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. 

Feeding From The Waste Stream

 

The other day I received a phone call from a dairyman who said he was attempting to “Feed from the waste stream” and he sent in two samples.   The first sample was mixed juice pressings, which consisted of a random assortment of spinach, cucumbers, ginger, carrots, apples and more, and the second sample was citrus pulp, also leftovers from juice mainly consisting of orange peels.  He tested these samples for nutritional values.  Both samples had greater than 8% crude protein and both samples were very high in nitrogen free extract meaning they were high in soluble sugars and energy as well.  Showing that these organic human food wastes do have value nutritional value as an animal feed source.  The producer went on to comment on how much his cattle loved these feeds and how affordable these by-product feeds were to him, which lead me to do some more research into the phrase he used “feeding from the waste stream”.  What I found was, the EPA encourages feeding from the waste stream and this practice could be beneficial to food and livestock producers, consumers, and the environment.  There are also added value compounds in some organic wastes which could potentially improve animal health and production. However, there are laws regulating the practice of “feeding leftovers to livestock”.

The United States alone produces 160 billion pounds of food waste per year.  These wastes can range from the leftover juice pressings mentioned above to bakery wastes to expired grocery products.  Typically, this organic waste goes one of three places, a landfill, incineration, or compost.  These options especially, the landfill option, can have detrimental impacts on the environment, therefore the Environmental Protection Agency encourages the use of organic wastes in animal production.  Below is a diagram of the Food Recovery Hierarchy which shows feeding animals as priority after feeding hungry people.

FoodRecovery

Ward Laboratories has also tested samples from Northstar Recycling a company that works to help livestock producers and food packers to recycle organic waste. I will never forget the first sample they sent to us, it was tuna by-product. We received it on a Monday and I can tell you it smelled like it had been in the mail for 3 or 4 days by the time it got to our lab.  Since then, we have received many more pleasant-smelling samples including marshmallows, assorted candies, dough waste, peanut butter, cake and more. With feed being the most expensive cost of production in the livestock industry taking advantage of these cheap waste products could improve profit margins.  Additionally, the livestock industry is constantly battling the consumer perceptions that our animals are competing with humans for grain based feeds and meat is “bad for the environment”, therefore feeding from the waste stream could improve consumer perception of the industry.

Some of the organic waste products, specifically those from leftover fruits and vegetables have value added compounds.  For example, citrus peels have essential oils which have been shown to improve immunity and have a positive effect on production.  One essential oil of interest is D-limonene.  This essential oil has been shown to improve gut microflora balance by increasing beneficial microbial populations and decreasing detrimental microbial populations, and increase feed efficiency of beef cattle and gains in swine.  Another example of value added compounds present in organic wastes is polyphenolic compounds.  These compounds occur at a higher concentration in the seeds, roots, pits, and skins of fruits and vegetables than in the edible portions utilized in human food production. Polyphenols exhibit beneficial properties such as being anti-carcinogenic, anti-pathogenic, anti-oxidative, and immune modulatory. Therefore, in feeding livestock, a producer may see improvements in gut, respiratory, and cardiovascular health in their animals.

There are regulations for feeding food wastes to livestock and the rules that apply are different depending on the source of organic food waste and the species of animal to be fed.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was put in place to prevent food-borne illness from occurring at the processing stage of food production. The regulations in the FSMA apply to products from human food production, this would include things like bakery waste, or juice pressings.  The regulations that apply depend on the type of facilities producing and utilizing the food waste. The other two pieces of legislature for feeding food waste to livestock are the Federal Swine Health Protecting Act (SHPA) and the Ruminant Feed Ban Rule.  Put simply, the SHPA states that food scraps containing animal products must be heat treated to kill disease causing bacteria and prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease.  The Ruminant Feed Ban prohibits the feeding of mammalian proteins back to ruminants to prevent Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) also known as mad cow disease.  States may also have their own rules and regulations regarding feeding food by-products to livestock.

In conclusion, there is an abundance of organic food waste products.  Their utilization as livestock feed is good for the environment, profitable for the producer, and if we tell this story can improve consumer perceptions of our industries. Some of the fruit and vegetable waste products are not only nutritionally beneficial to animals but also contain compounds which can improve production value and animal health.  If a producer is interested in “feeding from the waste stream” they should do their research, test their feeds for nutritional values to ensure they are meeting animal nutrient requirements and be aware that it is a regulated practice. Below are some additional links for further reading on this topic.

