One of the most widely reaped benefits of cover crops is providing valuable supplemental forage to grazing animals. Well-planned annual cover crop mixes can provide highly nutritious available forage when perennial grass pastures are either unproductive, poor in quality, or in need of rest. The most critical period for perennial pastures is the month prior to fall dormancy and grazing cover mixes and providing rest during this period can greatly improve the long term performance of permanent pastures.
Cover crops can provide quality grazing when grass pastures are of low quality, such as late fall when native grasses are poor quality or early spring before native grass greens up. Most of the production from a perennial grass pasture occurs in the first half of the growing season, while most of the forage demand in a spring calving herd occurs in the last half of the growing season. Incorporating cover crops into a pasture program can provide a sequence of quality forage that can produce excellent animal performance for as much as twelve months a year and eliminate the need for hay or other stored feed. This can be particularly useful for a grass finishing operation which needs a constant supply of high quality forage, for grass based dairy operations, or for any livestock owner that wants to maximize performance and minimize costs. The cost per ton of feed from a grazed cover crop is usually far less than the cost of hay or silage.
For example, a grazing program can utilize native warm season grass in May, June, and July. Using native grass for just this short period is called intensive-early stocking. This allows a doubling of the season-long stocking rate, uses the grass at its peak forage quality, and also allows a rest during the critical period prior to dormancy. Animals can then be moved to a cover crop blend of summer annuals like BMR sorghum-sudangrass and cowpeas for August and September, then transferred to a blend that utilizes cool season covers like turnips, radishes, oats, spring peas, and spring barley. This can be pastured through fall and then the herd can be moved to corn stalks that have been aerially seeded to rye. This can often allow grazing throughout the winter and spring, especially if strip grazed to ration out availability of spilled grain throughout the winter. Presto! Twelve months of grazing; no hay needed. This is only one set of options among many. There are unlimited cover crop options for providing grazing at different times of the year. See pages 54-56 for examples of Spring, Summer, and Fall Mixes.