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Cover Crops as Forage: Good for Soil and Bottom Line?

Cover crops can produce about three tons of forage per acre. (Angela Florence/Flickr)
Cover crops can produce about three tons of forage per acre. (Angela Florence/Flickr)
August 31, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa - The use of cover crops as fodder for livestock is picking up steam in parts of Iowa, and a new project aims to quantify the possible dollar return.

Practical Farmers of Iowa is conducting research with livestock producers planting cover crops in the North Raccoon Watershed to estimate the amount of feed that is offset by grazing or harvesting cover crops as forage.

Mark Schleisman, who farms about 4,500 acres in Calhoun and Carroll counties, is taking part in the research. He began using cover crops to protect the soil, but said now it's also an important practice for his cattle.

"Some of the acres we'll graze in the fall, some of the acres we'll graze in the spring and calve on them, and some acres we will graze fall and spring both, depending on the growth," he said. "But it gives the cow herd a green material to be eating at the same time as gleaning the stock residue left over. Keep them more satisfied."

Along with Schleisman, five other members of Practical Farmers of Iowa are participating in this research project. He said he's hopeful to have numbers on financial returns in the next year. PFI research has found that cover crops can produce up to three tons of forage per acre.

The research area includes Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties, all of which are involved in a lawsuit over nutrient runoff in the Raccoon River watershed. Since cover crops help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, Schleisman said they're a good strategy for addressing the nutrient pollution problem.

"Whether it be different fertilizing practices that we can utilize or things like cover crops where we can retain those nutrients," he said, "It's just our responsibility to do what we can, do our best at reducing the amount of nutrients that enter the groundwater or stream water."

Schleisman will be at the Farm Progress Show in Boone County on Thursday to answer questions about cover crops.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IA