cows in field

Growing Annuals for Grazing

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Fall oats 2005 End of October

By Cheyenne Christianson

Added July 16, 2012. We have been planting several different annuals on our farm for over a decade now. They work great for extending the grazing season, fill in during warmer weather to give more options and variety, and even drought. We suffered several years of extreme drought in a pocket of Northwest Wisconsin, and the annuals helped immensely in having something to graze. It has also been a good way to mix in our bedding pack manure and renovate pastures that needed a fertility boost or change in plant species, such as knock back the orchard grass to get a better mix of more palatable grasses and legumes.

It started with an experiment to grow wheat for ourselves, and our chickens. At some point, we grazed off the field during the growing season and then let it grow back. It wasn't a great stand so I rotovated it in when it got ripe and it regrew from the ripe seeds. That fall, we ran the cows through the wheat regrowth and they came up 500 pounds in milk for the four days that it lasted. I was sold on fall annuals. Our soils were low on fertility and pasture fizzled out as the cooler weather set in. With a cool season annual, we could have very high quality feed going into winter. It was not uncommon to run out of the oats and see a drop of 500 pounds of milk the next few days with 40 cows. That lessened as we put up higher quality baleage, but made a huge difference in the lacking years.

Oats for spring and fall

We started planting oats as they grow well in cool weather and have a lot of leaves. Each fall, we planted 10 to 20 acres of oats in early August to be grazed in October well into November. The oats could be wilting and brown from the frost, but still have amazing quality. I would graze oats once a day, usually at night, and any pasture that might be left during the day. I also only grazed once a day in case there were any nitrates or other nutrient imbalances in the oats. It may not be much of an issue in an organic system, but I still do that today as it is more even for the cows to not bounce back and forth from grass to an annual to grass etc. As the years went by and our grazing management and soil fertility improved, our season went from ending the first of September to the first of December, unless it snowed.

We stopped feeding grain completely in February of 2000. That spring I planted oats for grain but the mustard came in thick, so we grazed the oats out and clipped the mustard. The cows loved it, plus, it gave us a couple weeks of grazing when spring pastures slowed down and second crop hay fields weren't yet ready to add to the rotation. As pasture swards improve, it isn't as noticeable as years back, but cows love oats. We plant new seeding under oats and graze the oats off. If it turns wet it could damage new seeding, but that has only happened once. I baled the oats off for bedding instead after it dried out.

I think Fall oats are loaded with sugars and other goodies the cows need. It is the only time our cows will be waiting at the gate. We have to get them up and chase them after milking to where they are going, but one time in the oats and they can't wait to get back. Most perennial crops are trying to survive winter so are putting reserves into the roots. Oats are trying to grow to make seed, so everything is on top. I took a sample of waist high oats in early November of 2011. They tested 344 RFQ, .80 NEL, and 81.58% digestibility on the 48 hour test. It doesn't get much better than that!

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Turnips Fall 2005. We grazed them in November.


We added turnips (purple top) to the mix to give us more November grazing as the cold weather would eventually kill the oats. We planted a few acres of mostly turnips to be rationed off each day with a bale of hay or baleage to make up the difference. A few pounds of seed goes a long ways, so 4 to 6 pounds per acre works good. I still plant one bushel of oats with the turnips. The turnips are a fairly small percentage of the diet in November, but offer good nutrition in the last days of the grazing season. If turnips are available close to a milking, it is possible to flavor the milk. It works best to graze them immediately after milking as we have never noticed any flavor changes doing that. We can also do an oat/turnip mix of 1 to 2 bushels of oats and a couple pounds of turnips.

Rye and triticale

Cereal rye worked good to plant in the fall and have some early spring grazing. If rye is planted early enough in the fall it could be grazed before the snow flies. A few years ago, we tried triticale and found it stays palatable longer than rye in the spring. I plant 1 1/2 to 2 bushels.

