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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Forages > Seasonal forage quality changes and growth of cattle grazing cover crops

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Seasonal forage quality changes and growth of cattle grazing cover crops

Brad Heins

It is well established that winter cover crops, when used in rotation with other crops, improve soil health. Cover crops are commonly used as a “green manure” or harvested for grain and straw. However, they could potentially be grazed with livestock in the early spring and summer.

Grazing is a low-input method to feed livestock which could improve soil health by adding fresh manure to the field or pastures. Integrating crops and livestock on a multi-function operation could have multiple benefits to farmers and improve the profitability of these kinds of operations.

The U of M collaborates on research project

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, and Rodale Institute are collaborating on a 4-year project funded by the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative. They are evaluating the production, environmental, and economic benefits of growing cash crops with forage crops for grazing, including small grains and hay crops for livestock feed.

They are comparing two crop rotations: pasture-winter wheat-soybean-pasture and pasture-winter rye/hairy vetch-corn-pasture. And grazing dairy steers on the cover crops as a method of integrating livestock and organic cropping systems.

At the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center’s organic dairy in Morris, Minnesota, the dairy bull calves are:

Researchers there are grazing steers on a pasture divided in half for the two crop sequences.

These pastures are separated into 15 paddocks, with a non-grazed enclosure in each paddock.

Winter wheat and winter rye forages were planted on September 11, 2015, for grazing during spring 2016. During that spring, calves were randomly assigned to replicated groups (winter wheat or winter rye), but balanced by breed group to reduce potential breed bias. Twelve-month-old dairy steers started grazing the wheat and rye pastures on April 25, 2016. Forage samples were collected when steers moved to new paddocks, which was about every three days.

Winter rye (2,626 lb. DM/acre) had greater herbage mass compared to winter wheat (2,021 lb. DM/acre). Crude protein was very high in both the winter wheat and winter rye across the grazing season, which lasted until June 14, 2016, for these grasses. From early May through the end of the grazing season, the crude protein was lower than at the start of grazing. However, the steers were probably more efficient at utilizing the protein when it was lower compared to high protein levels observed during late April.

Digestibility of the winter wheat and rye also was very high. As the wheat and rye matured, the digestibility was lower. However, the dairy steers grazed each paddock and wheat and rye four times in a 2-month period.

Meat quality benefits

Holstein and MVH crossbred steers did not differ in body weight between cover crops throughout the grazing season. However, NJV crossbred steers grazing winter wheat tended to be heavier than NJV steers grazing winter rye throughout the grazing season.

For average daily gain, breed groups did not differ throughout the grazing season. At harvest, MVH and HOL steers weighed more than NJV steers, and steers grazed on winter wheat (483 kg) weighed more than steers grazed on winter rye (458 kg). Dressing percent, marbling score, back fat, ribeye area, and yield grade were not different between breeds or cover crops.

Beef from steers grazing winter wheat had higher flavor, texture, juiciness, and lower toughness and off-flavor, and were liked best overall, compared to beef from steers grazing winter rye.

The NJV steaks had better texture and lower toughness compared to steaks from both MVH and HOL. NJV and MVH steaks had higher juiciness than HOL steaks. The NJV steaks had better flavor and scored better overall than HOL steaks.

The omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids were not different between steers that grazed winter wheat compared to winter rye. From this study, cover crops did not influence omega-6 or omega-3 fatty acid concentration in the fat of beef. The omega-3 fatty acid concentration was higher in fat from MVH steers compared to HOL fat. The omega-6/3 ratio was higher in HOL back fat compared to NJV and MVH back fat. Although these steers were finished on a forage diet, they received grain during the pre- and post-weaning stages. This may have influenced the higher omega-6/3 ratio in this study than steers fed a no-grain diet throughout their lifetime.

Ongoing trials hope to yield more discoveries

In this study, the wheat and rye cover crops were ready to graze three weeks earlier than other perennial pastures on the farm. This study not only applies to grazing steers, but to grazing dairy cows as well. By grazing cover crops, we were able to start grazing three weeks earlier in the grazing season and graze the system three times through with about 16 days of rest between grazing periods. Grazing winter wheat and winter rye are both feasible in the early spring and summer.

The integration of livestock in organic cropping systems is a prerequisite for long-term agricultural stability. We are studying methods to integrate crops and livestock to determine this model’s effect on animal performance, crop productivity (including small grains for grazing), soil quality, food safety and social acceptance. During the third year of the project, organic row crops will be harvested and crop/livestock budgets will be produced.

September 2017

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