By Brian Lang and Erika Lundy–Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
Grain and livestock farmers can both benefit from the recent rule change by the United States Department of Agriculture, which allows farmers who planted cover crops on prevented plant acres to harvest those fields beginning September 1st.
With the change, farmers can grow hay, graze, or chop those fields, and the USDA also has determined that silage, haylage, and baleage should be treated the same as haying and grazing for this year.
The adjustment allows farmers to harvest cover crops on prevented plant acres two months earlier than most years, which will be beneficial in a year when both grain and forage crops are limited.
Brian Lang, field agronomist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISU), said most years farmers are not allowed to harvest their prevented planting cover crops until November 1st, which greatly limits choices of what crops would provide a quality, harvestable forage product at that time.
“Before, we were trying to guess when we should plant something that would be in good condition for harvest after November 1st, but now we have incredible flexibility, with more time for optimal harvest of a given forage,” Lang said.
Iowa farmers are most likely done planting warm season cover crops, but Lang said they can still plant cool season species, like oats for hay, haylage, or grazing, and oat-brassicas for grazing, and expect a decent return as long as they are planted by August. Farmers looking to add hay or pastureland for the next few years could also consider an August planting of alfalfa or other desirable perennial forages.
Iowa State beef specialists published an article titled “Alternative Annual Forages” (IBC 136) in May, which helps farmers compare planting and maturity dates for various species of forages, including their nutritional value.
Grain farmers with no livestock can still realize the conservation benefits of a cover crop, and if they have a neighbor with livestock, or an auction market nearby, they may be able to sell harvested forages.
“It’s not a guaranteed money maker, but a grain farmer may have a neighbor who has the equipment to harvest it out of the field,” Lang said.
Erika Lundy, beef specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach, said the earlier harvest date will definitely make a difference for Iowa cattle producers who are struggling in a year of limited forages.
“This really increases the chances that the cover crop is going to still be growing and vegetative at harvest, which will aid in higher feed quality of those cover crops,” Lundy said.
Feed costs make up the largest expense for the cow herd, so any opportunity to extend the grazing season decreases this large production expense. Harvesting the cover crop forage will also likely be at a lower cost than purchasing outside forage sources for many producers.
However, Lang and Lundy both advised that each operation is unique, and the benefits of using a cover crop as a forage can vary greatly by farm location, and the type of crop grown.
Lundy said it’s also important that producers consider whether nitrogen had been applied to the fields where cover crops were later planted, at what level, and whether there is a nitrate issue. Prior herbicide use should also be considered to ensure cover crops can be legally and safely grazed or harvested.
The nutritional value of cover crops varies greatly by species and maturity at harvest and tends to be fairly different from typical hay sources producers are used to dealing with. Therefore, Lundy said producers should spend the $20-$30 it takes to submit a feed sample to determine the nutrient quality of the feedstuff and how to best utilize the feed to meet cattle requirements, while managing feed costs.