June 18, 2024


Economic, environmental benefits from integrating cover crops into US livestock production, USDA report finds




Integrating cover crops into livestock operations in the United States presents substantial opportunities for economic and environmental benefits, according to a new USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) report featuring contributions from faculty members and graduate students in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's (US) Center for Agricultural Profitability.


The report, "Cover Crops on Livestock Operations: Potential for Expansion in the United States," offers in-depth insights into the integration of cover crops with livestock operations. The research was led by Maria Bowman, a research agricultural economist at ERS, with contributions from other researchers at US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Ohio State University and Iowa State University.


Center for Agricultural Profitability researchers contributing to the report include Jay Parsons, professor and farm and ranch management specialist; Mary Drewnoski, associate professor and livestock systems specialist; Daren Redfearn, professor and crop residue and forage specialist; and former graduate students Maroua Afi (UNL Department of Agricultural Economics), Fernanda Souza Krupek (UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture) and Aubree Beenken (Iowa State University Animal Science).


Key findings from the study indicate that while current adoption rates are relatively low — only 14% of US cattle operations with cropland used cover crops as of 2017 — there are notable variations depending on the type of operation. Dairy and feedlot operations are more likely to utilise cover crops due to their high forage value, which exceeds the costs of production. The report highlights that grazing or harvesting cover crops is financially beneficial, especially in regions such as the US Eastern Uplands and parts of Texas and Louisiana.


"Our findings demonstrate that cover crops can significantly enhance the profitability and sustainability of livestock systems," said Parsons. "By improving soil health and providing additional feed resources, cover crops and annual forages, in general, play a crucial role in the future of sustainable agriculture."


Redfearn emphasised the practical applications of the research. "This study not only identifies the economic benefits but also maps out the potential for future expansion and adoption of cover crops in livestock operations across various regions," he said.


The research team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln played a pivotal role in analysing data and contributing to the comprehensive analysis provided in the report. Their work underscores the potential for significant expansion in the use of cover crops, particularly in areas where integration with livestock is feasible.


"For stakeholders in the agricultural sector, this report serves as a critical resource for understanding the benefits and implementation strategies of cover crops in enhancing the sustainability and profitability of livestock operations," Drewnoski said.


Other findings from the report include:


    - The profitability of cover crops in an integrated livestock system primarily varies with the choice of cover crop species and management practices, the amount of cover crop forage being consumed by livestock and the agronomic effect of the cover crop on the cash crop;


    - The profitability of cover crops in an integrated livestock system also varies with the fixed costs of the grazing/harvesting system, the size of the farming operation, producer experience and regional variability in production systems, soils and climate. These factors can also be barriers to the adoption of cover crops in livestock operations;


    - Grazing and harvesting cover crops for forage is common in cattle operations with cover crops. In 2021, 72% of dairy operations and 89% of cow-calf operations with cover crops reported harvesting or grazing at least some of their cover crop acreage.


- IANR News

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