Soil Conservation District Secretary, Elizabeth Gibbs
NRCS Dictrict Conservationist, Martha Griffin
Specialist looks at different options
Kansas State University’s Beef Systems Specialist Jaymelynn Farney is investigating how cattle choose what to eat.
Farney, who is at the Southeast Research and Extension Center in Columbus, Kansas, has been performing studies on what forages cattle prefer. She’s using summer cover crops, or annual forages, in re-purposed protein tubs. They’re then offered to cattle to determine preference.
“I have grown eight plant species in each growing period and offered the plants to the cows in two 24-hour sessions,” she said. “We recorded their behavior for the first hour after introduction to the plants and they were video recorded through the remainder of the time to see which plants they completely consumed and in which order.”
The study wants to help producers make decisions about which cover crops to plant when incorporating grazing.
“There is a laundry list of plants that contain useful cover crop benefits and it becomes daunting to select the species that will meet your operation’s objectives,” Farney said.
When deciding what plant species to sow, Farney said there are two trains of thought.
Purposefully plant only those species that cattle will consume to maximize land usage or gains along with capturing some cover crop benefits; or
Strategically plant species that cattle are averse to in order to leave appreciable biomass in the field for soil health objectives.
“With these two things in mind I was interested in seeing how cattle that were completely naive to cover crops consumed these plants,” Farney said.
Initially, Farney has found the most preferred plants include: Barley, Austrian winter pea and Graza forage radish (tie), mustard, Impact collard, Trophy rape, and purple top turnip (all fairly the same in preference). Last was Bayou kale. Her preference information was collected prior to a freeze.
“Stay tuned to next year to find out what their preference to these same species are when grazing after a killing freeze,” Farney said.
For summer grazing, in order from most preferred to least includes: Brown mid-rib forage sorghum and sorghum-Sudan (tied for first), pearl millet, Black oil sunflower and sun hemp (tied for third). Least favorite with little to no difference (strongly objected) were mungbean, okra and safflower.
Farney said there is some learning in both the cattle and the researchers associated with these summer grazing plants.
“The first day exposed nearly all the cows did not even try the okra, but the second day they consumed them before mungbean and safflower,” Farney said. “Another interesting comment about the summers, all grazing occurred when the sorghums were 2 feet tall to minimize prussic acid issues.”
For the sorghums, grazing occurred 35 days after planting. The sunflowers in that time frame were very small and immature (6 to 8 inches tall at the most) while the mungbean and okra had leaves that were over 7 inches in diameter.
“Preference studies become difficult to quantify as cattle do learn and modify grazing behavior especially after that first introduction to new plants,” she said.
When in drought
Farney suggests spending some time to determine the plant species with more drought tolerance.
“I would stay away from really expensive components of mixtures because there is a greater chance of crop failure with no moisture,” she said. “There is some literature that shows that a few different plant species as a cover crop have some environmental lee-way.”
For stocker cattle
Farney leans heavily on the grass component of a stocker cover crops plan.
She limits brassicas to a 1 pound per acre with maximum of 1.5 pounds of brassica seed per acre. Amounts over this can cause the brassicas to outcompete the grass species and reduce grass tonnage. For fall forages, the grass and brassica species offer enough protein to the animal.
“Younger calves have a stronger aversion to the broadleaves and brassicas than cows do and this can potentially hamper gains for a short duration until they begin to consume these plants,” Farney said
“In Kansas, from my research and measuring producers fields, we rarely get any fall growth of legumes,” she said. “This is an expensive component of the mixture and with the combination of low to no-growth and no need for additional protein to meet calf requirements, I do not include legumes in fall covers.”
Farney suggests oats and barley—both spring and winter varieties—to those looking to graze something other than native grass as they offer the earliest, quickest growth. Triticale is intermediate and wheat and rye will have the majority of their growth late winter and early spring. Turnips and radishes have a very rapid growth rate, but once a freeze happens, they don’t generate any more dry matter. Grass species continue to have some growth as the season goes on.
Managing the meat
During and through a drought, the reduced availability of forages hurts stocker producers the most.
“If forage is severely limiting, alternative methods of growing these calves need to be implemented,” Farney said.
She said Dale Blasi at the K-State Stocker unit has been doing interesting research that shows that limit feeding stocker calves can be a viable management strategy.
“These calves gain as well as contemporaries on less feed,” Farney said. “This allows us to stretch our forage and feed base.”
With the option of several high energy feedstuffs, when limit fed and balanced in the ration become an economical option to forage only, especially at elevated prices due to low supply and high demand.
“Substitution is another thing to consider with stockers,” Farney said. “We are essentially wanting to feed more of something else so they eat less grass or hay.”
Corn has commonly been identified as the culprit of reducing free-choice hay and grass consumption, according to Farney. A general rule of thumb for supplementing corn is 0.3 percent of the animal’s body weight or less will not reduce forage consumption. A level above that can reduce it. At 0.75 percent of body weight, for each pound of corn they will consume one pound less forage on a dry matter basis.
“It is still important to make sure to meet protein requirements,” Farney said.
Tennessee's farmers care for the landscape with no-till farming
Tennessee farmers have been transforming the landscape for decades with no-till farming methods, helping to restore the state’s soils. In fact, the University of Tennessee’s Research and Education Center at Milan has been a leader in this effort since 1981. The research conducted by UT AgResearch at Milan is known worldwide.
While no-till farming is the norm in Tennessee today, it hasn’t always been the case. “About four decades ago, West Tennessee was ranked as one of the top areas in the U.S. for the highest soil erosion rate,” says Don Tyler, retired professor for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The average soil erosion rate for Tennessee at that time was 40 tons of soil per acre per year.
Unlike tillage, commonly known as plowing, no-till methods leave soils undisturbed, allowing crop residue to remain on the surface, protecting the topsoil from runoff. Seeds are planted in rows in the soil. In contrast, tillage leaves soil “bare” and highly susceptible to erosion.
Some soils across Tennessee are considered fragile, Tyler says, but West Tennessee’s are especially susceptible.
“The soils in West Tennessee are especially erodible because they are very silty soils,” Tyler says. “They are almost like talcum powder – very silty and easily moved by water if they’re exposed and tilled.”
As an example of how easily soil can erode with tilling versus no-till, Tyler says, “We have data that shows in till systems, one storm can result in the loss of more than 10 tons of soil per acre, whereas a no-till system right beside it with the same measurements may result in 1/10 of a ton loss. It’s a huge difference.”Today, Tennessee is a shining example of the no-till success, with up to 90 percent of the state’s farms using no-till practices, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This change was possible thanks to the assistance and innovation of the University of Tennessee Extension and UT AgResearch, within the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, and Tennessee’s row crop farmers who saw the benefits and invested in the technology to make no-till a reality.
Tyler was one of the many team members enlisted to research and help Tennessee adapt its tilling ways that were having a negative impact on the land.
“With no-till, we’ve dramatically reduced the manmade accelerated soil erosion,” Tyler says. “A lot of the soil that we have now in the state would not be here if we did not go no-till. The soil was eroding at such a high rate, and there would be fields today that would have been abandoned if we did not make the change. We have many farmers now who have been completely no-till for 30 years,” he adds.
Farming in Dyer and Lauderdale counties, along the Mississippi River, Jimmy Moody experienced firsthand the positive changes that no-till methods brought to his West Tennessee farm.
Moody, who is in his mid-60s, farms on his own family operation and at Cold Creek Farms with a business partner, growing soybeans and cotton. Back when he used to till all of his land, he would need to burn crop residue, till soil and plow weeds. But since he took up no-till, he directly plants crops and controls weeds with advanced herbicides that were unavailable several decades back.
“When I was young, using no-till was unheard of,” Moody says.
No-till is good for the soil, reducing soil erosion and increasing organic matter in the surface soil. Plus, it encourages flourishing earthworm populations – which are a great indicator of soil health and create channels to flow water into soil and reduce runoff. No-till farming has economic benefits, too. “Farmers using no-till are minimizing their labor needs, the time it takes to actually farm, reducing fuel costs dramatically, and a lot of them can farm on a much larger scale than they would be able to otherwise, which has almost become necessary to survive,” Tyler says.
Moody agrees. “There’s no way that I could be farming on the scale that I am today without no-till farming,” he says.
Farmers across the country are looking at ways to boost soil health, manage crop nutrients and nutrient retention, and perhaps raise more feed for cattle. In each case, cover crops could play a valuable role. The idea of “farming green” isn’t new, with farmers using fall-seeded crops to hold soil in place for some time.
However, the planned use of cover crops can bring key benefits to soil fertility and water conservation. Yet getting started can be a challenge. With good management they can make a difference on the farm. In this section, you’ll find insight into their value including:
- Protecting soil from erosion
- Moderating soil and air temperature by shading the soil surface.
- Preventing soil nutrient loss and increase soil carbon
Cover crops represent an effective in-field practice, and investment account, for the farm by protecting soil, extending the grazing season and reducing the need for stored forages. And they can be grown in any farming system.
Cover crop benefits
The list of benefits is longer than simply adding carbon to soil. In this section there’s a look at how the practice provides added value.