Warm Season Annuals

After a couple of passes over the rye or triticale, the field could then be covered with pack manure and planted to a warm season crop like sorghum sudan or Japanese millet. In 2007 I planted a field half brown midrib sorghum sudan and the other half Japanese millet. The cows showed no preference as they grazed across the field. I tend to use millet as the stems are a little smaller in case I want to make baleage. I''ve even let a field of Japanese millet get 5 feet tall and baled for bedding. The cows will eat a lot of that as there are lots of leaves in those bales. The hard part is getting it dry. That can be difficult even for baleage at times, but as a grazing crop it always works great. If it gets warm and wet these warm season annuals can get ahead of you fast. That isn't necessarily a problem as we have grazed sorghum sudan at six feet and millet at over five feet, but if that happens, the cows will leave two to three foot stems behind. Regrowth will be much better if those stems are clipped so it starts over from the ground.

I usually till out the millet and plant fall oats in August as the cooler fall weather slows growth where oats will keep right on going, even through the first frosts. The oats will freeze out so I started mixing rye or triticale in to give a spring crop also. If the oats get tall, rye seems to come back better than triticale. Last fall we had waist high oats and this spring the triticale was thin, but the rye looked great. I've planted late August oats that only got a foot tall, and the triticale did fine the next spring.

Examples of annual rotations

  • Spring: plant oats (not seeded down), graze off in June at knee high or taller, graze some diminished regrowth in late July, till and replant oats early August for October grazing.
  • Take first cut hay, manure and plant Japanese millet around June first (for northern WI). Till out the millet in August and plant oats or oats and turnips mix. That can also include rye or triticale.
  • In 2009 I had triticale in early spring that was grazed twice. The field was planted to Japanese millet and that was grazed twice. I then planted triticale again, but it was so dry it didn't get tall enough to graze that fall. This was in a year of almost no rain the whole growing season. The millet grows slow, but it does keep growing. The key is to get it in as soon as frost potential is past. I planted May 23 on a couple of the dry years and did well, but others that planted mid June didn't get much of a crop.
  • Early August till a field and plant oats and/or turnips with or without rye or triticale mixed in.

Dealing with drought

In drought conditions annuals can provide much needed feed. In 2006, I planted barley and peas on some acres in addition to spring oats. Somehow, they grew when the pastures turned brown which kept us grazing something green until the sorghum sudan was ready. We got one two-inch rain in early August so I planted some oats. The pastures didn't regrow much, but the sorghum sudan regrew and the oats did great. I have many examples from 2005 - 2009 of annuals providing tons of feed we would not have had otherwise.

It can be hard to decide whether to plant anything in dry conditions, but I've learned that if I plant nothing, I get nothing, but if it does rain some in September, the oats will grow. At that point, it would be too late to plant. In 2009 the oats and turnips didn't get very tall or thick, but it was something live and green, full of vitamins and enzymes for the cows to eat. The rye and triticale mixed in got started for the following spring.


I know tillage isn't always a popular subject amongst graziers, but on our farm it has worked great to boost fertility by mixing in bedding pack and plant residue, reseed more desirable species of plants, and level fields that are also used for hay production. Our earthworm population is increasing every year, and pastures that were patchy from refusal are now grazed evenly. There seems to be something about mixing it up and reseeding, and the yield from a newly seeded field is amazing.

I use a rotovator for tillage, which keeps the sod and manure in the top few inches. This may help in wet conditions to hold the cows up better than plowed ground. I am a believer in using what you have for equipment and trial and error. Try little things and adjust.

Cheyenne Christianson is an organic dairy farmer living in Chetek, Wisconsin. Cheyenne will be our Keynote Speaker at the 2012 NODPA Field Days taking place September 27 & 28, 2012 in Brattleboro, VT. To learn more about Cheyenne and his farm, read NODPA's May 2012 Feature Farm article which can be found in the May 2012 NODPA News or online at: