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Cocktail Cover Cropping

By Abe Collins, founder of Collins Grazing

Added July 30, 2013. A cropping strategy that aspires to the diversity and productivity of native prairie called Cocktail Cover Cropping has taken root in Burleigh County, North Dakota and is spreading through US production agriculture.

The outcomes that are spurring uptake include increased soil health, elimination of erosion, reduced nutrient loss to leaching, reduced inputs, increased production and profit, efficient use of precipitation, drought resistance, impressive livestock performance when the crops are (lightly) grazed and more.

The farmer-graziers, NRCS personnel and scientists who have been leading the cocktail charge are doing a fine job of experimenting, unraveling the mysteries of the strategy and translating their insights into practical lessons. If you have the opportunity to learn from people like Gabe Brown, Gail Fuller, David Brandt, Jay Fuhrer, Kristine Nichols and Ray Archuleta, for example, take it! I have been doing so for some years now, and feel like I’m just scratching the surface of their knowledge. I’ve come to believe that the advantages of cocktail cover cropping could address some of the needs of Northeastern agriculture and watershed health and give us a powerful new set of tools for success. What follows is an attempt to share my understanding of what these pioneers have to teach. I have drawn heavily from conversations with some of these people and their written materials, but any mistakes are solely mine.

What is Cocktail Cover Cropping and Why are Farmers Adopting it?

Cocktail cover cropping involves using complex mixtures of cover crop seeds – commonly between 7 and 20 varieties of seed in a single mix - to achieve multiple soil-health, production and profit goals, usually in no-till farming systems. By definition, the cover crop mixtures are planted between primary cash crops. Often, the cover crops are planted after a summer-harvested crop such as wheat, but any time there is a need to fill a possible growing niche, such as after corn harvest and in the early spring, cocktail cover crops are proving valuable. Increasing numbers of farmers are even improving soil heath and subsequent production with full-season cover cropping programs; no-till drilling multiple crops into the grazed or occasionally rolled residue of the previous cover crop. US pioneers are reporting that their best results are usually achieved when livestock are used to lightly graze the crop, with stock eating usually not more than a third of the above-ground biomass and trampling the rest to the soil surface.

A cocktail cover crop in North Dakota, 45 days after planting, photo by Jay Fuhrer.

On and in the ground, cocktail cover cropping is demonstrating real results, including:
Increased crop yields with decreased inputs of fertilizer, pesticides, tractor time, fuel and herbicides.

  • Increased profits.
  • Increased soil health, including substantially increased organic matter, improved aggregation, better water infiltration and improved biodiversity in soil.
  • Capture of nutrients in biological form, reducing leaching.
  • Eliminated erosion.
  • More available soil moisture.
  • Increased wildlife and pollinators.
  • High rates of livestock gain during fall and winter (light) grazing of cover crop mixes.

Origins of Cocktail Cover Cropping and Recent Developments in the US

The origins of cocktail cover cropping – minus the grazing refinement - can be traced to Brazil in the 1970’s. North Dakota grazier and farmer Gabe Brown and Bismarck, ND NRCS District Conservationist Jay Fuhrer were first exposed to cocktail cover-cropping in 2006 during a presentation by Dr. Ademir Calegari, a leading researcher on cocktail cover cropping. The strategy was born when Brazilian no-till farmers began experimenting with complex mixtures of cover crop seeds to address resource concerns including the year-long, rapid rate of soil organic matter decay and the need to maintain soil cover in their zero-tillage grain production systems. The never-ending Brazilian growing conditions enabled planting two cash-crops per year with a cocktail cover crop planted between.

Jay and Gabe both tell the same story. They were sitting a few rows from each other, and when Dr. Calegari described the methods and outcomes that farmers were achieving in Brazil, Gabe and Jay looked at each other, both knowing full-well that this strategy could work for them and that they needed to start experimenting.

As Gabe puts it, “we didn’t have the year-round growing conditions that Dr. Calegari was describing, but we had plenty of available degree-days for growing cover crop blends on both ends of our growing season. We knew that the diversity was going to put us ahead and we wanted the soil-health, production and cost-savings outcomes.”