Organic farms have found they can suppress weeds, but it’s a benefit for conventional farms too. With the rise of resistant weeds, producers are finding a healthy fall cover crop can offer weed control in the following year crop.
Cover crops improve water quality. In one study in Michigan researchers found that on average they reduce sediment 1,840 pounds/acre from wind erosion and decrease sediment 340 pounds/acre from water erosion.
They can also boost fertility in some cases replacing a portion of applied nitrogen to the following crop. The same crop can boost soil microbes, earthworms and other organisms by boosting soil structure. And cover crops can help break up soil compaction.
Farmers using cover crops have seen a yield increase. In Kentucky, winter cover used with no-till planting showed a significant increase in corn yield. Similar results were found at Iowa State University.
Some types, such as tillage radishes, can “do the tillage for you” providing improved soil tilth and breaking up soil compaction. They can also facilitate drainage.
Winter cover crops can significantly reduce soil erosion with reductions reaching 50% when winter cover is available. Keeping soil on the farm is an investment in the future of the operation. There’s extensive work showing how impactful they are for reducing erosion.
Some species can be used to help restore storm damaged fields. And for many that’s part of a planned rotation of crops and cover crops that offer an added benefit. Tillage radish has been shown to offer a significant benefit, if it can be worked into the rotation.
Cover crops can also cut your nitrogen cost. In some cases, they can replace nitrogen applications, or at least supplement nitrogen for the crop. Given today’s fertilizer prices, figuring the cost of added nitrogen from cover crops helps pay for the practice.
Using cover crops during drought
There’s a concern that cover crops might not be appropriate in drought conditions, yet these post-crop covers may have added benefits. For example, after the 2012 drought agronomists advised planting them to capture unused nitrogen before it leached below the tile zone.
They can also act as a moisture trap which may counter some who worry that the winter planting might reduce subsoil moisture further. Work in North Dakota has shown them to help conserve moisture, in part because they keep soil covered. Bare soil gives up more moisture than ground protected by a cover crop, researchers found.
Cover cropping plan
What’s the old sayin? Failure to plan is planning to fail. Adding cover crops to your farm’s planting program isn’t done lightly. The key to success is to work through the potential challenges before you engage the first field.
We ask some simple questions to help you determine the best approach to adding cover crops for your farm. From changing crop choices to add a little more fall establishment time to identifying the best fields for cover crop use.
This section also digs into the questions surrounding cover crop planting choices. A tillage radish may not be right for your farm, but what about annual ryegrass or cereal rye? And what is the difference between those two crops?
There are also “variety mixes” that may be priced lower. They offer both opportunities and challenges. Knowing the mix of seed in a variety cover crop can help you determine the best practices for burndown.
Cover crop guide to varieties
This section pulls together a wide list of cover crop choices available to farmers. While not all are best suited for every operation, this comprehensive guide provides added information about potential uses on the farm.
The list of varieties with a deeper look at their key benefits includes:
Annual/Italian ryegrass-Reed Canarygrass-Birdsfoot Trefoil-Kentucky Bluegrass-Forage Chicory-Tall Fescue-Smooth Bromegrass
Barley-Proso Millet-German/Foxtail Millet-Pearl Millet-Oats-Rye/Cereal Rye Grain-Sorghum/Sudangrass-Teff-TriticaleWheat
Alfalfa-Austrian Winter Peas-Crimson CloverFava Bean-Berseem Clover-Field Peas-Hairy Vetch-Kura Clover
- Mungbean-Red Clover-Cowpea-Soybean-Velvetbean-Sunn Hemp-Subterranean Clover-Sweet Clover-White Clover-Woollypod Vetch
- Black Mustard-BrownMustard-Spring Mustard-Fall Mustard-KaleForage-Radish-Arugula-RapeseedTurnip-Winter Canola
- NON-LEGUME BROADLEAF
How and when to seed cover crops
Just when should you plant cover crops? And how? For many, seeding is becoming the biggest post-harvest activity. And it’s a process that each farmer needs to work out for their specific management approach.
Some farmers turn to air-drills right behind the combine, then turn to aerial-applied seed when time runs short. Others turn to high-clearance applicators that can move through a standing corn crop to apply cover crop seed. The key is timing that planting to get solid emergence before first frost.
This section looks at aerial application and its costs, explores how different cover crops get started with fall seeding and provides some tips and insight on best practices for establishing them no matter what planting method has been used.
Establishing a cover crop requires some key practices that can help get the crop established, and in this section there’s even an answer to a key question: What if a cover crop doesn’t germinate?
