Cover crop and grazing strategies pay off for Columbus farmer

Gloria Hafemeister

COLUMBUS ‒Inter-seeding cover crops into corn provides the opportunity to graze livestock until the end of the year, says farmer Jeff Gaska who shared many unique strategies he employs on his Columbus farm where he grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 450 acres.

Participants in the Dodge County Healthy Soil and Water field day last week checked out the equipment Jeff Gaska has set up for creating an extended grazing area on his farm including a combination of cover crops and corn.

“Diversification is the key,” he told those attending the Dodge County Healthy Soil Healthy Water field day last week.

Gaska has tried a variety of cover crop and grazing strategies over the years but the one the soils group focused on last week looked at the comparisons between inter-seeding a cover in 30 inch corn and in 60 inch corn and then further looked at the costs and benefits of feeding the herd on the lot rather than grazing in the late fall months.

The herd monitored includes 35 dry cows at 3 months pregnant.  Animals went onto the pasture at 1300 pounds.

“We wanted to know what the yield hit would by planting 60-inch corn compared to 30-inch and determine if the difference could be made up by grazing,” Gaska said.  “We put the numbers together and looked at bio-mass and how it benefits rate of gain and then compare that to the corn yield.”

Gaska has found that he gets the cattle heavier going into winter on covers and corn stalks and last year he believes he saved on the cost of feeding harvested crops during those months.  With assistance from Will Fulwider, Dodge and Dane County Extension Crops Educator, they evaluated the numbers from this year’s effort to determine if the practice pencils out.

Experimenting with 60-inch rows of corn in a field inter-seeded with a cover crop mixture has had mixed results and farmers learned the benefits and challenges when they participated in a Healthy Soil Healthy Water field day last week at Columbus.

“Statistics are just pure numbers and do not take into account the intangibles such as soil health benefits, weight gain,  and the costs of increased manure management when cattle are fed on a lot,” Fulwider said.

“More than just the cost I am looking at this as a holistic approach that improves the health of the beef cattle as well,” Gaska said.  “It is hard to put a dollar amount on the soil and cattle health benefits.”

In summer, Gaska routinely grazes cow-calf pairs, using a small permanent pasture, then wheat stubble and finally the corn stalks and cover crops.

One thing he's noticed is the big difference between the resulting cover crop this year compared to last year.  Moisture availability, temperature and other factors at the time the cover is established makes a difference in which species of the cover crop dominate the field.

Other participants observed similar differences and said their cover crops did not get as tall this year as compared with last year.

Gaska says his clay soils tend to be cool and wet at planting time.  This year he said the brassicas dominated the growth in the field.  Last year the variety of species available to the cattle was much greater, even with the same seed mix.

This year’s mix included small percentages of Daikon Radish, Dwarf Essex, Crimson Clover, Flax, buckwheat, Seven Top Turnip, Medium Red Clover, Trophy Rape, Tetraploid Annual Ryegrass and 60% oats.  Gaska side dressed 36 gallons of 28% and 3 gallons 12-0-0-26S in June and harvested the corn November 10.

Jeff Gaska, a Columbus beef and crop producer, shared his ideas on inter-seeding cover crops into corn to establishing a late fall grazing area for his 35 beef cattle.  His presentation was a part of the Dodge County Healthy Soil and Water field day last week.

Looking at the numbers evaluating this system he suggested that there is a need for better forages that can be planted in late June, tolerate the shade and put on more biomass in the fall.

Brendon Blank, a Dodge County beef grazier and specialist in use of cover crops on farms, suggested watching the grazing cows to see what species they like as well as monitoring the manure in the field. 

“Do they go for the corn stalks or the cover and which cover do they seem to prefer?" Blank asked. "Likely they will eat a mix and balance it themselves.”

Looking at the big picture, Gaska says, “The goal is to use the cattle to feed the crops.  Their manure nourishes the plants and raises the soil organic matter, leading to better crops and better cattle.”

In recent years the Gaskas' increased their wheat acreage to get their corn, soybean and wheat acreage evened out.  Frost seeding red clover into some of the winter wheat enhances the grazing opportunities for the cattle that go onto the field as soon as the wheat is harvested in late July.

On the remaining wheat fields, Gaska plants a 7-way cover crop mix into the harvested field to create another stop in the grazing rotation.

Gaska and others who are using cover crops, particularly covers like clover, have found significant benefits in the nitrogen availability there is for the corn at the time it is tasseling because it is not quickly mineralized.

The Columbus farmer says his goal is to graze longer into the winter.  Thanks to the presence of the grazing cattle, the benefits have included boosted soil fertility, organic matter and better over-all yields ‒ a good payback.