Utilizing cover crops to increase productivity, health - vigor on tame grass pasture

Final Report for FNC13-908

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $6,904.86
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Donnie Feiring
Feiring's Cattle Co.
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Project Information


My wife, 2 young daughters and I operate a 120-head registered Black Angus cow calf operation. We also run 35 head of commercial yearling heifers. I have been ranching since 1992. We both attended North Dakota State University and studied in Animal and Range Science. We own 800 acres of land and rent an additional 800 acres. We are strictly a livestock enterprise and do not raise any cash crops. We utilize a prescribed grazing system, along with a high stock density grazing system. We work very hard to include our young daughters in every aspect of the ranching operation.

We have taken the Introduction to Holistic Resource Management course, the Financial Holistic Management course and are currently taking the Holistic Management Grazing Planning course webinar series. We have been utilizing a prescribed grazing system for five years. This system has allowed us to improve rangeland health, increase the recovery periods and improve diversity of species on our rangeland.

We would like to improve the health, vigor and productivity of 50 acres of tame grass pasture. These acres were cropped at one point in time and then seeded back to smooth bromegrass about 30 years ago. The productivity, health and vigor of the plants are declining and they are becoming less productive every year. We currently do not own any equipment and would prefer to not farm these acres. We are looking at nontraditional ways of rejuvenating the pasture without using conventional tillage practices. Our goal is to do more, with less.

Goals –
a. To do more with less.
b. To increase production on our tame grass by utilizing cover crops.
c. To improve soil health, increase water infiltration, improve mineral cycling and increase organic matter on our land.
d. To become more sustainable.
e. To increase the amount of production so that we can decrease the amount of hay that we have to purchase and transport onsite.

Process –
a. 2013 - For our project we seeded 20 acres to a multi specie cover crop mix into a declining brome grass stand. During the winter of 2012-2013, the area was grazed by 52 head of bred heifers. A portion of the area was bale grazed. On June 13th, Mike Gerbig, Area Rangeland Management Specialist with NRCS, conducted soil biology and infiltration tests. He conducted one of the tests within the 20 acre area. Three more tests were conducted in the brome grass area and an additional test was performed on the same soil type across the fence on native sod. The 20 acres was sprayed on June 24th with 30 oz. of GlyStar Plus. The area was then seeded to a multi species cover crop on June 26th. The mix consisted of Nitro radish, Hunter hybrid turnip, cowpeas, Non GMO soybeans, sorghum/sudan, Pearl millet. It was inoculated with Micro Noc inoculant. The cover crop was seeded into adequate moisture, but then we didn’t receive any moisture until July 9th. The areas that were bale grazed were able to hold enough moisture for the cover crop to thrive. The rest of the field, which was a majority of the 20 acres didn’t grow too well. The sorghum/sudan grew to about knee high. The turnips and radishes got about an inch out of the ground and then it got too hot for them. We allowed the cover crop to grow until October 10th. We installed a single wire electric fence around the 20 acres. We allowed 14 head of coming 2 year old bulls to graze the area from October 10th until November 16th without any supplementation.
b. 2014 – During the winter of 2013-2014 we bale grazed as many acres of the 40 acres as possible. The 20 acres that were planted in 2013 were not sprayed in 2014. The cover crop was planted on that 20 acres (west 20) on June 5th. We also added another 20 acres (east 20) to the trial. They were planted on June 10th. These 20 acres were not sprayed either, but instead were heavily grazed by 40 pairs for 12 days. The cover crop mix utilized in both locations consisted of 1# of Nitro radish, 1# of Hunter hybrid turnip, 1# of Winfred kale, 7.5# of nonGMO soybean, 7.5# of sorghum-sedan, 5# of BMR grazing corn, 1# of sunflowers and 5# of hairy vetch. It was inoculated with Micro Noc inoculant. The locations were seeded into adequate moisture. The west 20 did well and produced more than it did in 2013. The east 20, without any chemical to set the grass back, was basically a failure. The soybeans were the only plant that grew amongst the grass over the summer. We allowed the west 20 acres to grow until October 13th. We installed a single wire electric fence around the 20 acres and allowed 28 head of coming 2 year old bulls to graze the area from October 13th until November 8th (when we started supplementing them with hay).