Grazing and forage options
If you’ve got cattle on the farm, they can be a perfect pairing for a cover crop program, provided you have the right crop. Certain types can be grazed if established in time, and provide an extended grazing season while reducing your need for stored forages.
This section explores the use of winter cover crops for grazing and how best to deploy the practice in your operation. The use of winter cover for early spring grazing is popular in the Southwest, but is gaining popularity farther north as more growers turn to this technique.
Using the practice can help with cattle feed economics too buy saving feed costs, keeping cows cleaner during mud season and you spread manure nutrients with no added fuel or labor.
There’s also a discussion of fall-grazing covers and how best to use that practice.
How to terminate cover crops
This section of the cover crop guide deals with one of the more challenging issues for farmers on their first time – terminating them to make room for the spring crop. There are different ways to approach termination from the timing to the approach (chemical or mechanical), which can impact your farm.
There’s a discussion of how herbicide carryover impacts your plan, which can be challenged since cover crops aren’t usually listed on many herbicide labels.
And there are termination tips to maximize your approach to clearing covers for the new-season crops.
Ask about these NRCS/SCD Programs
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits.Under the Agricultural Land Easements component, NRCS helps Indian tribes, state and local governments and non- governmental organizations protect working agricultural lands and limit non-agricultural uses of the land.Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component, NRCS helps to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands.Agricultural Land Easements protect the long-term viability of the nation’s food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses. Land protected by agricultural land easements provides additional public benefits, including environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space.Wetland Reserve Easements provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, protect biological diversity and provide opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities.
Agricultural Land Easements NRCS provides financial assistance to eligible partners for purchasing Agricultural Land Easements that protect the agricultural use and conservation values of eligible land. In the case of working farms, the program helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture. The program also protects grazing uses and related conservation values by conserving grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland. Eligible partners include Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs.Under the Agricultural Land component, NRCS may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. Where NRCS determines that grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected, NRCS may contribute up to 75 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement.
Wetland Reserve Easements NRCS also provides technical and financial assistance directly to private landowners and Indian tribes to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands through the purchase of a wetland reserve easement. For acreage owned by an Indian tribe, there is an additional enrollment option of a 30-year contract.Through the wetland reserve enrollment options, NRCS may enroll eligible land through:
- Permanent Easements are conservation easements in perpetuity. NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the easement, and between 75 to 100 percent of the restoration costs.
- 30-Year Easements expire after 30 years. Under 30-year easements,NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the easement, and between 50 to 75 percent of the restoration costs.
- Term Easements are easements that are for the maximum duration allowed under applicable state laws. NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the term easement and between 50 to 75 percent of the restoration costs.
- 30-year Contracts are only available to enroll acreage owned by Indian tribes. Program payment rates are commensurate with 30-year easements.
For wetland reserve easements, NRCS pays all costs associated with recording the easement in the local land records office, including recording fees, charges for abstracts, survey and appraisal fees, and title insurance.
Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a continuous USDA sign-up program that offers financial and technical assistance to eligible participants to install and maintain conservation practices, including those related to organic production, on agricultural land or private nonindustrial forestland. Traditionally all funds have been allocated to applications taken during the first signup period running from October 1 to December 20th, with applications carried over from the prior year included in the first funding period. In Giles County most funds utilized in this program have addressed water quality issues associated with animal agriculture. Conservation practices installed most often increase the ability of the landowner to manage land more profitably and provide positive impacts to the local economy. Cross fencing and access control fencing, alternative water systems such as frost proof water troughs for cattle, and pipeline have proved to be the most feasible and popular practices we use. Managed grazing allows a landowner to reduce the time that livestock have access to streams which goes to our local water intake. Managed grazing can also significantly increase forage yields, reduce health problems for cattle and improve wildlife habitat. We also offer several options on seeding cropland or poor pastureland, including establishing native grasses. EQIP offers assistance to address cropland, energy conservation, animal waste management, organic farming, and other resource concerns identified locally. It offers a great tool for good land managers to improve their farmland. The application, ranking and contracting period usually runs from Fall to Spring with practices being completed during the first 12 months after contracting.
Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP)
is a USDA-NRCS program aimed at working with landowners to create viable habitat for wildlife through improved management of natural resources.
Agricultural Resource Conservation Fund (ARCF)
is a program provided by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) to help agricultural producers implement Best Management Practices (BMP’s) that will help improve water quality.
Please contact 731-412-3106 or 731-412-3104 if you are interested in any offered programs
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact USDA's TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600 (voice and TDD). To file a complaint of discrimination write to USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250-9410 or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720-6382 (TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.