Livestock operations with cover crops often use them for forage

Vertical bar chart comparing cover crop use on operations with and without livestock in 2021.

Researchers with USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) examined survey data to identify how producers who planted cover crops, such as rye or winter wheat, used them. Unharvested cover crops are often left in the field to provide residue cover or to add organic matter to the soil. Cover crops can also be used for livestock forage, such as when livestock graze in the spring or fall, or can be mechanically harvested in the spring and stored as haylage or silage. Researchers found that in 2021, 89 percent of cow-calf operations and 72 percent of dairy operations with cover crops reported using at least some of their cover crop acreage for forage, either through harvesting or grazing. The high proportions of livestock producers who used cover crops for forage suggests that their value as forage is an important factor in cover crop adoption for these operations, especially in cow-calf operations. Dairy operations were more likely to harvest cover crops than graze them. One of the reasons for this is because dairy cows often consume at least a portion of rations as harvested hay or silage in a barn or milking parlor. This contrasts with cow-calf operations, where cattle are more likely to graze on pasture than be fed in a barn. Dairy operations also commonly harvest and store corn silage, so they may be more likely to have the equipment and experience necessary to harvest and store cover crops as haylage or silage. Even among operations without livestock, harvesting cover crops for forage is relatively common, with 41 percent of operations without livestock reporting harvesting cover crops for forage. Information on cover crop practices in livestock operations can be found in the ERS report Cover Crops on Livestock Operations: Potential for Expansion in the United States, published in May 2024.

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