• James Zielsdorf, local farmer, seeded the cover crop for us in 2013.
• We hired the Golden Valley Soil Conservation District in 2014 to seed the cover crop.
• Mike Gerbig, Area Rangeland Management Specialist with NRCS, conducted soil biology and infiltration tests. He conducted one of the tests within the 20 acre area. Three more tests were conducted in the brome grass area and an additional test was performed on the same soil type across the fence on native sod.
• Ashley Ueckert, Golden Valley County Extension Agent, helped us organize and promote the tours, as well as, develop the cover crop mixes that we utilized.

One observation that hasn’t changed during the project is that there is a tremendous difference between the growth of the cover crops on the bale grazed areas versus the growth of the cover crops on the non-bale grazed areas. The bale grazed rings stayed cooler, held more moisture and had more organic matter. They also had quadruple the production as the rest of acres planted. They were also the first areas that the cattle grazed when they were turned in.

We learned the following:
a. Organic matter is the key to success whether you are rejuvenating a tame grass stand or trying to establish a tame grass seeding.
b. Smooth brome loves nitrogen and we were not willing to add commercial fertilizer. The brome started to thrive in the areas where we bale grazed and there was an additional buildup of dung and urine from the cattle.
c. Smooth brome roots cannot penetrate our 7” plow pan that has been there since 1983 when this area was planted back to grass. It needs help from the cover crops to break through the compaction layer, build organic matter and increase the nutrient availability to the plants.
d. We started this process not wanting to farm, but have altered our options on how we can add cover crops to our existing system and not have to own equipment by hiring the local Soil Conservation District to seed the cover crops for us.
e. We would like to add cover crops to our ranching operation on a permanent basis.

We are not sure if we overcame our barrier at this point in time. We have increased our organic matter, improved soil health and increased production on the 40 acres under our SARE project. We plan to continue using cover crops on these 40 acres and possibly more acres in the future. The advantages of implementing this project are being able to look outside the box and try new things. The disadvantages are the risk of total failure. We believe in learning from both successes and failures. We would definitely recommend using this method to other farmers or ranchers, but with a few modifications to the process. We don’t think there is any reason to till an existing stand of tame grass, farm it for a few years and then plant it back to grass if your goal is to have it in grass. By utilizing techniques such as cover crops, bale grazing and high stock density grazing, we believe that the land can be improved without tilling it and replanting it.

On September 18, 2013, we hosted a cover crop tour in cooperation with the Golden Valley Soil Conservation District (GVSCD), Golden Valley County Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. There were 15 producers in attendance, as well as, numerous agency individuals. The tour was advertised through the Extension newsletter, GVSCD Newsletter and by personal phone contacts.

On September 24, 2014, we hosted a ND Grazing Lands Coalition pasture walk. There were 32 people on the tour from across North Dakota. The tour was advertised through the ND Grazing Lands Coalition, the GVSCD Newsletter and the NDSU Extension Newsletter for Golden Valley County.

On January 24, 2015, Donnie was invited to attend and present at the NPSAS Meeting in Aberdeen, SD. He was one of the people on a Farmer/Producer panel. He presented a Powerpoint style presentation to approximately 15-20 people. This event was advertised through the NPSAS. A video recording of this presentation can be viewed online through NCR-SARE's YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/v5Vt6bxkYYU?list=PLQLK9r1ZBhhFIETmMLo1dZBEVYZWXBIM1

Project Objectives:

* Bale graze the entire area where the 4 plots will be set up during the winter of 2012-13.
* Move the cows to a native grass pasture during calving, which will start April 15th.
*Allow the brome grass to grow to boot stage.
* Conduct soil samples to attain biological and chemical analysis prior to starting the project.
* Spray the 20 acres with Roundup to set the grass back around June 1st.
* Seed 20 acres to a multi specie cover crop mix on June 15th.
* Monitor plots with photos.
* Host a stop on the 2013 Golden Valley Crop tour in July.
* Electric fence the area to be grazed - September 15th.
* Strip graze the 20 acres of cover crop starting October 1st. We plan to graze the 20 acres of cover crop utilizing high stock density grazing techniques with approximately 100,000 pounds per acre depending on cattle needs, performance and available forage.
* In 2014, we would bale graze the 20 acres that were seeded to cover crop in 2013 and seed another 20 acres to multi specie cover crop.
* When the project is complete, there will be 10 acres that have had nothing done to them, 20 acres that had cover crop and then bale grazed, 20 acres that had only cover crop and 20 acres that had only bale grazing.
* Once the project is complete in 2014, we would like to host a range tour to share the results.
* Conduct soil samples to attain biological and chemical analysis after completing the project.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Donnie Feiring
  • Mike Gerbig
  • Ashley Ueckert


Participation Summary

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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.