Fruit and Vegetable Wastes as Livestock Feed

NORTHSTAR RECYCLING TRASH TALK BLOG

Leftovers for Livestock

 

 

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.

 

6 Cautions When Grazing Cover Crops

Grazing cover crops can be a cost-effective way to achieve multiple productions goals.  Cover crops can provide ground cover to prevent erosion, improve soil health over time, and provide nutrition to beef cattle.  However, cover crops are not a fool proof feed.  Turning cattle out onto cover crops to graze without proper feed tests can lead to a wreak due to improper management.  Recently, I had a producer lose 12 head of growing cattle to polioencephalomalacia, a neurological disease in cattle consuming too much sulfur.  After the incident, that producer wanted to test his cover crops to ensure he did not experience another tragic loss.  My advice, is to test cover crops before grazing for protein, energy value, minerals, nitrates, and under some circumstances, prussic acid to ensure proper management and prevent undue losses. These are the 6 cautions to consider when grazing cover crops:

  1. Nitrates

Cover crop mixes include several plant species known to accumulate nitrates for example: brassicas, such as turnips and radishes, or small grain plants, such as oats, millet, or grain sorghums. When cattle consume high nitrate feeds, the microbes in the rumen convert that nitrate to nitrite.  The nitrite is then in the gas, which the cattle belch and then inhale.  The nitrite then binds to the blood hemoglobin preventing oxygen from binding.  At levels between 1,400 – 2100 ppm NO3-N this can cause spontaneous abortions with no warning signs or symptoms.  At levels between 2,100 – 4,000 ppm NO3-N sudden death may occur and therefore, animals grazing cover crops should be slowly acclimated to consumption of nitrates and offered a low nitrate roughage to fill up on first.  Never allow hungry cattle onto a high nitrate field.  Nitrate levels above 4,000 ppm NO3-N should not be grazed as sudden death will likely occur.

  1. High sulfur

The toxic level of sulfur in a cattle diet is 0.40 ppm on a dry basis.  Brassicas are sulfur accumulators, that occasionally test above the maximum tolerable level, and are often included in cover crop grazing mixes.  When sulfur intake is above the tolerable level, thiamin metabolism is impaired in a condition known as polioencephalomalacia (PEM). Head pressing, blindness, and muscle tremors are all clinical symptoms of PEM which, untreated, results in death.

  1. Low magnesium

Grass tetany is a condition commonly associated with lush spring pastures.  These pastures are known for having low magnesium due to rapid growth conditions. Cover crops also tend to have low magnesium.   The magnesium requirement for a beef cow is 0.2% of the diet at peak lactation and 0.1% of the diet for growing cattle.  When cover crops contain less magnesium than is required, a magnesium deficiency can develop resulting in grass tetany.  The signs of grass tetany are cattle stop grazing, become overly alert, and appear uncomfortable, they will then begin to stagger until they finally lie down with their head pulled back into a “star gazing position”.  Untreated, this condition will result in death.  To prevent the development of a magnesium deficiency, many producers grazing cover crops feed a mineral between 8-12% magnesium to be consumed at a rate of 2.5-4oz per head per day.

  1. Prussic acid

In cover crop mixes there are species of plants which accumulate hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas commonly known as prussic acid, in their leaves under stressful growing conditions.  These plants include sorghum grasses, sudan grasses, and flax.  Stressful growing conditions includes drought or frost.  Plants grown in drought conditions should be tested for prussic acid prior to grazing because consumption of high levels of the gas is sudden death.  Contrarily, frost typically breaks cell walls allowing the release of the gas and therefore should be safe to graze after 4 days.  Regrowth after a frost however, should be tested prior to grazing because the plant is stressed from the previous frost, but the cell walls have not been broken to allow the gas to escape.

  1. Bloat

A frothy bloat is often attributed to legumes or high protein grasses.  Cover crop mixes high in legumes such as clover, beans, or cowpeas may result in some animals over indulging in the legumes resulting in frothy bloat issues.  These legume plants are high in soluble protein and sugars which allows the microbes to ferment and grow at a rapid rate resulting in a high rate of gaseous by-product accumulation.

  1. Choke

Brassicas such as radishes and turnips may be pulled from the ground to be consumed by cattle grazing cover crops.  If they are swallowed without proper mastication the animal may choke on the large root.  This is typically more of a problem for young cattle who are inexperienced in grazing brassicas.

