by: Clifford Mitchell

Managing forage systems is a vital part of most beef operations. High feed and fuel costs coupled with the lack of experienced labor continue to push the envelope for operations looking to save dollars and maintain profitability. Cover crops, legumes, pasture rotations and winter annuals used in combination with perennial forages may help close gaps in forage quality and help maintain soil quality.

“A forage system designed to close nutritional gaps to reduce supplementation will save dollars in the long sun,” says Dr. Rocky Lemus, Extension Forage Specialist, Mississippi State University.

“This is a relatively new concept in our part of the world and we have a few progressive grazers willing to try these alternatives to improve the forage system. We are still gathering data to measure effectiveness,” says Dr. Ed Twidwell, Extension Forage Specialist, LSU AgCenter.

Finding the proper combinations that work to maintain forage systems is something unique to each operation. Cover crops and legumes often find different places and serve special purpose within each system.

“Most of our producers are trying to find combinations that work to plant no till in October or earlier in prepared seed beds,” Twidwell says. “Rye grass and clovers are longstanding alternatives. There is a lot of potential for radishes and turnips in our area.”

“Cover crops and legumes serve a little different purpose, but both provide advantages in any forage system,” Lemus says. “These crops can improve soil quality and provide extended or higher quality grazing when used correctly.”

Maintaining soil quality and health is a big job. Proper soil management will allow the operation to get the most out of its forage system.

“Planting radishes is growing in popularity, especially in fields where increased compaction is seen. Radishes develop deeper root systems that allow for increased water infiltration and improve organic matter (OM),” Lemus says. “Organic matter is one of the key ingredients to maintaining soil health and water retention. A more diverse group of microbial organisms is created, which makes more nutrients readily available for uptake.”

“There is a lot of potential for turnips and radishes in our area. I am not sure what benefit they will have to grazing, but they should improve soil quality. I have concerns with winter hardiness of these crops,” Twidwell says. “Radishes and turnips have the potential to produce root systems that allow for access to nutrients deeper in the soil and improve water infiltration. This is a new concept that sounds good in theory, but we're still working to identify which crops work.”

Cover crops also have the potential to help condition the soil and reclaim a piece of ground to take it to the next stage of production. Properly rotating stands can provide additional grazing when done correctly.

“Reclaiming an alfalfa field can provide benefits to the forage system. Planting radishes early provides a quick germination crop that will decompose quickly and it will prevent soil erosion,” Lemus says. “After three years, only 40 percent of the stand remains. Use the cover crops to transition into something like pearl millet, which can be used for hay or grazing, then you are ready to renew the alfalfa field or establish Bermuda grass. A combination of annuals and perennials used in this manner improves soil quality with the added benefit of grazing those crops.”

Legumes are a standby component of most grazing systems. The high quality forage, plus the added benefits of putting nitrogen into to the soil are well known by most cattlemen. Extending the grazing season and letting cows harvest forage, could decrease feed costs.

“Inter-seeding white clover into Bermuda grass can provide extra nitrogen if it is allowed to die out and decompose. If you graze the white clover for extended grazing in the fall to help decrease supplementation costs, you might not see that,” Lemus says. “The clovers allow you to extend the grazing period with high quality forage. Berseem clover and annual rye grass or small grains are a good combination. This species has a high tolerance to wet soils and a very low bloat potential. In May, when the rye grass goes to seed, the late maturing clover provides high quality grazing until summer pasture.”

“Clovers have a lot of potential to extend the grazing season and provide some nitrogen to the soil. White clover works well to extend grazing up into summer months,” Twidwell says. “I am a real big fan of incorporating clovers into the grazing system. Our winter grazing program mainly consists of high quality crops like rye grass or oats. Most clovers are winter hardy and come on in the spring to help get to your summer grass.”

Weed control is another benefit of a good forage system. These crops provide competition to undesirable species.

“Our weed control mainly is in the early spring to control some of these species that invade pastures. We don't have too much of an issue in the winter, except with two species and they are pretty easily controlled,” Twidwell says. “In our rye grass and clover fields it is sometimes difficult to control broad leaf weeds, but the increase in competition usually helps manage the weed populations.”

“Cover crops provide species diversity and improve forge quality compared to what is available at certain times of the year,” Lemus says. “When you plant these cover crops and get a good stand, you not only close the gap from a nutritional requirement standpoint, but also help decrease weed populations because something is growing when the Bermuda is dormant.”

Proper use of these high quality alternatives has more benefits to the operation than are readily seen. Decreases in feed costs or an improvement in forage quality come to the forefront, but a chain of events come into play that will help the whole system.

“These crops improve grazing and when they decompose they provide nutrients that can be used by the grass. Inter-seeding alfalfa into Bermuda grass increases inputs and management to properly maintain; however, on year with adequate rainfall it could increase tonnage by 10 to 15 percent. If proper cutting intervals are maintained a significant increase in hay quality could be achieved, especially in the first cutting,” Lemus says. “Perennial clovers are a lot less maintenance and don't have to be planted every year if you let them go to seed at least once a year.”

Rotating livestock to take advantage of these cover crops also helps the forage system. It adds another component to soil management which helps utilize everything that is produced. “More rotations allow for better manure management and distribution of those nutrients by creating your own recycling system,” Lemus states.

Establishing a forage system will help the bottom line in the long run. Properly managing that system will take on different rolls with each operation. The right balance of cover crops and legumes will be determined over time.

“Using cover crops and legumes to close nutritional gaps to reduce supplementation will save money when you look at the “big picture” over time. Extra days of grazing reduce inputs and proper rotations allow plants to recover. Making and feeding hay is very time consuming,” Lemus says. “A viable forage system doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as simple as cool season, winter annuals and clovers to transition into summer grazing. When you get used to it, cover crops, rotations, winter annuals and perennials can be a very efficient system.”

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