Cover Crop Terminators

Gaining grazing and minimizing costs with sheep.

Cover Crops

Cover Crop Terminators

Gaining grazing and minimizing costs with sheep.

By admin

Organic, no-till, conventional —no matter the method farmers use to grow crops, widening the gap between expenses and income is a shared goal. Incorporating sheep into their management plan just might be a shared solution.

The Montana State University Department of Animal and Range Sciences is evaluating the potential for using sheep to prepare seed beds, manage weeds, and terminate cover crops. The project focuses on organic systems, but there’s potential for application in other systems, as well.

“Because they can’t use herbicides organic farmers do a lot of tillage, which can be expensive and damaging to the soil. We’re trying to reduce tillage by using sheep,” says Patrick Hatfield, Montana State University animal sciences department head.

Sheep work. This project is part of a long term systems approach research project looking at incorporating livestock into organic systems, but some early observations are looking positive for there being financial gain.

A 5-year crop rotation is simulated starting with safflower undersown with sweet clover. Safflower is harvested and the biennial clover comes back the following year as a cover crop. Acres are then rotated to winter wheat, high value organic lentils, and back to winter wheat. Sheep are used to terminate the sweet clover — or winter pea, another cover option — in June or July prior to wheat seeding.

The first year of the study was an extreme year. Very dry conditions meant tilling the plots 4 times to work out clods and create a suitable seedbed in the controls. But researchers were able to no-till directly into the grazed plots. Subsequent years have required fewer tillage passes for seed bed preparation.

For cover termination, winter pea has proven easier to control with grazing than sweet clover, Devon Ragen, research associate managing the project, notes. If left too long before grazing the biennial sweet clover stalk gets too robust and keeps coming back, which isn’t all bad when considering grazing can add profit on top of savings from reduced tillage or herbicide passes.

“The first year of the project, the lambs gained 0.5 pounds per day while terminating the cover crop. That was $1 per day in a $2 lamb market,” Hatfield says. And the average would likely have been better if the lambs hadn’t been left in until they grazed the cover crop to the ground.

Just as farmers might choose a herbicide based on their desired results, they may opt for different sheep for different goals. If gains are the goal, Hatfield says, a producer could come through with lambs initially for the good forage and then switch to breeding animals to finish the job when AUMs are the only need.

“From a pure cropping standpoint you might want to terminate as quickly as possible, but we’ve grazed as long as 30 days to terminate a crop and got 30 days of gain,” Hatfield says.

Ragen notes they’re not encouraging farmers to become sheep growers or sheep growers to be farmers, but more to encourage cooperation and integration between the two. “Huge range flocks are disappearing and being replaced by small flocks that may not have the grazing resources,” she says of the potential.

Easy intro. Sheep are also a relatively simple option for those looking to incorporate livestock on acres that have long been dedicated to crops only. “The facilities needed to house and transport sheep are less than what is needed for cattle, and they can be managed by one person. You can literally grab an escaped sheep and put them back where they belong. Not so much with a cow,” she says. Sheep can be maintained on a field with temporary electric fencing, or if mob grazing even maintained by a herder without fencing at all.

Data on subsequent yields and improved soil health will continue to be collected. “It may not eliminate herbicides or tillage, but we’re looking to add another tool,” Hatfield says.

Read more