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Finding value in cover crops through livestock consuming them

On top of minimizing erosion and maximizing water retention, cover crops can feed livestock year-round.

Cows eat grass in the pasture at the farm of Mike and Joan Gilles in Houston, Minnesota, on June 15, 2021.
Cows eat grass in the pasture at the farm of Mike and Joan Gilles in Houston, Minnesota, on June 15, 2021, during a pasture walk sponsored by the Sustainable Farming Association and the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — A growing number of producers in southeast Minnesota have started using cover crops, and the next step is maximizing the potential of them.

"We're probably seeing 15% of the farms use (cover crops), on 15% of the acres," said Jim Paulson, nutritionist and forage specialist for Fieldstone Consulting as well as the director of ByronPRO , a farm consultancy group. "I think we're realizing more now that they do bring value, and we need to be doing some of these things."

Paulson spoke during the Tour de Forage, a series of regional meetings put on by the Midwest Forage Association, University of Minnesota Extension and regional forage councils. He said that cover crops can do more than help minimize erosion and maximize water retention, but could be feeding livestock year-round at the same time.

Chelsea Russell, local council director with the Midwest Forage Association, said the tour started in northeast Minnesota in Floodwood, then was in central Minnesota in Melrose, before it wrapped up in southeast Minnesota on Jan. 27.

"There's a variety of different topics," said Russell of the meetings. "We did topics from fertilization and how to get the most bang for your buck out of the fertilizers, to the topic of cover crops and the feed value of different cover crops."

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Attendees at the Tour de Forage event in Rochester at the Eagles Club on Jan. 27, 2022 sit in chairs in the ballroom while listening to presentations from ag specialists.
Producers and individuals in the ag industry in southeast Minnesota listen during the Tour de Forage event in Rochester at the Eagles Club on Jan. 27, 2022. Meetings were held last month in Floodwood, Melrose and Rochester.
Noah Fish / Agweek

Paulson is also a farmer in Minnesota's Root River Valley and a retired UMN extension staff member, where he worked as a dairy educator for around a decade with an emphasis on nutrition and feeding high-quality forage. He walked producers how to use cover crops for forage at the Jan. 27 event.

"My basic push has always been working with dairy cattle producers on nutrition and forages," he said. "We always want to be thinking about what is the best way to use cover crops."

Paulson's research includes finding the forage value of alfalfa and different grasses, triticale, cover crops and summer annuals. The cost of implementing cover crops is worth it for the benefits to surrounding land as well as individual operations, he said, but it takes time to see results.

"We're not just thinking for this year, we're going to think about what's our three and five year plans for this field, and for the rotation on the farms," said Paulson.

His advice for skeptical farmers is to try cover crops on a small scale, then grow the scale as they become more comfortable with it. Paulson said it takes three to five years to start seeing the real payback, and learning where the true value is at.

During the early stages of cover crop implementation, Paulson said that producers should react to the latest rotation and how it worked for their system. He compared it to operations for the NFL's Green Bay Packers, and the team's relationship with its moody quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"Last summer you know, they'd done really well with him and he was the MVP, and the team was probably going to the Super Bowl, but then things fall flat," said Paulson, obviously a Minnesota sports fan. "Much like cover crops — you look at the what, when, where and why, and I think a lot of Packer fans were right in that boat too."

Value in forage

Once producers find their footing with cover crops, a lot of value can be found in using them for forage.

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"When we can put livestock into the system where we can utilize some of those cover crops, we've got a win-win situation," said Paulson. "So a good way to add value to the cover crop is to have ruminants consume it."

He said that livestock producers should first ask themselves if it's mainly a cover crop or mainly a forage source for their system.

"If those questions get answered, then we can talk about what are we going to put in there," he said.

According to Paulson, pretty much any cover crop can make for a good forage source. There are about 20 different options he recommends for southeast Minnesota livestock producers — including winter cereal rye which can be a mixture with over 10 things in it.

"It's how you manage it," he said. "There are some things that grow better in the warm weather, and there are some things that grow better in the cooler weather."

The optimum time for forage quality for cereal grains and grasses is in cooler weather, said Paulson.

"We've got four or five cereal grains, several legumes, we've got brassicas, we've got grasses, and then we have annuals and perennials," he said. "We've got lots of possibilities, and the thing is, do you need three? Do you need 10? It depends."

Value for the land

Then there's the ecological benefits of cover crops.

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Paulson's farm is located on a designated trout stream called Beaver Creek — part of the Root River Watershed, which according to the EPA is an impaired waterway. He's able to monitor the creek which runs through his farm, and how it's affected directly by rains and nearby operations.

"So it's very near and dear to my heart," said Paulson of Beaver Creek.

The Driftless Area in southeast Minnesota extends over four states, and the karst topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum makes for unique soils and slopes.

"With our driftless area, our slopey fields, and things like that, we're trying to do things to keep our water quality here — and it's important that we think about that."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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