Cover Crop Species and Crop Rotation Considerations

Cover crops are used not only to prevent soil erosion and increase soil health, but they can also be used as a feed source for grazing livestock. Moreover, grazing not only reduces stored feed costs but can boost the ecosystem and provide value to the cropping system by making the system more like it would occur in nature.

Grazing cover crops takes planning and management, but when implemented properly this practice allows the producer to get maximum returns from cover cropping. Options include summer annuals, winter annuals, oats, and brassicas. Highlights are below, and you can learn more in this factsheet.

cover of fact sheet showing grazing cattle

Summer annuals, otherwise known as warm-season annuals, prefer warmer soils at planting, making them ideal for crop rotation with small grains or early harvested crops. If the goal is to maximize yields of the summer annuals or stored forages followed by late grazing, their planting time would be like that of corn and soybeans, giving them a longer growing season.

Winter annuals, or cool-season annuals, are crops planted from late summer to early fall, grown over winter, which can be harvested in both the fall and the subsequent growing season. Many of the species considered options for cover crop grazing are also regarded as row crops.

Brassicas produce a high-protein, highly digestible forage. Feeding too much, without acclimating the animals, can result in bloat and animal health concerns.

Oats are a common forage species used as a cover crop and can be utilized in a variety of applications. Since oats winter kill, they will need to be mixed in a blend of other species to provide continuous cover, but they grow quickly and can often be grazed within thirty days of planting.