Winter Grazing of Cover Crops


How many acres of cover crop does a cow-calf pair need to make it through a typical winter?

-From South-Central Kansas


Assuming a fall calving operation, a 1300 lb cow and about 3600 lbs/acre usable forage, it would take about 1/3 acre per cow/calf per month.  

If it’s a spring calving operation, you’ll need to count the calf separately, so it would take more acres, about ½ acre per.

-Stan Boltz, USDA NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist for MI, MN, ND, SD, and WI and former Rangeland Management Specialist 

However, adding onto Stan’s comments, board members Michael Thompson, Rock Ormiston, and Lucinda Stuenkel, all pointed out that those numbers are assuming good conditions for plant growth.  It it’s a dry or cool year, there won’t be as much growth.  Additionally, growth can be affected by available moisture, planting rate, and planting date.  So, the amount of acres will really be a range depending on all those variables.   

Board member Cade Rensink provided some more input:  On the question, as has been mentioned several times, there’s a lot of “it depends.”  It depends on cover crop mix, moisture, grazing system, how much residue he wants to leave, animal units, etc., etc., etc.  If these are moderate cows, they need between 925 and 1150 pounds of dry matter per month.  Based on predicted biomass production, desired residue, and desired harvest efficiency, he should be able to use this range to back into a stocking rate. Lastly, our advisor, Candy Thomas, USDA NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist for IA, KS, NE, and OK, suggested it would be best for you to clip, dry, and weigh your available forage to most accurately know how much you have available.  She also shared a link to a cover crop grazing calculator app/website that could help as well.

As with many soil health questions, the answers begin with “it depends.”  You can start with these numbers and tools to get an initial idea, the next step is to find others who have experience in this area to learn more from them and how they make decisions and observations based on the variables listed above.  (*The Kansas Soil Health Alliance is here to help you find someone with experience!)

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