Integrating Cover Crops in Grain and Beef Cattle Operations for Soil-Livestock Synergies

Participants

Dr. Dan Shike, UIUC Animal Sciences

Dr. Andrew Margenot, UIUC Crop Sciences

Travis Meteer, UIUC Extension

Ed Ballard, UIUC Extension (Retired)

Summary 

Integrated crop and beef cattle operations require special consideration and planning to evaluate what systems will be the most mutually beneficial. The use of cover crops in cropping systems has gained popularity and has historically been utilized for the potential to improve soil health. However, these cover crops also offer potential benefits to livestock production. This project aims to establish a multidisciplinary team and generate preliminary data on the impacts of including cover crops in an integrated crop and beef cattle operation. The central hypothesis is that grazing cover crops or harvesting cover crops for feed can generate short-term economic benefits in an integrated crop and beef cattle operation while still providing long-term conservation benefits and enhancement of soil health. We believe that understanding and quantifying the feed value of cover crops and the impact of grazing cover crops on soil health will help producers make management decisions that balance dual goals of profitable beef production and sustainable soil management. Collectively, including cover crops in integrated operations will benefit both the individual farmer and society.

Objective 1: Determine the forage yield, quality and feed value of different small grain forage monocultures and legume blends

Objective 2: Determine the effects of grazed or ungrazed cover crops on soil health, with an emphasis on physical and biological soil health

This project will be conducted on 2 research sites. Objectives 1 and 2 will be achieved utilizing the Dudley Smith Farm (DS) in Pana, IL. Cover crop treatments include: cereal rye, triticale, cereal rye + crimson clover, and triticale + crimson clover, and a no cover crop negative control and would be utilized in a corn/cover crop/soybean rotation. Each treatment will be replicated 4 times across the field. Cover crops will be drill seeded after corn harvest (ideally September). Cover crops will be grazed in late fall/winter after 45-60 days growth and again in the spring. Gestating beef cows will strip graze at a stocking rate of 1 cow per acre. Each replicated plot will have an ungrazed portion for comparison of grazing effects. We also propose to utilize 32 acres currently managed by the Department of Animal Sciences on campus to further achieve Objective 2. The same cover crop treatments (minus the negative control) will be utilized in a summer annual/cover crop rotation. Each treatment will again be replicated 4 times and will be drill seeded in the fall, following a summer annual (Teff). Cover crops will be mechanically harvested as silage the following spring and stored in plastic AgBags to be used in the feeding trial later in the fall.