by: Sammy Blossom
NRCS Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative

Interest in planting cover crops on Mississippi row crop acres continues to grow, along with interest in adding livestock grazing on those acres. Cover crops have been used by growers of cash crops for many years to solve a number of problems. Erosion, water quality, nutrient loss, compaction, organic matter, and conversion to no-till planting have all been addressed by the use of cover crops.

Norway Farms in Yazoo County had been using cover crops on their grain fields for six years when they began using stocker steers and heifers to utilize the forage. “We recently completed our second year with cattle and have learned a lot about managing during some difficult times,” says Norway Farms owner Rob Coker. “Dry weather in the fall and a wet spring have been challenging conditions for grazing.”

Michael Owens handles the cattle and grazing for several operations including Norway Farms. “Without existing facilities to handle cattle on most fields, we use power fencing and portable corrals,” says Owens. “Portable waterers and mineral feeders follow the cattle as they are moved through the grazing cells.” The cattle are rotated through grazing paddocks with moves being made one to three days apart.

Seed was flown into standing corn in August on part of the acreage. Following corn harvest, the remaining fields were drilled using a mixture of seed varieties. Crops including triticale, vetch, radishes, cereal rye, mustard, clover, and winter peas have been used successfully.

Cowpeas, pearl millet, sunflowers, Japanese millet, sugar beets, buckwheat, and plantain have all been planted for summer cover crops. Coker says cover crops are used in certain fields to solve problems such as compaction, fall weeds, and transitioning to no-till planting. He has used cover crops successfully when moving from cotton to grain.

A summer annual has also been used but Owens says a group of cattle grazed on sorghum-sudangrass hybrid presented several challenges. “Managing the growth of the grass was difficult because of erratic rainfall and an infestation of aphids. With limited access to shade around the edge of the field and the problem of hauling water, we decided against using a summer annual this year,” said Owens.

Dan Prevost, Project Manager with Delta F.A.R.M. and Field Conservationist says grazing cover crops complements their Healthy Soils Initiative for many farmers. “Grazing is an excellent complement to utilize a cover crop between a corn/cotton rotation,” says Prevost. “The later planting date for cotton lets cattle stay on the field longer during their peak period for gain in the spring.”

Growers cite a variety of advantages from planting cover crops. Keeping the soil surface covered, along with the presence of living roots and the residue left behind all enhance the health of microorganisms under the surface. Less frequent tillage combined with the added plant residue results in a noticeable increase in earthworm populations. Improved aggregation and soil structure will make for quicker water infiltration rates and better tolerance for periods of drought.

NRCS offers financial along with technical assistance for cover crops through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (E.Q.I.P.). The practice can complement a complete farm conservation plan.

At Norway Farms, the cattle were loaded out in late March, just in time to burn down the remaining forage and plant corn. Everyone involved in the operation emphasized the need to be flexible and ready to adapt to changes brought on by the weather and conditions in the field. “We had a plan when we started, but Mother Nature had her own idea and we changed to suit the conditions,” said Owens.

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