Building sustainable relationships around the use of grazing cover crops on dairy and livestock farms in Southern Wisconsin

Final report for ONC19-063

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2019: $39,900.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2022
Grant Recipient: Dane County Land Conservation
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Marie Raboin
Dane County Land Conservation
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Project Information


Wisconsin loses on average of one dairy farm per day.  The price of milk, regardless of trade deals, is not going to significantly increase in the near future.  Livestock producers, both large and small, need to find innovative ways to reduce input costs and improve profitability. Grazing of fall-planted cover crops can significantly reduce feed costs when properly managed.  In addition to providing an additional source of forage, cover crops reduce soil erosion, improve soil microbiology, increase infiltration and sequester carbon.  This project will promote the use of cover crops by making an economical and environmental sustainability case on livestock farms in Southern Wisconsin.  There is evidence from other areas that this is a successful practice, but examples of farms in Southern Wisconsin is needed to promote the practice in this dairy heavy agricultural area.  Farmers respect and learn from other farmers.  This project will be successful because it will focus on pairing farmers who utilize cover crops for grazing from other areas in the state with farmers in Southern Wisconsin.  Several farms in Southern Wisconsin are interested in this practice, but need the support of experienced farmers to be successful.

Project Objectives:

By promoting the idea of a farming community, the objective of this project is to  support livestock farms to implement the practice of grazing fall planted cover crops leading to a wider spread implementation of this practice across the Southern Wisconsin landscape.  This will be accomplished by utilizing existing knowledge of farmers around the state paired with institutional knowledge from local extension and county agency staff.  At the end of the 2 year project we will have introduced this management practice to a wide range of farmers and conservation staff through a network of farms using the practice.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Chelsea Zegler (Educator and Researcher)


Involves research:
Materials and methods:

We had individual farmers decide what cover crops they would utilize for forage and then followed up with calculating forage utilization through grazing or clipping covers before they were grazed.  This way each farm could utilize a different crop depending on their forage needs as well as use the equipment for establishment that they had available.  As these farmers and others gain experience, they can modify crop rotations and equipment to support grazing practices.  Examples of how each farmer participated is described below.

  • Ron (beef) planted a diverse cover crop following wheat and then grazed that cover late in the fall.  He found a benefit in that he needed less feed going into winter and had less manure to haul.  He was able to utilize a diverse mix after wheat, but choose to aerial apply cereal rye onto a standing soybean crop to extend the grazing season in the spring or utilize the crop for forage.
  • James (beef and dairy) harvested cereal rye in the spring for feed, followed the rye with a 4 way annual forage mix of forage sorghum, vetch, berseem clover and annual rye. Since this crop comes off early he was able to follow up with forage oats and cereal rye which will be grazed off this spring.  The advantage of this alternative cropping/grazing system is that James had over 10'' of cover crop growth early in fall to spread liquid manure on and will still be able to graze the crop in the spring.
  • Kevin (beef) utilizes both annual forage rotations as well as his alternative year in sweet corn production to grow and graze cover crops.  Instead of rotation large scale sweet corn production with soybeans, he is able to establish an early season cover crop for grazing extension in the fall as well as produce a diverse forage mix in-between sweet corn crops.  
  • Curt (beef) started to incorporate cereal rye into a traditional corn and soybean rotation while fencing his farm to allow for grazing of cover crops.  Because he is just incorporating winter wheat back into his rotation, he relied on aerial seeding of cover crops, but will start direct seeding a diverse mix for grazing in 2021.
  • Aaron (dairy) seeded rye in fall and will interseed forage oats and annual rye into the stand to ensure a high density stand for grazing and/or mechanical harvest depending on weather.  He also planted annual rye and red clover after silage for early spring grazing.  After forage sorghum was mechanically harvested for feed he planted buckwheat, sunhemp, cowpea and sudan grass for a potential late fall graze.
  • Karl (beef) has tried it all.  He interseeded both 30" and 60" corn silage and corn snaplage in mid-June of 2020.  This field was grazed in the fall.  A majority of the field was interseeded with a modified no-till drill with annual rye grass, cow peas, soybeans, clovers and radish.  The annual rye and cowpeas seem to dominate the total cover crop biomass.  He has also established red clover in forage sorghum to increase protein content and maintain soil cover overwinter.  He will then utilize his in-row roller crimper to plant silage corn into standing red clover.  He will determine if he needs to chemically terminate the red clover if mechanical termination is not successful.  
Research results and discussion:



The table above is the yield for interseeded cover crops on Karl's farm.  Yield was calculated using quadrat clippings from different species or mixes.  Samples were sent in for standard forage analysis.  We plan to continue to collect yield data on all farms participating in the project in 2021.  Due to extenuating circumstances, we were not able to collect as much yield data as we anticipated in 2020.  However, producers will have had a year to determine what works best on their farm, with their equipment and what best suits their forage needs going into the 2021 cropping season.

