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Grazing Cover Crops Increases Profits

by Jacob Hawes, Soil Conservationist

Farmers are good at producing a variety of crops, but one thing many farmers have been struggling to produce the last several years is a profit. The five-year average cost to produce a bushel of corn has exceeded the average price of a bushel of corn by five cents according to analysis from the Iowa Farm Bureau, leaving many Iowa farmers in the red or just breaking even. A recent climb in corn and bean prices should provide some relief for farmers, but even so farmers should be looking for alternatives to increase the profitability of their cropland acres and cover crops and cattle may be the answer.

Although, many farmers know the benefits cover crops provide to soil health, adding another $10-40 in inputs for cover crop seed can be enough to turn some farmers away. Additionally, it can take several years for producers to see the benefits of cover crops, making the cost even harder to justify. One way to add cover crops into your rotation and make it profitable the first season is to graze them. A recent study from Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) found that farmers who grazed their cover crops profited on average an additional $76.48 an acre with the use of cost-share and crop insurance discounts. Without the use of discounts and cost share the average profit was $48.43, still making it a very lucrative opportunity for producers

Grazing of winter annuals, like winter rye or wheat, are likely the most practical for producers and can provide up to 2-5 tons of dry matter the following spring for cattle to graze. Cover crops planted earlier in the season after small grains or interseeded with corn provide an opportunity for more diverse cover mixes that include brassicas, legumes, and annual grasses. Not only will a diverse mix provide additional soil health benefits, but they can provide similar forage quantities that can provide grazing late into the fall and even into the winter under the right conditions. By extending the grazing season with cover crops, farmers don’t have to dedicate as much time or money into harvesting or purchasing feed for their livestock when pastures aren’t productive.

Grazing cover crops also provide a profit opportunity for producers by helping curb global warming through the sequestering of carbon from greenhouse gases in the soils. Cattle often get a bad rap for being global warming contributors, because they produce methane, a greenhouse gas. The fact is grazing cattle on the land produces less impactful greenhouse gases than what would be released from turning the soil or burning fossil fuels to plant and harvest grain and forages to feed livestock in a lot. Pairing cattle with cover crops allows cattle to graze on the land longer throughout the year and maintains a green cover on the soil to help pull carbon from the air and trap it as organic matter in the soil.

Initiatives from start up companies and various levels of government have created a new carbon market targeted at providing financial incentive to agricultural producers to implement practices that help sequester carbon in the soil and reduce the level of emissions from their practices. The rates at which farmers are paid for their efforts varies depending on how much carbon they are able to trap in their soils, but some are able to receive up to $30 an acre per year depending on the company and program they are working with. Although this is a relatively new market it, it is showing promise, with many large companies taking notice and beginning to invest in these programs and buy carbon credits as a means to offset their own carbon footprint.

It may be a bit overwhelming and impractical to incorporate grazing cover crops on all your cropland acres, but producers who have the means to do so and are interested in increasing their average profit per acre should at least give it a try on a portion of their cropland acres.

Hopefully, as producers adapt to this new system and begin to see the increased productivity of their soil and their dollar, they can begin to scale up their operations and include grazing of covers crops on more acres of their farmland. Its not only a good conservation and stewardship decision, but it could be a very sound financial decision that may make a big difference in your farm’s future the next time crop prices take a dip.

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