“The 7, 10 and 12-way mixtures we planted proved themselves in the first year,” Gabe says. Benefits that Gabe had been seeing from using simpler cover crop mixes took a sudden leap with the introduction of more diversity. With the addition of light grazing of the mixes, things really took off in terms of soil health and reduced inputs, and they had a way to capture more income per acre via the livestock gains while returning most of the biomass to the soil surface.
Gabe and his son Paul run Brown Ranch, near Bismarck, North Dakota, where they grow mixed grains and graze cattle on 4,500 acres. Gabe’s been no-tilling since 1993, started using two-way mixes of cover crops in 1994-1996 (for example, a cash crop followed by a triticale/hairy vetch cover crop mixture), eventually moving to 3-way combinations and began cocktail cover cropping in 2006. Gabe says that people should know that he’s blessed with good soils – they’ve had the advantages of glaciation, a long run of prairie community dynamics and tilled agriculture didn’t begin until the late 1800’s. Nonetheless, the Brown’s achievements in a challenging environment – famously long, cold winters and average precipitation of 16” per year – suggest alternate futures for reduced-input, high-yield agriculture and provision of environmental security such as reduced flooding and erosion and improved water quality.

The Browns don’t purchase much of their production via inputs anymore, but Gabe’s investment in soil health is paying dividends. Whereas the Burleigh county average corn yield is 100 bushels per acre, Gabe sees an average of 127 bushels. On good rain years, he sees 170 - 180 bushels of corn and occasionally hits 200 bushels.

On their owned land, Gabe has used zero commercial fertilizer and pesticides since 2008. His tractor fuel use is about 50% of the county average. His direct cost per bushel of corn is $1.18 compared to a county average of about $2.60 per bushel.

Gabe has been working diligently to eliminate his reliance on herbicides. He often succeeds and uses a small fraction of the norm in no-till. However, Gabe says his ongoing occasional need for them is deeply frustrating to him. “I don’t use herbicide to terminate cover-crops. We achieve that with winter kill and livestock grazing and trampling. For me, the herbicide is only necessary when we’re not able to grow enough armor, whether from the cash-crop, the cover crop or residue after grazing - to prevent weed germination. The problem is compounded when there is drought and we don’t grow as much biomass. The really frustrating part is that the problem is getting worse as our soil gets healthier, because with that much soil life, there is tremendous digestion of litter. Paul did a worm-count this spring and found 50 worms per square foot – just think of how much food they need, plus all of the bacteria, fungi and on up through the foodweb.”

Gabe’s soil monitoring since he began no-till and cover-cropping shows a substantial increase in organic matter. “We are typically pulling cores from the top 6” of soil. We don’t use GPS to do our monitoring. What we’ve seen is that in the early 90’s when we began no-till, 1.7% to 1.9% organic matter was the usual range. Today, we’ll pull an occasional sample as low as 3.7% organic matter, but the most of our samples come back at 4.7% to 5.3%. On rangeland that’s never been plowed, we’re seeing organic matter up to 7.3%. In 2012 we worked with Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition to establish soil carbon sampling plots with samples taken down to over a foot of depth. We’re looking forward to seeing the follow-up monitoring results on those plots in a few more years.”

In the recent past, major organic matter increases occurred when he increased the diversity of species in his cover crops mixture. He expects more surges as he fully integrates planned grazing of crops across the whole farm and as dung-beetle activity picks up. This past year, Paul managed their herd at densities of up to 680,000 lbs. per acre, and just recently he has discovered “tumblers,” a dung-beetle that was not thought to live locally.

Gabe has seen the water infiltration rate of the Brown Ranch soils increased from 1/2” per hour (that is, the first hour) to 8” per hour. The flood-reduction and water-quality implications of this kind of result, if similar infiltration improvements were achieved on many farms, bear consideration and inclusion in policy decision-making. Here in the Northeast, one wonders how much flooding damage during Irene and Sandy might have been reduced if the precipitation infiltration rate of our grazing and farmland soils were increased sixteen-fold.

During a 2010 rainstorm 13.6” of rain fell in 22 hours on the Brown Ranch. The first 8” of rain was infiltrated into the well-mulched soil before surface-flow began. Through the storm there was zero erosion. On nearby cultivated fields and no-till fields with less litter and soil aggregation there was both major erosion and standing water. The next day, Jay Fuhrer assessed that Gabe’s land could have supported equipment traffic without damaging soil structure.

Though he is a committed and accomplished grazier, Gabe feels that he is just beginning to take full advantage of managing livestock as a part of the system. He has been grazing the cocktail mixes of 10 to 20 cover crops planted into his just-harvested grain fields, typically harvesting 30% or less of the available biomass to provide 170 animal days per acre per grazing event, while leaving 70% of the biomass as litter to armor the soil and feed soil life. “The amount of residue I leave depends on soil organism needs and the following crop. If I have a corn crop and there is going to be an extended period before I get canopy closure, I’ll leave a lot more litter.”

