Moving into late winter, it's easy to see how grazing livestock on cornstalks throughout this past summer, fall and winter has helped preserve valuable hay resources. Dave Cunningham of Wausa, who farms with his sons, Derek and Dakota, believes grazing cornstalks and soybean stubble saves hay and is good for crop production the following year.
After years of rotating cows to different fields of stalks and stubble, Cunningham finds that it is easier to no-till plant dryland corn into residue that has been grazed. Grazing stalks "gets rid of some of the residue" and spreads it out in the field, providing a more suitable no-till seedbed in the spring, he says.
The key to late season stalk grazing for Cunningham is pulling cattle from those fields before the soil begins to thaw and becomes muddy. The only compaction issues he's experienced have been in fields where cattle were fed with bale feeders too long in the spring, causing compacted muddy soil conditions around the feeders, making the seedbed rough and cloddy.
"We like to calve by late February, so by February 1, we usually feed our cows," he says. Cunningham typically fences off 10 to 15 acres of stalks as a sacrifice feeding area for his cows during calving. While he may have compaction issues in the sacrificed part of the field, he has no problems with other fields grazed during the winter.
This past year, drought-stressed cornstalks still provided a good feed resource, he says. "There were less husks and leaves, so cows spent fewer days in those fields," Cunningham says. "But there was still a lot of feed in dryland stalks in our area in fields that we combined because during harvest, corn shelled off ears that were immature or small. Some ears fell through the snapping rollers." He says, "There was more grain on the ground in some of our dryland fields than in a good year."
On irrigated ground, Cunningham often bales at least part of the residue for feed use. He said that he recently purchased a new rake that leaves half of the residue in the field. After baling stalks and stubble, cattle are allowed to graze the stover left behind.
Cunningham believes that allowing cattle to graze cornstalks on irrigated ground helps light tillage operations do a better job. "There is better soil penetration with the implements after the cows have been allowed to graze," he says. "We usually raise between 200 and 250 bushels per acre on irrigated corn, so there is a lot of residue out there after combining." Grazing cornstalks also eliminates potential volunteer corn issues the following season in glyphosate-resistant soybeans.
University of Nebraska Extension beef specialist, Rick Rasby, says that cornstalks in particular have been a salvation for producers this past year. "After last year, thank goodness we had cornstalks," Rasby told producers attending the North Central Nebraska Ag Progress Show in Atkinson recently.
Some producers have been reluctant to graze cattle on cornstalks or to allow neighboring producers to lease their cornstalks because of compaction concerns, and the perceived accompanying loss of yield the following year. "The high price of corn causes this question," Rasby said.
While late winter grazing may cause some compaction issues if the soil thaws, research has proven that there are normally no ill effects on subsequent crop yields after grazing. "In fact, there is a slight yield bump on grazed cornstalks," Rasby said.
If you'd like to learn more about the value of grazing cornstalks, contact Rasby at 402-472-6477 or email [email protected].