Cover crop forage as an option on prevented planting acres

By  Stan Smith, Ohio State University Extension PA, Fairfield County

As we sit here in late June, we know a few things for certain:

  • Across Ohio there remain today unplanted acres that were originally intended for corn or soybeans.
  • The “final planting date” that allows planting corn or soybeans without reducing the crop insurance guarantee has passed.
  • Despite the value of producing corn and soybeans for the marketplace, for those with coverage, today the income resulting from Prevented Planting Crop Insurance payments must be considered as an alternative. (see the recent Ohio Ag Manager article Evaluating the Prevent Plant Option)
  • For livestock producers, planting a cover crop that could be utilized as feed late this fall could add value to unplanted corn or soybean acres.

Today, insured corn and soybean growers throughout Ohio find themselves at the crossroads of a decision that pits the overwhelming desire to want to plant and grow a crop for historically high prices against the reality that financially and agronomically it might be a sound alternative to accept a Prevented Planting insurance payment. Adding further support to the notion that today one might be better off not planting the corn or soybean crop is the opportunity to plant a ‘cover crop’ in those insured but unplanted acres and utilize it for cattle feed late this fall.

You may ask why I’m discussing crop insurance for corn or soybeans in a beef cattle publication. Once the decision to apply for Prevented Planting (PP) has been made, cover crops — including those a cow can eat — may be planted on those PP acres and hayed or grazed without affecting the PP payment. This allowance to harvest cover crops for forage at any time is a change for 2022 from recent years when harvest wasn’t allowed until Nov. 1.

Before we go further, if you’re considering planting a cover crop that you might hay or graze on PP acres, check with your crop insurance agent and Farm Service Agency for any additional restrictions or timing issues you might need to consider.

While there are a variety of cover crops that might be planted and make feed yet by fall, I suggest spring oats be considered as a viable, affordable and productive alternative. Not only are there plenty of jobs on the farm aside from planting cover crops that need immediate attention, soil conditions across parts of Ohio remain too wet for planting them today, many of those fields are plagued with weeds that have yet to be controlled, and in some cases fields may still be rutted from last fall’s harvest. Further, if forage and not grain is the goal of a planting on PP acres, plenty of time remains to get oats planted.

Over the years we’ve found it’s not important to rush to get spring oats planted in order to grow high quality forage late in the summer. In fact our experience has been that we get a greater yield and higher quality feed if we wait until the end of July or early August to plant oats for forage. Without getting into a science lesson, it seems the oats prefer the cooler average daily temperatures we typically experience beginning in August, and they are more likely to not push out a seed head, but remain vegetative until extremely cold temperatures shut them down completely, typically not until sometime in December.

Not only does an Aug. 1 planting date seem to offer more yield and higher quality oats, but it will also allow ample time for fields to dry, ruts from last fall or erosion gullies from this spring to be repaired, manure to be hauled, and weeds to be controlled. Based on our experience beginning 20 years ago in Fairfield County with oats planted mid to late summer, if you can utilize a forage for haying or grazing late this fall or early winter, oats appear to be the most productive, highest quality, least cost, single harvest alternative available to Ohio livestock producers for planting during the summer months. In fact with some timely rainfall, when planted most any time before late August, there’s an opportunity to ‘create’ on a dry matter basis anywhere from two to five tons of forage while investing little more than the cost of 80 to 100 pounds of oats and 40 pounds of nitrogen.

For more detail on our experience with planting spring oats after mid-summer in Ohio, see any one of a number of previous articles including:

Oats as a late summer forage crop

Oats, an Annual Forage to Consider

An additional advantage observed when using oats for an annual forage crop is the opportunity to capture the total tonnage produced with a single cutting harvest if grazing is not an option. Crops that require multiple mechanical harvests increase costs of production significantly.

As oat forage harvest options are considered, grazing provides the most effective and affordable alternative. In 2002, locally one family strip grazed oats all winter and actually began the calving season on them before the oats ran out in mid-March.

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