – a total cost-savings of $1,379.

To figure out how much money the cover crop saved him, Bruce calculated the cover crop’s cost per ton of dry matter ($61.66 per ton of dry matter), and compared it to the average cost per ton of hay ($140 per ton) seen in early-spring auctions. He also tracked how much his herd consumed on a daily basis (about 2.2 tons per day). On a per-day basis, this cost difference amounted to a savings of almost $173 per day.

Because Bruce was careful to remove his cattle from the fields during particularly wet weather, the research showed that soil compaction did not increase following the grazing – a concern for many crop farmers, which might deter them from integrating cattle into their operations. Bruce says he “hopes to show that livestock and crops can coexist and benefit one another.”

The research was funded by The McKnight Foundation.

In the second project, Exira-based farmers Dave and Meg Schmidt, of Troublesome Creek Cattle Company, gave their herd of 27 cattle access to 220 acres of corn and soybean ground seeded with a cover crop mix of winter wheat and homegrown winter rye, starting in late October 2013 (hairy vetch was also seeded, but didn’t germinate well). The cattle were able to graze the cornstalks, bean stubble and cover crops for 140 days, until early March. Over this interval, grazing the crop residue and cover crops satisfied 57 percent of their animals’ needs – a savings of $21 per day.

To determine how much money grazing the crop residue and cover crops saved them, Dave and Meg first figured out how much dry matter their herd would need over the 140-day period (about 72 tons). They recorded how much hay they fed (48 tons), and calculated the amount of forage consumed (the difference between the animals’ needs and what was fed as hay). They also considered labor and fuel costs to feed hay versus grazing (which requires no fuel), as well as the cost of establishing the cover crop versus the average cost per ton of hay.

The forage would have supplied a higher percentage of their animals’ needs, but Dave and Meg refrained from grazing their herd on the cover crop regrowth in the spring, due to the wet, muddy conditions; doing so would have damaged the soil and plants, jeopardizing their ability to terminate the cover crop with herbicides.

“I believe we can greatly improve our operation by further reducing our use of hay,” Dave says. “Our long-term goal is to cut stored feeds down to approximately one month, when gestating cows have high nutritional needs or when the weather is extremely harsh.”

He adds that continuing to graze crop residues and fall-seeded cover crops will remain an integral part of how he and Meg plan to reach that goal.

The project, “Grazing Cover Crops for Winter Feed,” was funded by The McKnight Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

Practical Farmers of Iowa’s Cooperators’ Program helps farmers use accepted scientific methods to help them transition to more sustainable and economically profitable systems through research, record-keeping and demonstration projects. The Cooperators’ Program began in 1987 with farmers looking to save money through more judicious use of inputs, and now includes research on a wide range of field crop, livestock, horticulture, on-farm energy and cover crop questions.


Practical Farmers of Iowa strengthens farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information-sharing. Our values include: welcoming everyone; creativity, collaboration and community; viable farms now and for future generations; and stewardship and ecology. Founded in 1985, farmers in our network raise corn, soybeans, livestock, hay, fruits and vegetables, and more. To learn more, visit https://www.practicalfarmers.org.

Meghan Filbert | Practical Farmers of Iowa | (515) 232-5661 | meghan@practicalfarmers.org
Tamsyn Jones | Practical Farmers of Iowa | (515) 232-5661 | tamsyn@practicalfarmers.org