Integrated Systems Agriculture: 4 Benefits of Grazing Cover Crops to Beef Producers

Intensive, specialized crop production has several widely agreed upon downfalls.  These specialized systems tend to have stationary yields with expensive pesticide and herbicide inputs all while profitability is widely dependent on a global market over which we have little control.  Dependence on these practices  leads to higher resistance among  insects  and weeds, reliance on fertilizers due to nutrient depletion  in the soil,  soil erosion and contamination of waterways due to run off, and improper soil management practices. Soil scientists and agronomists agree that the addition of cover crops to a cropping rotation can improve soil quality and health through decreased erosion, increased microbial activity, increased carbon sequestration, more soil aggregates, and increased conservation of moisture in the soil, all due to a more extensive rooting system and ground residue protecting the soil for more months out of the year.  The addition of livestock, most commonly beef cattle, to this rotational cropping system decreases the need for herbicides and fertilizers, as they help deplete the weed seed bank and their manure contains many nutrients vital to plant nutrition and soil health. Guest author, Emily Shafto, covered the benefits to the soil extensively in her blog Cattle and Crops: Completing the Nutrient Cycle.  Here are four benefits of grazing cover crops to cattle producers:

 

  1. Grazing cover crops extends the grazing season, leading to decreased costs of stored feeds.  Supplementation needs are also lessened due to the animal’s ability to preferentially graze to meet their nutritional needs. According to a study by Practical Farmers of Iowa, grazing cover crops can offset winter feed storage costs by up to $40,000. Of course, it is important to mention that labor costs increase, and grazing cover crops requires more intensive management of the land and cattle.  The cost may be offset by the reduced need to cut and bale excessive amounts of hay or corn silage. Feed should still be stored for emergency use, such as a failed cover crop or a stressed crop that has accumulated too much nitrate to graze.

 

  1. Grazing cover crops can improve cattle’s nutritional plane through preferential grazing.  Animals consuming a cover crop mix can choose plant parts such as leaves over stems which are higher in protein and non-fiber carbohydrates and lower in fiber.  Cattle can also choose less mature plants for the same nutritional reasons.  Therefore, by grazing a mix of annual crops, cattle can consume more protein and carbohydrates for performance than a balanced ration of roughages and grain supplements. Therefore, grazing cover crops can improve nutrition and eliminate the cost of ration balancing and mixing.

 

  1. By improving their nutritional plane, animal performance can increase when grazing cover crops.  Growing steers typically have increased feed intake when consuming cover crops as opposed to a mixed ration, which results in increased weight gains.  Heifers and cows on the higher plane of nutrition provided by cover crops can have increased reproductive performance.

 

  1. Grazing cover crops rotationally can have an added benefit of forage regrowth.  When animals graze a paddock for the first time, they open the top canopy and allow sunlight to reach shorter plants.  When the cattle are removed from that section, plant growth is stimulated and if allowed enough time, may recover sufficiently enough to allow the area to be grazed again.   Grazing regrowth is like bonus forage and can also contribute to decreased feed production and storage costs.

 

Integrating cropping systems with forage production and grazing benefits soil health, grazing livestock, and your pocketbook.  Grazing cover crops specifically benefits beef production by extending the grazing season, thereby saving on winter stored feed costs, improving the animals nutritional plane resulting in improved animal performance through increased intake and gains, and bonus regrowth can also be grazed, again saving on winter feed costs.  Don’t forget to take proper precautions before allowing cattle to graze cover crops. See my blog post: 6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops. 

4 Considerations of Water Quality for Beef Cattle

Typically, livestock water access and quality are considered during the summer months when heat stress is a concern.  I am choosing to address this topic during the cold winter months because as the temperature drops, below the thermal neutral zone animals consume more feed to increase metabolic heat production and water intake requirements increase with feed intake.  Water is often an overlooked nutrient during the winter months although access to quality water is important for maximum health and production.  Additionally, I have received a concerning inquiry regarding adding salt to water to keep it thawed during the winter months.  This could have deleterious effects on animal health. If a high salt water is provided with no alternate fresh water source, it could eventually lead to the animal’s death.  It is important to remember that water serves many functions in the mammalian body including making up 70% of the body’s mass, regulating temperature, growth, reproduction, lactation, digestion, metabolism, and many other functions we typically take for granted to function properly.  Therefore, access to quality water is important throughout all seasons, including the winter months.  Cattle can substitute snow if water availability is sparse but, access to quality water promotes maximum growth and reproductive performance.  Cattle are not particularly fond of cold water and therefore, while they can use snow in place of water, they prefer a heated water tank. Below are 4 items to examine when determining water quality:

  1. Total Dissolved Solubles (TDS).

This measures the minerals broken down within the water. Sodium chloride (NaCl), bicarbonate (HCO3­), sodium sulfate (Na2SO4), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) are some of the common solubles present in water.  Less than 1000 ppm TDS indicates safe water and will not cause any animal health concerns.  If the TDS is greater than 1000 ppm then further guidelines found in either the Ward Guide page 148  (http://wardlab.com/download/WardGuide.pdf) or Table 9-2 of Nutrient Requirements of Beef Cattle 8th revised edition page 156 should be referenced for Total Soluble Salts (TSS) guidelines

  1. Nitrate.

Health risks including abortion can occur in cattle drinking greater than 133 ppm NO3-N over long periods of time.  Nitrate poisoning and death can result from cattle consuming water greater than 221 ppm NO3-N.

  1. Sulfates.

High sulfate water can result in health risks from diarrhea to Polioencephalomalacia (PEM), a disruption in thiamin metabolism resulting in a neurological disorder.  It is recommended that calves are provided with water less than 500 ppm sulfate and mature beef cattle are provided with water less than 1000 ppm sulfate.

  1. Contaminants.

Other compounds can be found in water which are detrimental to cattle health. Below is listed common contaminants Ward Laboratories, Inc. tests for, but we are always happy to send samples out to other labs if you suspect another compound may be causing issues.  We commonly send out for selenium and lead.

Contaminant Toxic level (ppm)
Aluminum 0.5
Boron 5.0
Copper 1.0
Fluoride 2.0
Manganese 0.05
Zinc 5.0

 

In conclusion, it is important to provide quality water low in soluble salts, nitrates, sulfates and other contaminants to cattle in order to maximize production performance and ensure healthy animals.  Addition of salts to beef cattle water to keep it thawed during the winter months can increase the TDS thereby, having negative effects on cattle performance and health.  If you are struggling with keeping waterers thawed, remember cattle can substitute snow for water when necessary, and options such as heated tanks should be considered. If you are really struggling and need to get creative, put a salt water solution in water bottles and allow them to float at the top to prevent ice formation.