In the past, Gabe has considered his dry cows to be “the ultimate landscaping tool,” relying on their grazing and animal impact to terminate cover crops and prepare ground for a subsequent planting. “Now, we’re beginning to work on achieving increased rates of livestock gain as we build out our grass-finished operation. We can use these cover crop mixes to fill our nutritional gaps as we build topsoil – it’s such a win-win.” Gabe refers to a study done on his colleague, Marlyn Richter’s ranch, in which calves born in the spring grazed a cocktail cover-crop mix in October for 17 days, during which time they gained an average of 3.1 pounds per day. “We’re seeing very high forage quality test results on the mixes we plant in prep for next year’s cash crop and to provide quality winter grazing. These are usually heavy on warm-season grasses like corn, sorghum, sudan grass, millet, warm season broadleaves and some brassicas and legumes. The potential to have livestock harvest high quality, standing feed in fall and winter and gain well needs to be explored more. The potential seems really high to me for dairy, too.”

Understand Your Soil First

Listening to the leading practitioners, broad principles come into focus. Gabe says “my only purpose is to do whatever is best to improve the soil resource. If I do that, the profitability falls in, and often without inputs. To succeed with cocktail cover-cropping, you had better understand soil health first, and constantly adjust your program as you read the soil. ”

Some of the broad principles of soil health that float to the top in conversation with teachers in the cocktail cover cropping community include the following:

  • Diversity puts us ahead - diversity of plants, soil organisms, timing of planting and harvest and presence of animals, including pollinators, wildlife and livestock. Design cover crop mixes, planting and livestock integration to add the diversity of elements that are currently missing from the system.
  • Increasing carbon flow into and onto the soil is key to unlocking soil health and productivity.
  • We need to keep the soil covered with plant litter, whether on crop or grazing ground (“armor the soil” is the usual description) to shelter and feed soil organisms, moderate soil temperature, increase precipitation infiltration and decrease evaporation, eliminate erosion and to prevent germination of weed seeds.
  • Soil organisms are our primary livestock. We need to feed them with plant litter, sloughed root-matter and plant-root exudates through the entire year.
  • If the sun is shining and the ground isn’t frozen solid, there should be plants growing.
  • Replace iron tillage with the effects of diverse plant-root types and soil organisms.
  • Get nutrients into organic forms– biologically bound – to keep them out of groundwater and water bodies and gradually available for plant growth.
  • Integrate livestock.

These insights are just the beginning of the lessons offered, but they’re a strong start. As Gabe notes, “people often want to fit cover cropping into their current production model. A sounder approach is to fit your production model to the (soil) resource. Soil is a living, breathing ecosystem. We need to care for it, nurture it, read it and give it what it needs.”
When I asked Jay Fuhrer about some of largest impacts he’s seeing from cocktail cover cropping, without hesitation he gave me a bulleted list. “First, cocktails allow you to adjust the carbon to nitrogen ratio and determine the rate at which you’re going to release nutrients to the next crop and the durability of your soil armor. In monocultures, the C:N ratio just was what it was. Second, when we bring cocktail cover-cropping into a cropping system, we see good yield, but reduced nitrates in the soil in the spring. The nitrogen is in biological form, so we don’t have leaching, spend less on fertilizer and have cleaner water. Third, we have a very high plane of nutrition for grazing livestock in the fall and winter when we use them to return the cover crop to the soil. Finally, we can armor the soil. It’s 2013 and we still have wind and water erosion. This isn’t necessary and simply has to be reversed.”

When Jay works with a given producer to start a cover cropping program, he’ll take time to meet with the producer on the farm and go through a grocery list of resource concerns that the farmer wants to address. Usually, these will include:

  • Armoring the soil.
  • Building soil aggregates.
  • Improving the water cycle – getting precipitation into the soil profile and keeping it there, at a level that’s just right for plant growth.
  • Integrated pest management.
  • Building soil organic matter.
  • Promote nutrient cycling – for example, accessing nitrates below the current rooting zone and holding N in organic forms.
  • Creating food and habitat for pollinators.
  • Adjusting the carbon to nitrogen ratios of soil armor to achieve soil health and production goals.
  • Wildlife food and shelter.

