On a mild day in late March, cattle graze contentedly in the thick and lush pasture on Ray Jones’s farm. Only it’s not really a pasture. Peer through the many species of greens the cattle are munching on and you’ll see the stalks and bare cobs of corn residue. This is a crop field, temporarily turned into forage with cover crops. In a few weeks, Jones will pull his cattle off, let the cover crops grow some more, then run them over with a roller. In the thick mat lying on the ground, Jones will plant his corn. By the end of April, sprouts will emerge.

Still learning “This is my third year doing this,” says Jones. “The first year, I thought it was not going to work, but it did. It’s all still new. We’re still learning.” Of the 700 acres of crops Jones has in Coffee County, Tennessee, nearly all of it is planted in cover crops — vetch, rye, triticale, crimson clover, radish, Austrian pea. “There’s like something in those cover crops that’s like medicine,” he says. “Cattle just do great on them.”

Jones is already getting extraordinary gains on his cattle, but cutting the grazing short has its advantages. “If you graze it right up until you plant, you lose some of the benefits that go back to the soil,” says Jones. “I’ll even push planting back a few weeks to let cover crops grow.” The goal, he says, is more than cheap gains on cattle. It’s just as much — if not more — about soil health.

The idea of grazing cover crops certainly isn’t new, but it’s rapidly gaining appreciation thanks to a few mavericks like Gabe Brown of North Dakota, who has gained wide acclaim for his holistic view of integrating crops, livestock, and cover crops on his 5,000 acre ranch near Bismarck.

Ray Jones with cover crops and cattle. The cover will grow at least 18 inches taller before he crimps it and no-tills the field in corn.

Ray Jones with cover crops and cattle. The cover will grow at least 18 inches taller before he crimps it and no-tills the field in corn.

NRCS connection. Adam Daugherty, Jones’s NRCS soil conservationist, knows of another 50 farmers in Coffee County who have planted cover crops in the past three years. “We’re seeing tremendous results. Do I have any Gabe Browns in the county? No, but do I have people who are heading in that direction? Most definitely.”

NRCS has developed a strong program promoting soil health, recognizing that soil is about much more than just chemistry, says Ron Nichols, NRCS soil health campaign coordinator. Soil is largely about biology, and that’s a big change from what many people learned in school — NRCS soil scientists included. The agency is encouraging farmers to give cover crops a try by making cost share monies available. The amounts vary by county and state, but the assistance has helped put many acres into cover crops. NRCS funds several sustainable management practices, but last year requests for help on cover crops topped the list. In Tennessee, the agency helped farmers plant 100,000 acres. Indiana had even more, with NRCS helping plant 160,000 acres.

Reducing risks. Some of Dennis Konkle’s acres are in that last number. “I was working with NRCS on some other projects, and they asked if I wanted to give  cover crops a try,” says Konkle, a farmer in Greenville, Indiana. “Otherwise, we might have experimented with cover crops, but we wouldn’t have been as aggressive.”

NRCS helped Konkle by covering $25 per acre of his costs. “It wasn’t much, but it was a safety net.” He planted a simple mix — 4 pounds of oil seed radishes, 7 pounds of cereal rye, and 15 pounds of wheat. “That spring we pulled a core sample and we had a live tap root of cereal rye 42 inches deep. It was amazing. ”

Konkle picked up an extra six weeks of grazing and saved about 120 bales of hay. “It had high grazing potential, but there also was a lot of nitrogen left over for the following crop. That really intrigues me,” adds Konkle.

As much as NRCS is promoting cover crops and helping farmers like Konkle, Nichols says the real credit goes to farmers themselves. NRCS is simply passing the information along. “It was really just a matter of learning from farmers, listening to all their stories and understanding the potential of this,” he says. “We really listened and learned. We’re still learning.”

The benefits of grazing cover crops are many — an additional rotation on land, cheap gains on cattle, improved soil health, even reduced weed pressure from the cover crop mat.

A place for livestock. Cover crops help soils by feeding microbes during the winter and adding organic matter, but they have yet another benefit: they bring in livestock, says NRCS soil scientist Ray Archuleta. Anyone with an interest in soil health will undoubtedly have heard of Archuleta. He’ll freely profess that, after many years of working with NRCS, he had a major shift in thinking a few years ago. “I finally had the epiphany that nature was always the mentor. It was always the template, but my education got in the way,” says Archuleta. “I came to realize I was the product of reduction science, not holistic science.”

Attend one of his workshops and you’ll hear him use the words biology and ecology and microbes. But another one is “biomimicry.” In short: Nature already has the answers. What farmers need to do is let nature work for them. In the case of livestock, look at the buffalo and the wildebeest, he says. They move in groups, and the urine and manure distribution is closer. When farmers let livestock mob graze their pastures, they are mimicking that aspect of nature. Farmers will see huge spikes in bacteria, better nutrient cycling, and increased organic matter. In addition, the cover crops themselves change. When a plant is being grazed, says Archuleta, it reallocates some photosynthate materials back into the root system and stimulates more root growth. Plus, grazing causes the roots to release compounds that feed soil biology and stimulates  the roots. “Roots start dying and growing and dying and growing, and bacteria feeds on those roots. That
becomes part of nutrient cycling.”

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Decades ago, just about every farm had livestock. In the 1970s, most of those farms sold their livestock, tore out fences, and devoted the land to crops. Any farmer who kept livestock did so because he had some land that wasn’t fit for corn and soybeans, so in many parts of the country, the diversified farm became a thing of the past.

Now comes the realization that livestock actually improve soil. If the idea gains traction, that cover crops help cropland and livestock help it even more, could we see a reintegration of livestock on farms? It’s possible, many say, including Jeff Rasawehr. An owner of Center Seeds, which sells cover crop seeds, Rasawehr was an early advocate and has used cover crops for years on his own farm in Ohio.

But there has been much lost since the 1970s—and not just infrastructure like sheds and fences and watering systems. There also is a knowledge lost on an entire generation. Rasawehr, who raises live-stock on his cover crops, says his business is getting livestock questions. “When we started in 2012, our questions were more about cover crops for soil health. Now, all year long, our phone calls are mostly about forage,” he says. “How do we feed cows? How do we feed sheep?” A year ago, Rasawehr was faced with a question himself. “I tore down fences in the ’70s with my dad and grandfather,” he says, then laughs. “Now, I’m trying to remember how to build a fence.”

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