More Than Just a Cover Crop

Earlier I introduced the idea of cover crops—plants grown for the purpose of capturing nutrients, weed suppression, and/or soil improvement. But cover crops can also be true crops—plants grown for their produce—often used in an unusual way.

 This is a patch of Winter Wheat sewn in mid October following the termination of what was left of the garden. Basically, this area was potatoes and tomatoes and some other random crops. I prepared the seedbed simply by rototilling and there was a lot of dead tomato/potato reside just lying around. Then I broadcast the Winter Wheat and cultipacked. As you can see on the first of April it is doing just fine—it has received no fertilizer—living off only resides of the garden. It was over sewn with Red Clover in February but I am not yet seeing any Red Clover sprouts. Red Clover mulch/hay is what will succeed this wheat patch.

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I use a European style scythe to mow down the green chop. Those white flowers you see are Pennycress, a brassica weed that seems benign in small quantities.

We don’t like to let cattle out at this time of year because it is a supreme bloat risk in our high legume pastures, even though the pastures are now capable of being grazed. We like to transition from dry feeds—hay and concentrates—to moist feeds like pasture with what farmers call “green chop.” Green chop is basically any growing, living plant that the farmer cuts and brings to livestock for immediate consumption. This sort of thing sounds on its surface to be crazy. Cows, after all, are plenty capable of feeding themselves green stuff growing on the ground. But there are advantages to green chop. The principal advantage is control. Though cows are very wise at selecting pasture plants to eat or not eat, they are not so wise about rationing themselves. Their tendency is always to over-eat whatever they like. They are not as rational as most humans. If it weren’t for our rational side, I think many people live on a diet of sugary and salty junk foods. In fact, some people do. With green chop you control what is going into the animal with rather minimal additional effort.

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I rake it up with my plastic Angelo B. hay rake. Best $20 ever spent! Though I think a cheap, light lawn rake would work pretty well, too.

Winter Wheat and Rye, two popular cover crops, make excellent green chop in the early spring. Winter Barley does too; some maintain it is the best of the winter cereals. For 1-4 or so cattle, it is an easy thing to collect a day’s dose of green chop with just a few buckets or a small tarp or sheet and a scythe and hand rake. What I do is just go out, cut a few swaths worth of wheat down, rake it up, put it on a tarp, sheet, or in a bucket, and carry it to the animals. It takes only minutes. And cattle relish the tender, sweet early growth cereals. When winter cereals get older they are hardly and more nutritive than straw, but in the early stages of growth they are just as nutritive as the best hay. And unlike legumes, the do not readily cause bloat. They help the rumen adjust to eating moist feed too, so it isn’t as much of a shock when the real grazing begins in a week or two. Of course they have all the good clean water and hay they could want, too. I work up from a couple buckets of green chop to 4-6 buckets in a couple days. Soon, it provides about half their food for the day, as we see they eat about half as much hay (and observe no decline in milk production), so a garden sized patch (50×100’) of wheat lasts about two weeks this way per cow, which works out great timing wise, because they’ll transition to pasture by the end of April.

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It’s simply amazing how rapidly cattle can ingest large quantities of vegetation. These are two gallon buckets and each can hold about 7 or 8 pounds of packed green chop. She ate about 6 of these in a about 10 minutes.

Winter cereals, which have already established their root structures by now, will readily regrow even from fairly close cutting. Sometimes they can be cut once or twice before letting them grow to the flowering stage when they should be mown down hard so that the Red Clover is released and allowed to overtake the cereal. Even if the wheat were to come back with the Red Clover, it isn’t a tragedy. A little wheat in Red Clover mulch or hay wont hurt a thing. It won’t make it another season anyway. This is also why the cereal shouldn’t be fertilized with anything nitrogenous. Since cereals are pretty demanding on nitrogen, and the garden somewhat depleted it last year, the Red Clover—which fixes its own nitrogen—can outcompete the cereal in the spring.

On a larger scale, I think wheat cold follow Corn (if an earlier corn is used) this way and then be oversewn to Red Clover with Timothy in late winter for a couple years of hay production. Because the wheat isn’t expected to produce its grain and then spend a couple weeks drying down for harvest, the hay crop can succeed rapidly in the moist part of early summer (when grain wheat likes to get moldy) and one or perhaps two solid cuttings of hay are possible in the planting year!

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4 Responses to More Than Just a Cover Crop

  1. Pingback: Oat hay | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  2. Pingback: Green Manure | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  3. Pingback: What I Mean About Worthwhile Grains | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  4. Pingback: The Drought Breaks | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

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