Cover Crop Forages Can Cut Feed Costs

10/13/2012 7:00 AM

Harvesting cover crops and feeding them to the entire dairy herd can improve a farm’s cash flow by decreasing the amount of purchased feed.

But there are other benefits to using these forages, such as increasing soil quality, effective use of nutrients and maximizing crop production per acre.

Implementation of new cropping strategies requires both thought and management. There isn’t a perfect strategy that will work on every type of farm, so knowing what the end goals are will help in the decision process to implement a new cropping plan.

There are several key questions to answer before implementing a plan. They include: (1. Is there time to plant and harvest these forages? (2. Is the proper equipment available? (3. Will the soil type and climate support the desired types of forages and rotations? (4. Will the amount of fertilizer or manure applied increase? (5. Is there storage capabilities for additional feeds? (6. What animal groups will the forages be fed to and how will it be fed?

Implementing a new cropping strategy requires an investment in time and management as strategies may need to be altered quickly based on weather and possibly other conditions changing.

It seems like summer droughts are becoming more of the norm and as such adding diversity to a cropping plan can help the farm operation be proactive rather than reactive.

The Extension Dairy Team has worked on numerous cash flows for producers evaluating the impact of double-cropping on farm profitability. The potential savings on purchased feed costs range from five to six figures over one year.

The simple management practice of feeding more home-raised feeds and maintaining ample inventory for all animal groups can have a huge impact to farm sustainability.

From the nutrient management perspective, double-cropping limits soil erosion and improves soil water holding capacity. In light of the dry conditions that affect Pennsylvania, this can be a positive incentive to examine this management practice seriously.

As with any practice there are the cons. There will be increased costs associated with seed and fertilizer. However, based on working with producers’ cash-flow plans, the reduction in purchased feed costs offsets these costs.

For a lot of producers, some of the planting or harvesting may have to involve custom hire. This needs to be thought out ahead of time.

If permanent storage structures are not available, then bagging the material may be necessary. Not only is storage a concern, but what animal group will get this feed and how will it be incorporated into a TMR or fed out should be considered.

For a producer initiating double-cropping for the first time, heifers and dry cows can be the logical animal group to feed these alternative forages. They don’t require the highest quality forage and delays in harvesting affecting fiber levels can still provide acceptable feed for these animals.

The biggest factor affecting the success of double-cropping is the timing of planting and harvesting compared with the primary crops raised on the farm.

This is where the increased management comes into play. Depending on the geographical area and the flexibility of planting and harvesting dates, this will dictate what options are available.

Penn State’s Crop Management Group has been conducting a lot of field studies evaluating different mixtures and how they fit into a typical crop rotation.

To those who are new to cover crops — try something. Select enough acreage that will produce a minimum of 100 to 150 tons of silage (assumes this will go into an Ag Bag).

Talk with neighbors who are veterans at double-cropping to find what is working and what is not. There are various field days and workshops offered to showcase different practices.

The benefits to cover crops are many, and it is an opportunity not to be at the mercy of the feed market.

Virginia “Ginny” Ishler is a nutrient management specialist and manager of Penn State University’s dairy complex.

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