Forage crops vs Cover crops

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  • 08 April 2024
Beal 10.10.22 Close Up 4.MOV.00 00 01 09.Still001

Forage crops vs Cover crops

Cover crops and forage crops both offer a wide range of benefits, from providing a valuable feed option for livestock to improving soil health and on-farm sustainability.

But what are the main differences between the two, and how do you know which to sow? In this article, Grass & Small Seeds Manager, Alasdair Ralston, aims to explain all...

 

What are forage crops?

Forage crops are a high yielding, cost-effective feed option for livestock, particularly when grass growth is limited, or fodder availability may be scarce during dry spells in summer and the cold winter months.

Rich in nutrients, forage crops are primarily grown for livestock grazing. They are also a great alternative to alleviate the pressure on housing, labour and bedding costs, while grazing them in situ benefits the soil by enriching it with organic matter and offers a great entry for the following crop. 

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Our forage crop offering

The table below shows the forage crops we offer at MSP, and you can read more about our forage crop offering in our other article HERE.

FORAGE CROP

Benefits of the crop

Stubble turnips

Quick growing

Highly digestible and palatable for both sheep and cattle

High frost resistance

Good winter hardiness

Rape

Fast growing

High feeding quality as high in protein

Widely branched root system improves soil structure

Fodder beet

Good tolerance to bolting and resistance to rust and mildew

Very palatable

Exceptionally high fresh yields

Swedes

Dual purpose variety suitable for fodder and culinary use

Good mildew

Good winter hardiness

Kale

Very adaptable so can be grown on most sites throughout the UK

Good winter hardiness

Good palatability and stock utilisation

High yields

What are cover crops?

Cover crops are fast growing annuals which are typically grown over a single winter to cover bare soil and stubble, acting as a protective blanket against erosion and nutrient loss.

The establishment of cover crops is affected by several factors, including soil type, weather, seed rates and time of sowing. As well as the direct benefits they bring to the field, they can also form a key element of agri-environment schemes, providing extra revenue to farmers.

Examples of cover crops include forage and game maize, kale, brassicas, mustard, yellow blossom clover and canary grass.  

Five of the main benefits of growing cover crops are:

    1. Cover for the entire season
    2. Improves soil fertility and structure
    3. Year-round habitat for game birds
    4. Reduces the workload during busy periods
    5. Retains moisture for healthier crops
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Differences between cover crops & forage crops

    1. Purpose - Fodder crops are grown primarily to feed livestock, whereas cover crops are grown to protect and enrich the soil by preventing erosion and suppressing weeds.
    2. Harvesting methods - Forage crops are harvested either by grazing or by mechanical harvesters for livestock feed, whereas cover crops are normally terminated before they reach maturity using methods such as rolling, ploughing or herbicides.
    3. Duration - Forage crops are grown for a full growing season or multiple seasons, whereas cover crops are grown in between cash crop plantings - typically over a single winter season.
    4. Impact on soil and environment - Forage crops do not always focus on soil health improvement and often affects soil compaction. Cover crops, meanwhile, are specifically chosen to improve soil health by adding organic matter, improving microbial activity and soil structure.

To summarise, the best way to distinguish the two are that forage crops are primarily grown as an alternative for livestock feed, whereas cover crops are grown to improve soil health.

Get in touch today

If you are interested in improving the efficiency of your farm by planting forage crops, contact Grass & Small Seeds Manager Alasdair Ralston on alasdairralston@mspagriculture.co.uk or call 07764 896379.

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