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Grain prices got you down? Consider cattle as your next cash crop.

By March 7, 2024No Comments
cattle enjoying a day of sunshine a cover crops

If you are a grain farmer, you undoubtedly have noticed the falling prices of grain over the past months. This trend, though tough to watch, opens the doors to tons of opportunities, especially for those willing to step out of their comfort zone and embrace innovation.

Cash Cow

Thankfully, cattle won’t need an exorbitant amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium to grow and the plants they eat shouldn’t either. Enter a diverse summer cover crop mix. Few plant groups can grow as quickly as warm season annuals. Designed to take advantage of the long and hot summer days, these plants rapidly take root and begin building massive above ground structures. Of course the most common warm season annual we see on agricultural landscapes is corn. This year, however, many people may be rethinking what summer annual or mix of summer annuals they will be planting. Jeff Steffen is one such farmer in northeast Nebraska, who is changing the way he thinks about soil health, cow vs. corn and ultimately, profitability.


cattle grazing a summer cover crop

Cattle graze a diverse warm season cover crop mix (PC: Jeff Steffen)


Steffen would tell you he stumbled into this by happenstance, though now his annual grazing tactics are anything but accidental. Most would say corn is king in northeast Nebraska, but Steffen offers that his grazing program is proven to be more profitable than the traditional corn/soybean rotation which dominates his landscape and the vast majority of the Midwest. Steffen started out custom grazing cow/calf pairs, but with little to no access to pasture land, he had to look elsewhere for grazing opportunities. That first year he simply grazed corn, which worked well. He eventually moved to heritage varieties of corn, like Bloody Butcher, and is now incorporating more diversity with legumes, brassicas, and broadleaves. Though corn is still part of the mix, cowpeas, sunflowers, oats, peas, collards, turnips, and sorghum sudans work in unison to create an optimal forage for his livestock while also feeding the diversity of life under the soil surface.
What about nitrates?
The next obvious question, after hearing about grazing corn, is “Don’t you have issues with nitrates?” Steffen acknowledges that question, but says he has never really been worried. He doesn’t fertilize with any synthetic nitrogen, and he is sure to not graze the corn down to the ground. Generally, he starts grazing when the corn is 5 feet tall and doesn’t let them graze it to the ground. Now, with a more diverse grazing crop the potential for high nitrates is even lower. Of course every situation is different, weather, drought, previous fertilizer applications, and health of the soil all contribute to what nutrients are in the plant and to what level. A simple feed analysis test should be used especially if the field had nitrogen applied, or if extreme drought conditions are in effect.
cattle grazing corn

Here cattle are grazing primarily a corn forage crop (PC: Jeff Steffen)


Start small and grow
Just as Steffen did not convert the whole farm to an annual grazing system the first year, we too recommend starting small. Crunch the numbers and take a good hard look at the opportunity in front of you before you decide which cash crop it’s going to be, pounds per acre or bushels per acre. The wonderful thing about annuals, is just that, they are annuals. Next year, the field can go right back into your regular rotation, of course with the added benefit of free fertilizer and perhaps a little extra cash in your pocket. This is an opportunity to diversify your revenue streams, capitalize on the current market situation, AND build soil health!
Don’t hesitate to reach out to the expert sales team at Green Cover at 402-469-6784 and share this article with someone who would benefit from reading it.


  • Kate Smith

    Kate is a big picture thinker, a bridge builder and a passionate soil health advocate. She grew up in rural southern Wisconsin and spent most of her time outdoors riding horses, working on various farming operations, and being with family. During this time Kate developed a deep appreciation for plants, animals, agriculture and natural resources. Kate pursued those passions at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln studying Animal Science and Grazing Livestock Systems. After earning her degrees, Kate married her best friend and started working full time for Green Cover as a Sales Representative, gaining experience as a cover crop expert. After a couple sales seasons, Kate jumped to the Marketing team to hone her creative writing and process organization skills. Kate and her husband, Ben now reside in the rolling hills of Green County, Wisconsin. When she's not writing stories and organizing systems, Kate enjoys spending time outdoors, with her family, and seeks every opportunity to visit a lake during the summer.

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