Analysis of Minnesota & Iowa Farms Finds Grazing Cover Crops Saves Money & Improves Soil Health

Cover crops can pay for themselves when combined with managed rotational grazing of cattle, finds a study of eight Midwestern farms. Released today by the Pasture Project, Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, the findings show how the practice can save money by producing valuable forage, reducing erosion, improving soil health and increasing nutrient efficiency.

Funded by a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant, the study is based on soil and financial data collected over three years on eight farms in Iowa and Minnesota. These farms rotationally grazed beef and dairy cattle on planted cover crops, which are non-cash crops such as small grains, brassicas and legumes that are grown between the regular cash crop growing seasons. The analysis showed that grazing the cover crops provided an inexpensive source of forage while building soil health.

Seven of the eight farms had more microbial biomass on their trial plots compared to control plots, a sign of improved soil biology and a potential boost to cash crop production as a result of higher fertility levels. The average cooperating farm spent about $83 per acre on their cover crop ($61 for a diverse, six-species seed cocktail and application, $12 in increased management, and $10 for termination). To graze their cover crop, the average cooperator spent $17 per acre on fencing and water, but grew $140 per acre of forage. The cost of cover cropping ($83 per acre) against the benefit from grazing ($123 per acre) indicates the cost effectiveness of the practice.

The full findings, as well as a new “Grazing Cover Crops How-To Guide,” a video series and other supporting resources, are available for viewing and downloading at http://pastureproject.org/resources-2/articles-studies/grazing-cover-crops.

“While farmers recognize that cover crops improve soil health, many have been hesitant to implement the practice because they assume it’s too expensive,” said Pete Huff, program officer of the Pasture Project, an initiative of the Wallace Center at Winrock International. “We’re excited to join our partners in announcing these findings, which demonstrate that grazing cover crops as winter forage can help farmers and graziers offset their expenses and even generate income.”

Learn more about this project, its findings and available resources at http://pastureproject.org/resources-2/articles-studies/grazing-cover-crops.

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