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Integrating Livestock Into a Sustainable Cropping System By Extending the Grazing Season

Edward N. Ballard
Animal Systems Educator
University of Illinois Extension
(217) 347-5126; ballard@extension.uiuc.edu
Edward N. Ballard

The integration of extended crop rotations involving pasture may mitigate some of the negative effects associated with short-term crop rotations. The benefits of introducing grazing and forage systems arise mainly because farmers rely less on production of annual crops (e.g., corn and soybeans) and invest in more permanent, perennial agriculture (Fales et al. 1993). Beef cattle fit into such a system because of their unique ability to utilize forages and prosper with minimal management. The Dudley Smith Research Project proposes to study systems of beef production that maximize forage use by the grazing animal, minimize fertilization, minimize grain feeding, and minimize the use of purchased supplemental feeds. This situation can result in economically profitable, environmentally sound, and biologically efficient low-input alternatives for farm enterprises.

Utilizing Crop Residues

Although residues from corn, soybeans, and sorghum may be used, the major source of crop residue is from the corn crop following grain harvest. The corn plant has over 50 percent of its weight in stalks, leaves, shucks, and cobs. Considerable grain also may remain in the field after combining. Even with conservative combining techniques, four to six bushels per acre may remain. A crop with a 100-bushel grain yield will normally yield two to three tons of residue. Assuming only 25 percent utilization, this dry matter residue can provide 80 to 100 grazing days. With this large amount of dry matter potentially available, careful consideration should be given to methods of feeding.

Material Yield/A Dry Matter Crude Protein TDN
tons % % %
Husklage
  Illinois 1.0 55 6.0 ---
Iowa 1.1 67 4.0 35
Stalklage
  Illinois 6.0 47 10.0 ---
Iowa 3.0 52 4.4 ---
Purdue 2.8 -- 6.0 ---
Corn Silage 15 - 20 35 3.0 22
Corn Stover 2 - 3 87 5.0 50
Corn Cobs --- 90 2.8 47
Soybean Stover --- 90 5.0 40
Sorghum Stover 2 - 3 85 4.5 49
Source: Salvage feeds for beef cattle, ID-9, University of Kentucky

Table 1. Approximate feed value and yield of refuse materials.

Crop residues available for cattle vary considerably in both quality and quantity. Table 1 lists some of the common residues, as well as the quantity and quality you may expect to have in the field.

Utilizing Winter Annuals

An alternative to feeding hay or stockpiled tall fescue is to graze winter annual forages. Winter annual forages have two main advantages. First, the forage quality is generally higher than that of stockpiled tall fescue or grass hay. Lactating cows and/or growing stock could perform adequately on these crops with little or no supplementation. In addition, winter annuals could be used as ground cover on row-crop farms to reduce soil erosion, improve soil organic matter, and reduce sedimentation of streams. Research from Illinois and surrounding states suggests that several crops might produce high-quality feed for winter grazing. These crops include wheat, annual ryegrass, triticale, spring oats, turnips, forage rape, and kale.

Forage brassicas are high-quality, high-yielding, fast-growing crops that are particularly suitable for grazing by livestock. Both tops (stems plus leaves) and roots (bulbs) can be grazed and are very nutritious. The turnips are very high in energy. It has been suggested that one might want to include spring oats in the seeding to increase fiber level. Brassicas can be seeded in July or August for fall/winter grazing.

Cereal grains can be used to extend the grazing season. They can provide high-quality forage in late fall/ early winter (about 80 days after seeding) and again in the following spring. Rye is the most winter-hardy cereal crop and the first to break dormancy in the spring. Rye is easy to establish and is characterized as being the best cereal for absorbing unused soil nitrogen.

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