Illinois is blessed with very fertile farmland. Higher land prices, soil health benefits, and the ability to grow more feed are incentives to add cover crops to a diversified farming operation. Using cover crops following cash crop production for added forage is one of the best opportunities for IL cattlemen to lower production costs.
A perfect spot for cover crops is following corn silage harvest. The most popular cover following corn silage is a mix of oats and turnips. This mix will yield the most tonnage for fall/early winter grazing. This mix will also winter kill, so termination is easier. This mix should be planted prior to September 15th. A seeding rate of 2 bu./acre oats and 4 lbs. /acre of forage turnip would be my recommendation.
If you find yourself after September 15th, your opportunities for fall/early winter forage yield is lower. At this point, cereal rye or triticale are the go-to options. They can produce some forage for early winter grazing, but the bulk of the yield will be in the spring. When drilling cereal rye or triticale alone, seed 90 lbs./ acre. If you fly either of these on, up the seeding rates 10%. These two forages will not winter kill. They will lay dormant and jump in the spring.
If you choose to graze in the winter, frozen ground will help decrease loss of stand. Stand reduction can be severe if cattle are out during wet, muddy conditions. This will reduce yield in the spring.
Grazing in the spring is an option. Be mindful that wet weather could result in some compaction issues in high traffic areas. Also, the forage will be very lush and high in protein. Thus, cows may need some added dry matter that has good energy values to balance the ration.
Many farmers will chop and bag the forage in the spring prior to planting beans. Again, weather can make this challenging; however yields of up to 4 dry tons per acre can be accomplished. As with any crop there will be variation in success depending on seed choice, weather, and management.
Oats will yield the most fall/early winter tonnage for grazing. Cereal rye is big yielder in the spring, but can grow so rapidly that the harvest window is small. Triticale has a longer harvest window in the spring. Adding brassicas, legumes, and other species can be good for grazing and soil health goals, but will yield little for harvested forage.
Herbicide residual will need to be checked. Some herbicides may have a long enough residual that early cover crop seeding could be harmed. Make sure to check your herbicide program before seeding cover crops.
Controlling costs should be your focus as we head into the fall and winter. One of the best ways to keep costs down is to allow cattle to continue to harvest their own feed. Do not pass up the opportunity to let cows graze cornstalks and cover crops. These strategies can greatly reduce feed costs.