cows in field

Filler Forage

Extending the Grazing Season

Forage & Grains

By Joshua Baker

Added May 8, 2012.

The Production Curve

050812_image1Perennial pasture production is an integral part of dairy and livestock grazing operations. Understanding the growth patterns of perennials, helps you match forage production needs with your cows' requirements. The chart below shows the typical growth pattern of perennials with a horizontal red line to mark the livestock needs throughout the year.

Considering the chart at left, let's examine some options for bridging the gaps so that your animals continue to have high quality forage in front of them and their production level is unaffected.

Summer Annuals

050812_image2With summer annual production, the graph above takes on the look of this graph at right.

There are multiple options for you to choose from when considering development of a summer annual pasture.

BMR Sorghum Sudan - This crop carries the BMR trait and is highly palatable and digestible. It also has strong tillering and excellent regrowth from multiple grazings or cuttings. Seed with a drill after soils have warmed up to at least 60 degrees. For mechanical harvest, the crop should be cut with sharp blades at between 3 to 4 feet (Start grazing at around 2 feet) and about 6 inches of stubble should be left in the field. Wide windrowing promotes rapid drying.

BMR Sudangrass - This is a finer stemmed BMR that dries easier than Sorghum Sudan. This can be a multi-graze/harvest product and can be taken for dry hay. Seed after soils have warmed to 65 degrees. Mechanical harvest should occur at 3 ft. with grazing beginning earlier than this.

Prussic Acid: There is reason to be cautious when grazing Sorghum Sudan or Sudangrass. While prussic acid poisoning is a concern, proper management can remove or alleviate this unease. These crops should not be grazed when the plants are very short or in a new growth stage. Additionally, grazing should be delayed roughly seven days after a hard frost.

BMR Tillering Corn - This is a high yielding, highly digestible crop that produces feed in around 60 days. Planting date is the same as corn. This corn is a one cut/graze system that should be taken at the tassel stage. With high sugar content, this crop makes a great feed for dairy cows or finishing livestock.

Millet - This crop is similar to sorghum sudan. Dry matter production with millet is typically 20 % less than sorghum sudan. Soil temperatures should reach 65 degrees or greater before seeding, and it needs good seed to soil contact. It grows bushier than sudan, so it should be grazed at about 12 inches and no taller than three feet. Always double-check to make sure plants are not being uprooted by grazing.

Brassica Crops - Brassicas can be used to provide a high quality summer grazing. Without the lignification that we see in some grasses during the hot months, brassicas maintain higher quality. They can be seeded alone, or with the above annual grasses. With grazing, cows must become accustomed to the plant before they will aggressively graze. Introduce them slowly and make sure that adequate effective fiber is being fed.

Break Crop

We often use the term 'break crop' to describe a cropping situation where perennial pasture is removed and replaced by one of the summer annual options mentioned above. There are many added benefits to utilizing a summer annual to fill in the 'summer gap' that extends beyond just the extra forage production.

With the potential for a break crop, the decision of whether or not an older perennial stand should be removed becomes easier. Analyzing the estimated cost and yield associated with summer annuals can help you measure out if the extra feed, above what you would expect your perennial mix to yield, is worth the change to the summer annual. With these summer annuals, you even have the option to take first cutting/grazing of the perennial pasture and then assess the stands strength against your forage need.

Rotating crops can also help with disease/pest pressure. By introducing a summer annual, the pests and diseases that have 'homesteaded' on a perennial stand for the past few years create less pressure for the new crop.

Weed control is also another benefit of rotation. The 'renovation' effect, from totally removing the perennial, also helps suppress weeds that have developed through the years that the perennial has been the predominant crop on that piece of ground.

No matter which summer annual seems to be the most viable option to you, it is important that you know and understand the management and expected returns from each crop before selecting your crop. Planning forward is important to the development of a successful pasture rotation that will keep high quality forage in front of your high producing cattle as many days of the year as possible.

Winter Annual Production

050812_image3While summer annuals fill in the gap of the 'summer slump', winter annuals fill in the gaps that occur in the fall and late winter. Since the ultimate goal is to have a living forage crop on the land as many days of the year as possible, it makes sense to develop a program that incorporates winter annuals.

See the winter annual options below that are best for grazing:

Annual Ryegrass + Small Grain Mix - The ryegrass in this mix adds the quality forage that we look for in a winter annual, and the small grain provides winter cover/protection. This can be grazed or harvested in the fall as well as in the spring. The spring grazing/harvest will consist of primarily ryegrass, depending somewhat on the species of small grain and the severity of the winter weather. Oats, Triticale, Spelt and Wheat are all options for mixing with ryegrass. Carefully consider how you will kill the annual ryegrass before utilizing this option. In an organic situation, a rotovator or a moldboard plow should work fine. Chisel plow and/or discing will not work.

Winter Rye - Rye has the potential for both fall and early spring grazing if the conditions allow. When grazing in the fall, it's important to make the appropriate management decisions according to the desired spring yield. The heavier the pressure in the fall, the less regrowth should be expected in the spring. Overgrazing during cold, wet conditions will do considerable damage to the spring growth. While rye may not be the most palatable option, it grows aggressively in the spring, provides quick feed and then is done. This may be beneficial depending on the desired rotation.

Crimson Clover (Option for Warmer Climates) - Crimson is a great option for both forage and for nitrogen production for the next crop. It's usually mixed with a small grain or annual ryegrass for maximum yield and quality.

Medium Red Clover - This is a high yielding, high quality clover that grows well for two years and then starts to decline. It is fast growing and very winter hardy, handling the northern climates well.

Ladino Clover - Ladino clover is great for seeding alone or for seeding with medium red clover. The mix of the two provides aggressive, high quality forage for two years, then as the red clover plays out, the ladino clover still develops into a long lasting stand. This clover is typically very resistant to grazing, depending somewhat on the variety selected.

Brassicas - While brassicas can be used for quality grazing in the heat of the summer; they're also a great option for extending the grazing season into late fall/early winter. Planted in late summer/early fall, they provide a feed that is high in protein and very low in effective fiber. Cattle tend to go through an adaptation period before aggressively grazing brassicas. Don't be discouraged if they don't immediately begin grazing.

Based on the options above, you can extend your grazing season and increase production on your acreage. While the options discussed are based on a constant livestock requirement, the requirements of your livestock will change throughout the year, changing the graph somewhat. Additionally, the options discussed above are representations of the options available to you for extending the grazing season. There are many species or mixes of species that could be utilized. Before committing to these crops, work with an agronomist to understand the ins and outs of managing these forage crops.

Joshua Baker is the Assistant Marketing Manager of Kings AgriSeeds, Inc. He can be reached at: Phone - (717) 687-6224, Website: