Cattle get diverse menu in cover crop system

FORREST, Man. — A large group of Black Angus cattle waited impatiently as Ryan Boyd rolled up a temporary electric fence.

The cattle were on the west side of the fence in a completely grazed paddock with little forage left to eat.

The herd stampeded into the untouched piece of grazing land when Boyd rolled up a sufficient amount of wire.

Several animals made a beeline for sunflower heads in the new paddock, snapping off the heads and seeming to swallow the seeds in a single gulp.

“The first time we turned them in to sunflowers, they didn’t even look at them,” Boyd said during a holistic management workshop at his farm near Forrest Oct. 13.

“But that’s the first thing they go for now.”

The sunflowers were just one of 20 plant species in this patch of grazing land, which could be described as a cover crop cocktail.

Boyd and his father, Jim, who run a grain and cattle farm on 2,000 acres, have been experimenting with cover crops for more than five years.

Boyd was inspired to try them after touring Gabe Brown’s farm near Bismarck, North Dakota.

Brown is considered to be a pioneer in the soil health movement and one of the first American producers to incorporate cover crops.

“That’s what planted the seed, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Boyd said. “We’ve been trying to figure out how it fits on our farm … since visiting Gabe’s.”

Boyd had previously experimented with small acres of cover crops, seeding 30 to 50 acres a year. This year he seeded 500 acres of cover crops for green feed and grazing land.

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“We finally made a leap this year to do significant acreage of it as season-long mixed annuals for grazing,” he said. “We’re using it as a grazed-green manure type system.”

Boyd took workshop participants to a field he seeded with a cover crop cocktail in July, after cattle finished grazing a crop of fall rye.

The field was different from most grazing land in Western Canada. Turnips, many larger than a baseball, were visible on bare patches of ground, and many species of plants were unrecognizable.

Jim said there were 21 species in the cocktail, including vetches, fababeans, soybeans, millet, sorghum, alfalfa, red clover, sweet clover and radish.

Boyd said the cattle were confused when first exposed to the unfamiliar species, but they adjusted quickly to the unique flavours.

“There’s a learning curve for the cattle … but they figure it out,” he said.

“In the case of the turnips… they would eat the tops of the turnips, but out in the field all these turnips were rolling around. They looked liked softballs out there. But two days went by and all of a sudden they (the turnips) just disappeared. So somebody got a taste for them.”

The tour then stopped at a 120 acre field, which Boyd seeded in June with a cover crop cocktail. Visitors were amazed by the density and diversity of the crop because it was hard to walk through the field.

Boyd plans to move his cattle onto this field for late fall and early winter grazing. He expects it will hold their herd of 270 cow-calf pairs for a month to 45 days.

“I think there is a lot of potential for putting pounds on, out here.”

Boyd said it cost $40 an acre to seed the cover crop. It sounds expensive, but hay isn’t cheap.

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“We’ve been buying all our hay … but this year we aren’t buying any. We’ve grown our own feed for the first time in a long time,” he said.

“When you look at five or six cents a pound hay versus grazing this mixture we’ve got, this works beautifully.”

The plants in the cover crop cocktail should also enhance soil fertility.

“We’re trying to build a system that doesn’t rely on a whole bunch of outside inputs,” he said.

“We’re improving the soil, but at the same time we’re not having to buy a whole bunch of … fertilizer. And (we’re) making money and providing a lifestyle that we desire.”

Pam Iwanchysko, a Manitoba Agriculture forage specialist in Dauphin, said the cover crop concept is slowly gaining a foothold in the province. A few producers in the Parkland region around Gilbert Plains are experimenting with cover crops for grazing and greenfeed.

North Dakota farmers, at least the ones around Bismarck, typically seed cover crops in late summer after harvesting an annual crop.

Boyd said that approach probably won’t work on the Canadian Prairies. Cover crops make more sense on mixed farms because the system is more feasible with livestock, he added.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to grow a cover crop after we’re done harvesting…. There just isn’t enough time or moisture (in the fall),” he said.

“The soil health thing works, but the cash flow isn’t there (without cattle).”

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