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

15 Consultations
6 On-farm demonstrations
3 Tours
10 Webinars / talks / presentations
16 Workshop field days
6 Other educational activities: We created a YouTube Channel called "Lawn Chair Farming" with 6 episodes so far.

Participation Summary:

120 Farmers participated
100 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

All five farms either grazing or harvested cover crops for forage in 2019.  Forage quantities were collected or estimated based on grazing days available.  Data was presented at several conferences in both 2019 and 2020 including, Green Lands Blue Waters, MOSES, and Wisconsin Land and Water Conference.  A field day at Kevin Opperman's Farm on July 30th attracted over 100 participants, both farmers and educators.  A workshop was held in March that brought 4 experienced farmers to Stoughton to meet with the 5 farmers with less cover crop and grazing experience.  After the targeted meeting, several one-on-one consultations were scheduled for farmers to meet directly with mentors.  Two more targeted cover crop meetings in fall and winter of 2019-2020 were successful at bringing the current participants together to discuss the season, as well as bringing in new farmers that are interested in learning more about grazing and cover crops.  Both farmers and UW extension educators were present at all meeting.  In addition, other on-site visits occurred throughout 2019 between farmers and extension agents.

2020/2021 update - Added an additional demonstration farm.  We had 4 more one-on-one consultations including a women-focused pasture walk, a seed cleaning demonstration, and 2 dairy farm visits. We also presented at the Wisconsin Cover Crop and Conservation Conversations Spring 2021 webinar. 

2021/2022 update - Kevin Opperman of Highland Springs Farm participated in the Producer Led Watershed Programs 2 part webinar series on grazing cover crops - one in early summer and one later in fall.  We held 2 more field days focusing on interseeding cover crops into standing corn for late season grazing.  These interseeding trials were also supported by Dr. Erin Silvas lab at the University of Wisconsin Madison.  These trials were replicated on 20 other farms throughout the state and results were shared at a meeting this past January.  In February of 2022 4 farmers participated on a panel at the Wisconsin Cover Crops Conference.  This group of farmers have all started growing cover crops for soil health or grazing/feed in the past couple of years and were asked to speak on a panel about their experience.  

We created a YouTube Channel called "Lawn Chair Farming" - the focus is on regenerative agriculture practices, including grazing and harvesting cover crops. We will continue to add content each year. 

Overall Impressions and Thoughts:  As a agency employee over the past 20 years in several different positions I have come to realize that yes, science matters in promoting sustainable agriculture, but it is just one, and I would argue, small piece of the process.  What seems to have a larger and more lasting effect on change is the social support around changing farming practices.  I can say with 100% confidence, that community effects more change on the landscape than research out of the best land grant university.  Yes, farmers need to know that practices work both financially and within their environment, but more than that they need to feel confident in their desire to experiment and change.  Confidence comes from support and support comes from the community.  The most successful farmers have support from several levels within their community - family, friends, and other farmers.  By giving farmers the space to learn from one another and valuing the time of the experienced farmers this grant facilitated real change on a landscape scale.  The change that has occurred can be seen driving 55 mph down a county road.  The change can also be seen in the confidence coming from a young group of farmers that not only want to improve water and soil quality on their farms, but are becoming leaders in their community. 

Learning Outcomes

50 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

15 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
3 Grants received that built upon this project
6 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

That having a group of farmers that were comfortable and trusted each other allowed for a supportive and collaborative project.  All participating farmers have increased their use of cover crops dramatically over the past 2-3 years.  Most, if not all of the participating farmers (not all of which received actual funds) are cover cropping more acres than they are receiving funding for through this or other government programs, which demonstrates the economic viability of cover crops.  The diversity of farm size and type has illustrated how cover crops can be utilized across the agricultural landscape.  To extend the grazing season and allow for earlier spring grazing, all the farms participating have focused on including overwintering cover crop species into their rotation which has a more substantial water quality benefit than winter killed cover crops.  This project has spurred plans to research and demonstrate new alternative cropping and cover cropping systems that allow for better liquid manure management with decreased runoff potential and increased nutrient utilization.

New partnerships with University research lab, the local sewage district and DATCP will build on this project and help to extend the results into the future and build on alternative cropping systems that integrate livestock.  Specifically, 5 of the 6 farmers involved in the project have formed a new Producer Led Watershed Group in the past year, formed a partnership with other watershed groups to share experiences and have formally partnered with a research lab at the university to try specific cover crop mixes throughout the state.

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.