Maximizing Profits by Grazing a Winter Cover Crop and Monitoring Nutrient Availability for the Subsequent Corn Crop

Final Report for FNC00-310

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2000: $4,250.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


At the time of the grant proposal our operation was a 325 acre family operation operated by William & Christine with some labor contributed by William’s father. Our primary income from the farm had been from corn, soybeans & hay, but due to the low profitability of grain we had been increasing our beef cow herd rapidly and in the years 1999-2000 we had increased to 54 head of brood cattle. Our concerns over erosion in row cropped fields had led us to planting poorly drained or HEL ground into Switchgrass, improved fescue, or other improved grasses & legumes. Our 4 years experience with Management Intensive Grazing had shown we could increase profits per acre through grazing, stop erosion and even increase soil fertility and the soils capacity to hold water. Our next concern was controlling water and wind erosion during the winter on the row cropped fields.

Our goal for this project was to address those concerns about water and wind erosion while increasing profitability from our farm using current acreage and beef cattle. Our plan was to plant winter rye after harvesting soybeans on a 45 acre field. We would use different nitrogen applications to determine the effect on yield, and rotationally graze the paddocks. We held our feeder calves through the winter so we could use them to graze, as well as grazing the brood cow herd. We purchased a scale to measure the weight gain on the feeders, but only used a visual Body Condition Score on the brood cows to measure growth. We also wanted to observe how the different rates of nitrogen applied to the rye would affect the corn yields following the rye.

Larry Eubanks of the Preble County Extension service provided research done by Ohio State University regarding fertilization and planting rates of cereal rye for grazing. Harvest Land of Eaton Ohio took soil samples and tissue samples of the rye. Plans for a field day were cancelled due to a death in the family, in place of that community outreach a reporter for Farm World, a weekly farm magazine serving OH, IN, IL, KY, MI, & TN, did a feature story on this project. I developed a website for our farm and included pages for the research project to post pictures and results. A link to SARE was included. The home page of my site can be found at

Results of grazing the brood cows with calves by side were very positive. The cows gained an average of 1 point on the BCS scale while milking heavily with young calves by their side. Weight gains for the feeder cattle were variable. As expected by data we had researched elsewhere, the feeders over 800 lbs gained less than the average, with the heaviest actually losing weight on the rye. The average weight gain was .925 lbs/day, with the high being 2.41 lbs/day and a low being a loss of 1.86 lbs/day. A scale was installed to have accurate weights on the feeder calves.

Yields on the rye ranged from 1,500 lbs of dry matter per acre to 4,500 lbs per acre. P & K were applied in the fall per soil test recommendations; N was applied at 50 lbs/acre for the whole field. In the spring, March 6, N was applied at varying rates, replicated 3 times in the field. The first plot got 25 lbs additional N, the second plot got 50 lbs/acre, the third plot got 75 lbs/acre, the fourth plot received 100 lbs/acre; with 3 replications of this pattern. Yields increased proportionately with the applications of N. Yields were 1500, 2500, 3500, & 4500 lbs/acre. Each replication showed the same results. Tissue samples of the rye were submitted to get a feed analysis but a mix up resulted in tests being done to analyze nutrient availability for harvesting the rye as a grain crop. That did reveal that we had not reached the threshold for N application even with the heaviest application of N. Yields were estimated with a pasture measuring stick, and also comparing estimates on how much hay was needed to feed the cattle daily before going on the rye. Waste of the rye was about 20%. Most of that was due to it going to head before we got it all grazed a second time. Grazing could have started a week earlier to utilize it more effectively.

This project was a success in controlling erosion. There was no measurable water runoff, or soil erosion from wind. Corn yields following the rye were too variable to consider. A wet June after planting affected the yields more than the N application to the rye did. We learned N applications of up to 150 lbs/acre in split applications would yield progressively more grazing of the rye. Some years we have been able to graze as early as late February, some as late mid April. In southwestern Ohio, where we are located, the rye works better for grazing brood cows. To effectively use feeder calves we felt we should have just limited it to summer and fall born calves. The early spring yearlings we turned out were too close to finishing and actually lost finish on the grass with the change in their diet. We also made a change in our cattle herd at the end of May of that year. We had the opportunity to buy a whole herd of registered Herefords, so we sold the majority of our crossbred cattle that we had purchased in the previous years. A more uniform set of genetics allow us to treat them alike. The English genetics in the Hereford breed predispose them to gain better on straight grass. The mixed genetics we had in the original herd resulted in uneven performance, some performed better on a high grain diet, some performed better on grass.

Another main effort in this project was to develop a water source for the pastures. We had a central area that reportedly had a spring. We wanted to tile this to a water tank and also to pipe water across fields to other pastures. Much brush, old fence, tires, and other debris was removed. Several holes were dug, but no water emerged. A secondary site was selected and plans were changed. Instead of a spring fed water tank, a cistern/well was dug. A pump was inserted with electric run from the nearby barn. The capacity has easily run over 1000 gallons/day. Underground pipes run to the barn, corral, and field. Future plans include laying above ground pipe to further pastures for summer use. A year after the original site was cleared water began to weep from one area. The water has increased in volume and we will install a water tank as originally planned in that area.

One cropping change we made since the project was to switch from corn to raising sudex (sorghum/sudan cross). We graze or hay it, and can more easily get the rye in for winter and early spring grazing. We also plant perennial ryegrass and Italian ryegrass for grazing now. Each type has proven to be excellent for production.

As continued outreach we joined a sustainable ag group in Ohio which has an emphasis on sustainable farming and conserving resources. We still plan on a farm tour in the future to promote rotational grazing with an emphasis on varied grazing crops selected to work with the existing soil types and drainage structures. We have a good working relationship with our local OH Dept of Natural Resource employees. We have an abundance of wildlife due to our grazing and cropping plan, they trap Bobwhite quail from our farm for repopulating other areas of Ohio. Continued use of cover crops has conserved soil and water on this farm. Keeping the cattle grazing more days of the year has minimized the use of mechanical harvesting and eliminated worries about waste handling.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.