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Incorporating annual forages and grazed cover crops into crop/livestock systems An on-farm, producer-led, annual forage and grazed cover crop project

Farms and ranches in Nebraska utilize approximately 45.3 million acres, or 91% of Nebraska's total land area. Forty-six percent of the land area is range and pasture lands. Nebraska is unique in that many areas of the state have a large amount of both range and cropland in close proximity and many farmers also raise livestock (See Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Rangeland and cropland in Nebraska

The integration of crop and livestock systems is not new in Nebraska, but there has been a significant interest in diversifying cropping systems to include more forage options and grazing livestock on croplands for all or part of the year.

Including annual forages and grazed cover crops into established cropping systems may provide options to diversify farm enterprises, increase management options for cattle on range and croplands, and provide complementary cover crop benefits to croplands (see video below).

A team with the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition (NGLC), University of Nebraska Extension, and eight crop/livestock producers (see Fig. 2) in Nebraska developed a project to highlight on-farm research focused on integrating crop/livestock systems. The main objective of the project was to gather forage production, grazing management, and soil data from each of the farms to better understand and educate other producers on the benefits and challenges of these management practices.

Figure 2. Location of collaborating farms where data were collected.

As part of the project, producers selected an annual forage seed mix that fit within their cropping systems, would accomplish specific soil health or other benefits, and would provide forage for their livestock.

Technicians with the NGLC and the Nebraska Extension collected forage production and quality data prior to grazing on the annual forages in each year and recorded grazing times and other forage management practices. The data provided a data set at each of the farms for each year of the study to document "real-world" examples of how producers utilize annual forages and grazed cover crops in their systems (see Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Samples of forage collected at participating farms. at least 20 samples were taken at each farm in each year for forage production and quality.

Data collected at each ranch includes:

  • Seed mixtures and costs
  • Forage production separated by plant functional group (i.e., grass, brassica, legume, etc.)
  • Forage quality separated by plant function group
  • Kind and class of livestock and number of days grazed
Figure 4. Example of forage production data collected at one of the participating farms.

Information on each of the farms can be found in the link below

Jerry Volesky, UNL Range and Forage Specialist, describes a continuous annual forage system for livestock grazing

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