In far northern North Dakota, Jason Overby is growing extra forage for his cattle by interseeding cover crops with forage barley.
Overby, of Mohall, N.D., mixes hairy vetch, clover, turnip and forage barley seed together and no-till plants them all at the same time in late May or early June. All the seed germinates together, but the forage barley grows the fastest.
The vetch, clover and turnip seedlings are shaded by the barley plants and stay small throughout the spring and early summer. After the forage barley is cut and baled for hay in late July or early August, the cover crops are exposed to sunlight and begin growing. By September, there’s often enough forage for the stock cows to graze until December.
Overby estimates that in 2021, which was very dry in his area, the forage barley yielded approximately 2 tons per acre. The cover crops produced enough forage for the cows to graze through the fall. The seed mix cost about $15 per acre.
“I think it works pretty well,” he said.
Overby is always looking for additional forage because he is relatively new to the cattle business. A few years ago, a neighbor offered him some pasture to rent. He took on the pasture and bought stock cows because he wanted to diversify his income.
“Cattle are my winter job,” he said.
A cash grain grower, Overby doesn’t want to convert too much of his valuable cropland to hayland. It’s more economical for him to buy some hay and corn silage. He also bales wheat and makes hay from grass on marginal cropland areas. He has even baled kochia. With his bale grinder, he can make use of a wide variety of feedstuffs.
Overby has tried growing cover crops by planting the seed after harvesting forage barley. The practice is common in parts of South Dakota and Nebraska. But the growing season along the North Dakota-Canadian border is too short to consistently produce much forage, especially if the seed lies in dry soils for several weeks before it germinates. July and August are often Overby’s driest months of the growing season. The first frost can occur in mid-September.
Christopher Criese, Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist in Renville County, suggested Overby try interseeding. Criese had worked with farmers in nearby Burke County who interseeded.
“Interseeding gives cover crops a three to four week head start,” he said.
There’s also a soil health benefit, Criese said. Interseeding increases the biological diversity in the field during the main growing season. It also keeps living roots in the soil longer during the year than a monoculture, he said. Both can significantly boost soil micro-organisms populations, which help speed the increase in soil organic matter.
In the future, Overby may try growing a full-season cover crop. It might produce as much or more forage than forage barley with an interseeded cover crop. Plus, the cows could graze the full season cover crop. There wouldn’t be any baling expense.
More forage and lower costs would be a win-win, Overby said.
NRCS has several cover crop cost sharing and incentive programs. For more information, see your local NRCS office.