Several cattle graze cover crops planted at the UNL High Plains Ag Lab as part of a research project.
Looking for ways to use the same piece of land to grow crops and also graze cattle is under way at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney, for the first time in the facility's 41-year history.
In this integrated crop and livestock research, UNL crop and livestock specialists are working together to test the feasibility of grazing cattle on various forages planted in rotation between proso millet and wheat on dryland plots at the ag lab north of Sidney.
From a livestock producer's perspective, grazing such a forage crop would allow their herd to utilize the cropland for a month or so before the next crop is planted, giving native pastures a break from grazing pressure.
From a dryland farmer's perspective, it would be an opportunity to earn some extra income by reducing the fallow time in a crop rotation. It's also cheaper to fence the field temporarily and move cattle in to graze, than cutting and baling forage and moving it to pastures to feed the herd.
The project was described during the recent High Plains Ag Lab Field Day by Drew Lyon, UNL dryland cropping systems specialist, and Karla Jenkins, UNL cow-calf/range management specialist.
For a long time, one goal of the High Plains Ag Lab has been to combine livestock and crop research in this way, Lyon says. The ag lab occupies 2,400 acres of a former U.S. Army munitions depot. One-third of the acreage consists of dryland crop rotations, and two-thirds is pasture land. Research into crops and livestock has been conducted separately.
The study was begun in summer 2010. Researchers planted combinations of legumes, grasses, and brassicas and compared them to field peas, field peas and oats, and triticale to determine the amount of forage produced as well as the nutrient quality for grazing beef cattle.
The plots were planted in April and then clipped for forage analysis twice, first in June and again in early July. The plots were then sprayed to kill subsequent growth prior to seeding wheat in the fall.
The 2010 data showed that forage combinations containing forage peas and oats provided the most biomass at each clipping. Digestibility of all the forage combinations was over 80 percent in early June. By July the combinations with winter triticale still maintained a digestibility of 71-73%, but those containing oats dropped to 59-65%.
According to Jenkins, this lower digestibility is expected with higher forage production. The results of this initial study suggest these forage crop combinations would be an acceptable alternative to grazing native range early in the grazing season.
In 2011, one forage mix was selected and planted in April. Cattle were brought in to graze in paddocks where hot-wire fence had been installed and water tanks moved in. The cattle were not rotationally grazed because of the design of the research, Jenkins said, but a producer could rotate herds.
Replicated crested wheatgrass paddocks were also grazed for a control treatment. The 2011 grazing study was affected by hail, which shredded some of the forage and temporarily slowed plant growth.
Samples are being collected to determine the forage availability, an estimate of forage intake, and diet quality for the animals. Forage samples were clipped for diet quality, and esophageally fistulated cows were sampling the pastures so a comparison of the quality available and the quality selected may be determined.
Data will be analyzed to come up with some recommendations. Lyon said this study is hopefully the first of a number of similar integrated research projects.