Good soil health depends on cover crop mix

In Southeast Farm Press

Matt Poore continues to stress the importance of cover crop mixes on grazing land to both improve soil health and increase livestock nutrition.

During the Southeastern Soil Health Field Day held at Fork L Farm in Norwood, N.C. April 29, Poore showed a field where cattle graze that included a great deal of plant diversity, with 13 different species. “Is this always a good thing?” Poore asked.

Poore said diversity is a good thing in terms of both soil health and animal productivity, but farmers need to look at the various plant species in their pastures and determine which species are undesirable. “Farmers need to think about their management to get rid of the species they don’t want to have,” said Poore, Extension specialist with North Carolina State University and director of the Amazing Grazing program.

At the Fork L Farm pasture, little barley was the least desirable species found, Poore said.

“Little barley is the most negative in this particular mix,” he stressed. “Cows won’t eat it; they don’t like it. At six inches tall, they will eat it, but as soon as it starts to put on a head, which it does very early, the cows can’t get it down because it’s very sharp, like little teeth.”

Poore said good pasture management all boils down to keeping the most desirable plants in a cover crop mix. Most of the biomass will come from grasses, but Poore said legumes are important for supplying nitrogen to the system, which means providing a great deal of protein than the animal needs.

“What the animal doesn’t need is going right back in feces and urine and goes back into the system,” Poore said. “When you graze this land, there is going to be some crushing of the legume and other tender plants and some of that nitrogen will go back into the soil and the grasses will go and pick that up and you’ll get a flush of grass growth that second time through”

Poore said fescue is a good perennial for soil health because it provides a good root system, ensuring you have roots all the time. However, toxic fescue is still a problem that farmers must take steps to avoid, Poore stressed.

While fescue is a good for pastureland and provides many benefits, Poore said diversity is critical for soil health and farmers need to move beyond a monoculture system. “Maintaining 10 percent of the land in annuals is good for diversity in the forage system, but you have to be a real good farm to successfully do annuals year after year after year. They need to be planted over a two-week period and are not well suited for part-time farmers,” he said.

Good pastureland needs a mixture of annuals and perennials, Poore said.

“Annuals give you good quality feed when you need it. Everybody’s system is different, and you have to figure out how it works on your farm, but there is a role for annuals,” he said. “These annuals need a chance to develop and get a root in the ground and once they do they really take off and get a lot of high quality grazing out of them.”

A mixture of sorghum sudan, millet and cowpeas are a good annuals to consider for both soil health and animal health, according to Poore. “But you might have weeds that you will need to get rid of, so you need to know what your challenges are going to be from a weed standpoint when deciding what annual to plant,” he said.

“Pearl millet is hard to beat if you want to graze your land multiple times,” he added. “If you don’t overgraze it, you will also get good regrowth with the cow peas. And the second time through more of the grass will come through because you released some nitrogen in the system.”

Poore said sorghum sudan grows like a weed when it rains a lot and offers very deep fibrous roots that are good for soil health.

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