Balancing harvest efficiency and economics of grazing fall forage cover crops.

Progress report for ONC20-076

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $40,000.00
Projected End Date: 04/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Nebraska Extension
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Erin Laborie
Nebraska Extension
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Project Information


Forage cover crop utilization has gained popularity across the Midwest because of the conservation and soil health benefits. Additionally, these forages are a high quality feed resource that enables beef producers to increase condition of animals before winter or opportunity for high rates of gain. Improving grazing efficiency and decreasing waste can significantly impact the economic viability of a forage cover crop grazing scenario. However, producers struggle to find an effective grazing strategy optimizing the economic return of fall-grazed forage cover crops. This project will evaluate the effects of stocking density on grazing efficiency and body condition score (BCS) of cattle fall-grazing cover crops in a continuous grazing system and a strip-grazing system. Cattle in the continuous system will have access to graze the entire field. Cattle in the strip-graze system will be moved to a fresh paddock every 3 to 4 days. The project will be replicated across 5 different cooperator sites in Nebraska with forage biomass and quality measured before and after grazing.

Project Objectives:
  1. Demonstrate establishment practices in a cropping system for fall grazing forage cover crops and techniques to increase harvest efficiency. 
  2. Collect and evaluate forage and animal performance data on replicated, partnering producer sites to measure the impact of stocking density on fall grazed forage cover crops. 
  3. Educate producers, industry, and peers about optimal establishment and utilization of forage cover crops with field days, cooperating producer demonstration sites, social and traditional media outreach, professional publications and presentations.


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Materials and methods:

Seeding Rate:

Producers are recommended to plant a brassica/small grain mixture.  Ideally the following seeding rate would be used: 50 lb. oats, 3 lb. rapeseed (or 4 lb. turnip or 5 lb. radish)

Exclosure Set-Up:

Prior to grazing, place 3 exclosures on the continuous graze/control. Placement should be at random while avoiding field edges and areas that are unrepresentative of the site as a whole (overly wet areas, near water, exceptionally poor soils). This can be done by dividing the field into quadrants and assigning the cages to a quadrant at random.

Each exclosure will consist of 2 t-posts and 2 cattle panel halves bent to 90 degrees.  To cut the panels in half, bolt cutters work best.  Find the middle segment and cut as close to a vertical bar as you can. Then cut the excess off the other side trying to avoid long, sharp edges. 

Drive one t-post into the ground and use the cattle panel as a guide for where the second should go.  Try not to step in the area between the posts too much to avoid trampling. Once both posts are in, align the panels so that the ends meet at the t-post. Wire both ends of the panel to the posts with a top and bottom wire.  Cattle like to rub on these, so make sure they are secure. ID each exclosure in some way that will not be easily eaten or rubbed off by cattle.  A cattle tag and wire is effective.


Work with producers to keep a log of precipitation from planting date until the end of grazing.  Temperatures should be fine to extrapolate from the nearest MESONET station.


To give producers flexibility, we are not going to set a specific goal for grazing date.  However, noting animal condition and plant maturity stage/height at turn out will be important. It is also good to keep record of any other treatment that has been applied to the crop and take notes (irrigation, fertilization, etc.).

Target grazing will have animals on treatments for 45 days or longer.  As the continuous grazed treatment will most likely require animals to be removed first, set area and number of head for this treatment first to best reach the 45 day goal.  Once the continuous treatment is set, stocking rate can be determined and used to set number of head and area of the strip grazing treatment.  Each location will be treated as a replication, so matching stocking rate across locations is not necessary, as long as the initial target stocking rate at a location is the same. Previous studies have seen 100 to 150 lb/day disappearance.

For the strip grazing treatment, set up an initial strip that will provide animals with 1 week worth of forage to allow animals room and time to acclimate to the new conditions.  After this initial strip, allotments will move to the 3-5 day forage goal.  Producers can adjust strip size as needed to meet this goal.  Ideally, stubble heights of 2-3 inches can be used to gage animal utilization and adjust strip size. For summer annuals, 12 inches of stubble height may be a more realistic goal.

Producers will be asked to place a wooden stake out to mark each grazing allotment on the strip side as they move in order to help us more accurately assess stocking density and locate previously sampled sites for post-grazing biomass collection. At the end of the grazing period, strips will be measured to provide an accurate area of each grazing allotment.

