Beef cows thrive grazing on winter cover crops

Dan Hansen
Once the field is open, the beef cows move in calmly to graze on the newly exposed cornstalk windrows.

MARION, Wis. – Cows grazing on lush, green pastures can be seen on many farms throughout Wisconsin during spring, summer and early fall. 

Cows grazing in a harvested cornfield during sub-freezing winter days is a far more unusual sight.

But that’s what I saw as I drove along County Trunk G south of Marion on my way to meet with Justin Seeger, who’s grazing his herd of 100 beef cows on the cornstalk residue in fields he combined last fall.

Also joining us was Derrick Raspor, soil conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Waupaca County, who has worked with Seeger on several conservation projects over the last five years.

Seeger farms several hundred acres with his father-in-law Randy Krueger in northwestern Waupaca County. “I’ve been working with my father-in-law, who was originally a grain farmer for over 17 years,” Seeger mentioned, as the three of us climbed aboard his UTV to get a closer look at the herd.

Transition to grazing

Seeger started his beef cattle operation with the purchase of 25 animals. “I was feeding them out of a silo,” he recalled. “So, I’d be plowing snow to keep the yard clean, and also hauling manure and maintaining the silo unloader for just those few animals.”

He also owns and operates a hoof trimming business, and spends up to 60 hours  a week traveling with his team to farms throughout central Wisconsin. So, he had to maximize the efficiency of his cattle-raising enterprise, and that led him to try grazing.

“Once we started grazing, it became so much easier,” he said. “We no longer use the silo unloader and I tore out the bunk feeder. But we still feed a lot of baleage.”

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Seeger has 600 acres with perimeter fencing, with 300 acres in pasture including land owned by neighbors. During the summer, the cattle are grazed on a traditional pasture mix that includes fescue, perennial rye, clovers, orchard grass and chicory.

Herd population

Over the years, Seeger’s herd has grown to 100 cows, a number that he plans to maintain. “The herd consists of mainly angus crosses but we run a stabilizer bull which gives us a four-way cross, so when we cross the second time, we don’t have to figure out a new bull,” he explained.

He raises most of the herd replacements. “We have 45 heifers now at another farm, where we’re winter grazing them,” Seeger said. “Over the years, I’ve bought some animals from other farms, and we’ve seen the different genetics coming out."

Most of Seeger’s herd consists of animals who’ve had their second or third caIf. Seven older cows were culled recently, including one that weighed 1,600 pounds. “I do need to cull a few more of the older cows but we really don’t worry that much about age as long as they have good udders and can get bred,” he stressed. 

Feeder calves are marketed through area sale barns. “We wean around mid-November, and then put the calves on baleage and grain,” Seeger said. “The calves we sold this year averaged about 625 pounds.”

As soil conservationist Derrick Raspor looks on, Justin Seeger opens a new section of the harvested cornfield to grazing.

Winter grazing

Seeger says he tried some cover-crop grazing last winter. “But this is the first year we did it on as much land for as long a time,” he admitted. “This isn’t our land, but we did the combining for our neighbor and he allowed us to graze it.”

The cornstalk residue was raked into windrows to make it easier for the cows to feed by keeping it higher off the ground. The field was fenced off into smaller sections. “We run one wire around the perimeter, and then have reels of wire that we use to cut the field into smaller sections,” Seeger said.

He normally moves the cows to a new section of the field every three days. While we were out there he opened a new section for grazing that was about 2.5 acres. “This is different from summer grazing when we might move animals up to three times per day into smaller paddocks,” Seeger explained.

All the cows calmly moved into the new section and began feeding on the cornstalks, while also hoping to find any remaining full corn cobs that might have bypassed the combine.

In addition to the feed the cows get from grazing the cornstalks and any leftover kernels, the cows are fed one round bale per day, instead of the three bales that would be fed otherwise. 

“The bales are ground up and spread in a line across the field,” Seeger noted. “If I’d put a whole bale out here they’d all pile on it. This way they’re more spread out when they eat, and they also spread the manure over a larger area.”

The cows started grazing the cornfield in early January, and continued grazing during the sub-zero days in February with no problem. “They took advantage of the hillside to find shelter on the coldest days,” he said.

Looking ahead

Seeger feels his cows are thriving by grazing the cornfield while saving money on hay. “I think they’re doing a good job of picking through the stalks and cleaning them up,” he said.

“In the spring we’ll come out and check the field conditions to see if any of the cornstalks need to be spread out more, or if other work needs to be done, but I think it will be OK,” he said. “I want to leave the neighbor’s field in as good of a condition as I can, because I’d like to continue grazing the land.”

Seeger also will definitely continue to conserve the soil, and has been working with Derrick Raspor for over five years on various projects. 

“In addition to the grazing, he also plants some cover crop mixes, and they’ve been experimenting with 60-inch corn, and interseeding cover crops into that,” Raspor explained. “He’s also been setting aside full fields and planting cover crops including corn, hemp and several other species, that can be utilized for winter grazing.”

One of Seeger’s long-term goals is to graze his animals almost year-round.