Overall, grazing cover crops can be a great way to provide nutrients to cattle, prevent soil erosion and improve soil health.  However, the producer should be aware of the risks they are assuming feeding these diverse forages.  Testing for nitrates, minerals, and potentially prussic acid is highly recommended to avoid unnecessary losses due to grazing cover crops.

 

4 Considerations For Feeding Hail Damaged Forage And Crop Residues

 

Here in Central Nebraska we have experienced several mid-summer thunderstorms. These hail producing storms have wreaked havoc on crops and forage productivity, particularly in the Broken Bow and Ansley areas. As producers move forward with crop insurance, they will also be scrambling to utilize what is left of their standing row crops and forages. There are three laboratory tests I would recommend to make an informed decision about the remaining forage. Then depending on the results of your laboratory tests, you can determine what your most economical option is.

1. Nitrates

Defoliation due to the pounding hail results in decreased photosynthesis within the plant. This means that the plant can not convert nitrates to protein. The root system of the plant still continues nitrogen uptake, although the plant cannot utilize these nutrients, resulting in the potential accumulation of nitrates in the plant. Nitrate (NO3 – N) levels between 1400 – 2000 ppm can result in abortions while levels higher than 2000 ppm can result in sudden death if not diluted with other sources of roughage. Therefore, nitrate testing of hail damaged forages is highly recommended before making a decision to graze, hay or ensile the forage.

2. Mold and Mycotoxin Potential

Hail damages the outer cell wall of the plant. The cell wall is an immune defense similar to skin on animals. It prevents infectious agents from penetrating, proliferating and using the plant as a food source. When the cell wall is damaged, opportunistic molds may infiltrate and grow. Consequently, when haying or ensiling forage, testing for mold counts is important. Mold counts above 1 million cfu/g impact animal health and lower production potential.
If the forage is a grain producing forage such as corn or milo, a producer may want to inspect the crop to determine if grain has been produced. If there is grain and it is damaged by the hail, mycotoxins become a potential risk when feeding to livestock. Mycotoxins presence may be present even in the absence of a high mold count. If you suspect mycotoxins may be an issue, remember mycotoxins and molds are often produced together however, the absence of one mycotoxin does not mean conditions were not ideal for another mycotoxin to emerge. If haying the hail damaged forage, proper drying can cut down on mold and mycotoxin presence. If ensiling, proper fermentation and additives may reduce the risk of having these agents in the feed.

 

 

3. Relative Feed Value

The relative feed value (RFV) will be less in a hail damaged forage or crop than its intact counterpart. Defoliation caused by the hail results in the removal or the leafy mass of the plant and what remains is the stocks and stems. These parts of the plant are lower in protein and higher in fiber, which results in a lower relative feed value. Additionally, this also means lower total digestible nutrients (TDN), and net energy of gain (NEg), lactation (NEl), and maintenance (NEm). Therefore, when feeding hail damaged forage, testing the protein and energy of the feed is important to determine how much energy and protein supplementation will be needed to meet production goals.

4. Economics

The last thing to consider, and the most important to your bottom line, when determining how to feed a hail damaged forage is what is the most cost effective delivery system based on the results of feed reports. If the nitrate reports came back low and you have the means to supplement cattle in the field to meet energy and protein needs, grazing may be the most cost effective option. Haying may also be an option under that scenario, however, if selling the hay profit margins may be small do to the lowered feed value and potential mold risks associated. Additionally, when haying you must input equipment and fuel costs associated with cutting, windrowing, and baling. If the nitrates levels have been reported between 2000ppm and 3000 ppm ensiling the damaged forage may be a good option as the nitrates can decrease by up to 50% and then be fed back to the animal. Equipment, fuel and storage costs must also be taken into account for ensiling the feed. In the case of moderate nitrates, haying and mixing with a high quality forage, such as alfalfa, to both dilute the nitrates to the appropriate level and meet the difference in protein and energy provided by the damaged forage and the animals requirements, may also be a viable option. Finally, if the nitrates report is high, utilizing the forage as a fertilizer for next years crop may be the only option.

When determining how to best utilize hail damaged forage, always take nitrates, mold and mycotoxin risks into account as well as the lowered feeding value. Consider the man power, equipment, fuel and supplementation costs associated with each option. This will allow you to make the most informed and cost effective decision possible.