Biomass Production Sampling:

Before planned turn-out, take 3 samples for biomass production of the strip and continuous grazing treatments at random across the entirety of each treatment.  These samples will be sorted by functional group (small grains, brassica, legume, etc.) and a green weight taken.  Non planted species will be their own functional group (weeds). Each sample will be an area consisting of 3 drill rows and the corresponding 3 inter-row spaces for width and 3 feet in length.  When doing the first sample, measure the row width and record so total sample area can be determined.

All plants will be cut off at ground level, except brassica species that may be grown for their root mass (turnips and radish).  For these, the plant will be pulled and whatever comes up will be the sample.  The root mass and top will then be separated. The samples will be placed in brown paper bags and labeled with date, functional group, treatment, and sample ID number.

After harvest, a green weight of each functional group will be done.  Tare the sample bag and record the sample to the nearest gram.  Samples will then be packed in their paper bags and boxed, overnight shipping to Lincoln to get a dry weight. 

Biomass samples will be taken at 5 times over the course of the grazing season.  The first clipping can be taken as soon as animals are in the 3-5 day move schedule for the strip grazing treatment. Each time will consist of 3 pre-grazed clips from the rotational group, 3 post-grazing clippings along the previously sampled transect in the rotational group, and 3 random clippings in the continuous grazing treatment.

After the pre-grazing sampling, samples in the strip treatment can be taken at random within a grazing strip. Continuous treatment samples will be taken at random in that treatment area, taking care not to sample an area that has already been clipped.

For post-grazing clipping, the same area will be clipped (3 rows by 3 feet) and the remaining forage sorted by functional group. These samples will be taken at random in the same strip as the pre-grazed sample was taken, the only stipulation being to avoid clipping areas where a previous sample has been taken.  Any new growth, unless completely unusable (covered in mud, under a cowpie) can be sorted into the appropriate functional group.

The final sampling will need to be in the last strip grazing allotment to capture final production.   When this pre-grazing clip occurs, the grazing exclosures can be clipped and sampled for total production as well.

Once grazing has been concluded, a final clipping of 3 post-grazed random samples in the continuous and 3 post-graze transect samples in the rotation can occur. 

Quality Sampling:

Quality sampling will occur 3 times alongside the production samples at the pre-graze date, mid-grazing, and late grazing periods.  For these samples, each functional group will be clipped at random to fill a gallon Ziplock bag and frozen.  Bags should be labeled with functional group and sample date. For the strip grazing, this will come from the ungrazed portion of pasture.  For the continuous grazing, this will be at random in the pasture as a whole.

An additional set of samples will be taken at the pre-graze clipping and sent to Ward Labs for analysis.  This will be wet lab and tested for protein, ADF, and TDN. 

Upon completion of the project, all frozen sample bags can be overnight shipped to Lincoln.  Ship in a cooler container on ice to keep samples frozen and prevent degradation. Analysis will be run at UNL Animal Science Department.


Research results and discussion:

Project implementation and data collection were the majority of efforts in 2020.  The beginning of the year consisted of project planning and setting up consistent protocols for implementing and sampling procedures across sites.  With planting and grazing occurring in the fall and early winter, the only other actions able to be taken were data collection.  Analysis of results along with outreach and education efforts stemming from our findings will occur in 2021.

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Consultation with cooperating producers on project planning and implementation occurred in 2020. Results from year 1 are currently being analyzed, and education and outreach efforts are being planned for 2021. 

Learning Outcomes

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

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Increased utilization of simple cropping systems in the Midwestern United States has led to concerns regarding
the long term sustainability, with problems of soil erosion, nitrogen leaching, increased runoff, and overall lower
soil health. Diversifying these systems with forage cover crops addresses these issues by providing longer
periods of active plant growth, increased biodiversity, soil cover, and positive soil and nutritive effects.
However, adding annual forage cover crops burdens the producer with increased costs of establishment and
labor. With high nutrient potential, producers overcome these barriers by utilizing these forage cover crops as a
high quality feed source for cattle. Research on grazing systems has produced mixed results regarding grazing
efficiency. A better understanding of how stocking density and grazing method affects grazing efficiency will
support sustainability and land stewardship, while providing economic viability to the producer. This increases
the opportunity for young family members to return to operations and maintain a valued rural lifestyle.

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.