On a calm, cool afternoon in November 2019, a harvested field on Dale Meierbachtol’s farm in Belle Plaine was still hard at work. While most farmers had closed their operations for the season, 18 acres of inter-seeded cover crops were still providing grazing forage for a herd of cattle run by the Meierbachtol family.
Cover crops are well known for their soil health benefits. Farmers use cover crops as a means to reduce soil erosion, pests, weeds, and diseases. They also improve soil stability, resilience, and biodiversity. Cover crops leave residual organic matter after cash crops are harvested, which is left on fields throughout the winter to add cover and reduce soil loss from erosion. The next spring, this crop will decompose and return valuable nutrients to the soil.
In the Meierbachtol’s case, they’ve found another use for the cover crops left behind: Grazing.
Dale Meierbachtol, with the help of his son Adam, started their cover crop journey two years ago when they reached out to Scott SWCD Engineering Technician, Todd Kavitz. They had worked with the SWCD before, installing grassed waterways and grade stabilization structures on their various properties. So, they were no stranger to sustainable farming practices. In the case of cover crops, the family knew they wanted to extend the grazing season for their cattle and the interseeded cover crop was the best option. Grazing cover crops was the perfect solution. Working with Kavitz, they came up with a three-year seeding plan under the SWCD cost-share program. They developed an initial cover crop seed mix that consisted of Annual Ryegrass, Purple Top Turnip, Chicory, Sorghum, Berseem Clover, and Common Vetch for their first year. They inter-seeded on June 13, 2018 on a total of 18 acres, using the SWCD’s inter-seeder which drills two rows 10 inches apart between the corn rows.
Learning from the first year, they modified the seed mix in 2019 to have more nitrogen-rich legumes. Their seed mix consisted of Annual Ryegrass, Rapeseed, Hairy Vetch, Field Pea, Crimson Clover, Purple Top Turnip, and Daikon Radish. They inter-seeded into corn on June 13 again, and enjoyed a warmer fall than 2018. The seed mix in 2019 saw more success with the earlier corn harvest, and with the use of more shade tolerant species.
The Meierbachtol’s biggest benefit came when their cattle grazed the cover crop mix and corn stubble in October and November. Biomass testing of the cover crops before grazing measured 2200lbs/ac of available forage.
Typically, once crops are harvested, that signals the end of the season for farmers. But in the Meierbachtol’s case, their cover crop plot allowed for 18 acres of land that remained productive after their corn was harvested. “Two weeks where the cattle can graze on the field is two weeks we don’t have to provide them feed,” says Adam. The benefits of grazing cover crops are immediate, tangible, and practical.
Due to the wet growing season last year, the Meierbachtol’s harvested their crop later than normal, shortening their potential grazing season. This year, they’re hoping for a dryer season, and they also plan to plant early, harvest early, and use the same seed mix as last year.
If the Meierbachtol’s had any advice for farmers looking to graze cover crops for the first time, it would be to go into it with an open mind.
“It’s a lot of trial and error at first. It’s best to try it on a smaller scale, and work your way up once that trial period is over,” says Adam.
Part of the experimentation of that trial period is aided by the cost-share and technical assistance programs from the Scott SWCD. SWCD technicians were always available to provide assistance with everything from seed mixes, equipment rental and calibration, seeding plans and more. After these three years of trial are over, the Meierbachtol’s will go into their fourth year of cover crops confident in their ability to maintain the practice independently and gain an additional profit from their cattle operation.
If you are interested in implementing cover crops into your farming practices, or learning more about what local farmers are doing to protect our natural resources, the Scott SWCD office wants to help! The SWCD offers technical assistance and information, as well as equipment rental for inter-seeders and other equipment for sustainable farming practices. They can also discuss cost share options that you may be eligible for. To get the process started, give our office a call!