Jay likes to look at the whole farming system and annual crop rotations and “design for what we don’t have.” He asks “do you have all four crop types in the course of a year? If not, let’s design mixes that bring in that diversity, and feed a balanced diet to soil biology.” He points out that “blends of 10 to 20 seed types can accelerate biological time. Think of the diversity of plant root exudates from complex mixes, and the diversity of organisms that they each call and feed.”

Here are some examples of cocktail ingredients, drawn from the categories of cool and warm-season grasses and cool and warm season broadleaves and legumes:

Cool Season Grasses: Barley, wheat, oats, rye, ryegrass, triticale

Cool Season Broadleaf: Rape, flax, mustard, turnip, radish, phacelia

Legumes: Lentil, lupin, peas, red clover, crimson clover, sweet clover, alfalfa, chick-pea, cow pea, soybean, sunn hemp.

Warm Season Grass: corn, millet, sorghum, sudan grass

Warm-Season Broadleaf: buckwheat, amaranth, safflower, sunflower

Case Study Example

Calves grazing cocktail cover crops at Richter Farm. Photo by Marlyn Richter.

To illustrate a practical case, a well-monitored cover-cropping experiment was done on Richter Farm, in Menoken, ND in 2007. Marlyn Richter is another pioneer in the cocktail cover cropping world, and a close colleague of Jay and Gabe. Richter Farm had been no-till since 2001. The sandy soils there leach easily and have low-water holding capacity. Marlyn’s resource concerns included “providing soil surface armor, building soil aggregates, improving the water cycle, reducing herbicide use, building soil organic matter and integrating livestock.” Looking for a window to seed a cocktail into, they selected fields from which field peas and winter triticale had been harvested early. The land had a long history of growing cool-season grasses, so a mixture of warm season grasses, warm season broadleaves and cool season broadleaves was formulated and drilled in on July 7th.

The recipe contained: Millet, 8 lbs., Cowpea, 10 lbs., Soybean, 15 lbs., Turnip, ½ lb., Oilseed radish 1 lb. Sweet Clover 1 lb. The seed cost was $20/acre.

On October 1, 2007, 141 cow-calf pairs were turned into 72 acres of the standing crop. During the 17-day grazing event, the calves gained an average of 3.1 pounds per day. The gross income per acre came out to $110, with $45 in expenses, for a net income of $66/acre.
Notably, available soil water was monitored the next spring by the NRCS on the cover cropped ground and on an adjacent parcel. The cover cropped ground had 3.07” of available water while the bare fallow ground had 3.11.” 4/100ths of an inch of water is an insubstantial price to pay for the additional tons of biomass and other benefits realized!

Other benefits not quantified but noticed by Marlyn and cooperating researchers, included increased soil health, improved condition on mother cows and increased recovery time for native rangeland.

Opportunities for Farmers in Northeast

For Northeastern farmers and graziers who often have stored feed as the highest farm expense, the possibility of improving soil health and securing a low-cost, high quality source of standing feed alone suggests for a beginning to experimentation.
In the last four years I have done small experiments with cocktail cover cropping. Though seemingly simple on the surface, it has been a tremendous learning curve. I’ve always been impressed with the soil improvements and the livestock performance when I’ve turned cattle onto the mixes. I continue to experiment, and am increasingly working with clients at using the strategy of cocktail cover cropping to achieve soil, production, and livestock goals. I suspect that Northeastern farmers will begin to work with cocktail cover crops more and see benefits that can help us to increase our financial and environmental performance. I take Gabe Browns’ thoughts to heart when I think about the learning that we will all experience as we begin this process. “We have an awful lot to learn about these species of cover crops; which to use, when, in what combinations and how they interact. It’s going to take a lot of thoughtful trial and error on relatively small test plots by producers, but it’s a worthwhile project. We need to take care of the soil resource, and while we need to work in cooperation with researchers, we can’t just wait on researchers to figure this out for us!”

See these resources for more information.

Jay Fuhrer Webinar on Cocktail Cover Cropping:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjI2zWf4uMI

USDA ARS Cover crop chart (“periodic table:)
http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/54452000/CCC/CCC_v13_5_2012.pdf

Brown Ranch Website:
http://www.brownsranch.us/

Managing Cover Crops Profitably:
http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition

Abe Collins is a grazier and the founder of Collins Grazing. Collins Grazing works with clients to build farms from the soil-up, achieve environmental security through topsoil formation and achieve rapid gains in soil, grass and cattle. Abe be reached at (802) 782-1883 and abenewsoil@gmail.com.

 

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