Winter cover crops make better spring soils


As most farmers know, winter is probably the most stressful season of the year on livestock. With temperatures dropping below zero, it is a time when feed intake for livestock is at its peak and with added feed intake comes added cost on the farmer.

Making sure livestock such as cattle have enough dry matter and forage in their diet is also necessary for proper growth and development. During the winter, it is extremely important, as most cows are either close to calving or have just calved, making it even more important to have a good source of forage to carry them through until the spring.

With the winter season in full swing, many farmers are battling with the difficulties that arise with raising livestock. One of the biggest challenges of raising livestock during the winter is having enough hay or pasture available to make it through until the growing season in the spring.

Grazing through winter

One way to ensure this is by planting cover crops that can be grazed throughout the winter. Grazing winter cover crops can prove to be very beneficial to a farming operation by providing winter forage for livestock.

Cover crops also increase the soil biology and organic matter, as well as decrease the chances for soil erosion and nutrient runoff in local water systems. Planting winter cover crops can also prove to be very cost effective, as they are usually cheap and allow the farmer to save money on fuel, wear and tear on equipment as well as time it takes to put up traditional dry hay or high moisture hay.

The possibilities for grazing winter cover crops are many, with the only limitation being the ability to fence off the area that is to be grazed.

The benefits of cover crops are many.

Cover crops offer a great alternative to traditional feeding practices such as feeding hay in ring feeders or bunk feeding. Cover crops are also better for the soil by helping to reduce ground compaction, as well as delivering nutrients and organic matter back into the soil and reduce soil erosion by keeping vegetation on the landscape during the winter months.

Planting cover crops in fields that are generally used for conventional row cropping practices can prove to be very beneficial to the soil.

Building biology

Allowing your livestock to graze cover crops during the winter will not only provide forage throughout the winter for the livestock, but will also help build up the soil biology and increase the organic matter to a healthy level, making the soil more productive the next spring.

When grazing winter cover crops, it is important to determine how you are going to get the most out of your cover crop. One way to extend grazing throughout the winter is to install a rotational grazing plan.

By dividing up the cover crop in smaller grazing paddocks and moving the livestock more frequently, you can ensure the forage is high quality and reduce bare soil exposure and compaction. Different types of cover crops for winter grazing include sorghum/Sudan, millet, cereal rye, turnips, radishes, oats, clover and vetch.

There are many different types of cover crops to consider for winter grazing and they can be mixed accordingly. Some of the more popular choices for winter cover crop grazing include cereal rye, vetch, radishes, turnips, oats, as well as many others.

When to plant

For winter grazing, it is important to make sure to get your cover crops out early enough to allow the plant to get a good start before the first frost. The best time to plant winter cover crops that are intended to be grazed through the winter is usually late summer and early fall.

So if you’re considering winter grazing cover crops on your farm, contact your county soil and water conservation districts and talk with them about some possible varieties and mixes that would work for you.


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Mark Wallen is an agriculture resource specialist with the Guernsey Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached by email at, or by phone at 740-489-5276.



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