Seeding winter annuals a real plus

August 16, 2005|by JEFF SEMLER/Extension educator

Believe it or not, summer's heat will soon be dissipating and fall will be upon us.

Since our hot, dry summer has not been easy on pastures and hay fields, as well as many other crops, I think we should discuss forage management.

I was talking recently to a gentleman who was quite curious about the resurgence of the use of grass in many farmers' forage plans. As you might imagine, his questions were probing because he had heard so many different opinions on the subject.

I will answer some of his questions here to help you understand, too.

First and foremost - cattle, sheep, goats, alpacas and llamas are classed as ruminants and are designed to eat forage, plant fiber. They have a unique digestive system that is made to digest and utilize fibrous plant materials.


Man, in his infinite wisdom, has come to believe through his own arrogance that these animals cannot survive without grain. That is because we have bought the lie of maximum production instead of optimum production.

Grain can and should be fed in many situations, but forage should still make up nearly 60 percent or more of the animal's dry matter intake. When we get down to 50 percent or less, we are flirting with disaster.

But, I digress. My questioner was asking whether grass is a good thing and even wondered whether it is a cure-all.

I confirmed what he suspected - if you are a good manager, you can make pasture and grass work. And if you are not, then adopting a system that uses grass and pasture will only exaggerate your management shortcoming.

In upcoming articles, I will deal specifically with pastures; but from here on, I am going to deal with seeding winter annuals in order to extend your grazing or increase your stored forage reserves.

First, every winter annual has a place, but you must choose the one that works for your particular system.

If you want to extend an alfalfa field one more year, consider seeding annual ryegrass after your late August or September harvest. You can then harvest your mix in the spring two or three times before switching to an alfalfa cutting schedule for the summer.

Next, let's look at following our summer annuals, such as corn or sorghums.

Cereal grains such as rye, wheat, barley, tritical, or spring oats can be used as well as annual ryegrass. Your choice will depend on your management system.

For the winter cereals, seed mid-August to late October (wheat should be seeded after Sept. 15) at rates of 2 to 3 bushels per acre. Higher rate is better.

Remember, the purpose is forage, not grain. Rye is different. It can be seeded up to January, germinate in March and still make a harvestable crop.

Well-fertilized late summer seedings and a moist fall can make 12 to 15 inches of vegetative growth by Thanksgiving. You can mechanically harvest in November, or graze down to three inches.

Grazing forage quality is excellent into January, then declines slowly through late winter. Fall growth can use 50 to 75 pounds N (or manure equivalent). Apply N (or manure) again in late March to early April for spring growth. Spring growth can be grazed or chopped at boot stage; rye on May 1; tritical, May 10; and barley, May 15, more or less.

Spring Oats should be seeded mid-August to late September at a rate of 2 1/2 to 3 bushels per acre. Seedings that emerge by Sept. 10 to 15 will start to come into head by Nov. 15 to 20. It can be chopped to fill silo, made into round bale haylage or grazed.

If grazing is the option, begin at six inches of growth. Flash graze paddock by paddock. Oats will stop growing when the ground begins to freeze.

Quality will hold until after several very hard freezes (20 degrees F. or less) then decline slowly. Oats will die over the winter; no spring regrowth.

You can seed with winter peas for more protein. Chop for silage or roll for balage in mid- to late November. You can also seed with rye, two bushels of each. This gives a good fall harvest and a spring harvest.

Lastly, oats can be seeded with annual ryegrass, too - 2 to 3 bushels of oats and 25 to 30 pounds of ryegrass per acre. Chop or graze by Thanksgiving and continue ryegrass harvest in the spring.

Annual ryegrass, the relative newcomer, has the ability to produce a vigorous seedling that lends it to a variety of seeding methods into a number of forage cropping systems.

A seeding rate of 30 pounds per acre has provided satisfactory results in numerous on-farm and research farm situations.

It should be noted that annual ryegrass varieties will differ in seed size and density. This fact will require producers to adjust seeding rates and drill calibrations slightly from variety to variety.

In keeping with forage management, if you can pasture any of these seedings, you will save diesel fuel - which means money.

These are all high quality forages that can contribute significantly to your forage resources. Yes, building temporary fence is not as easy as sitting on a tractor seat, but there are no fumes and you can probably use the walk anyway.

In closing, you can receive a bulletin called FALL SEEDED WINTER ANNUALS FOR FORAGE from the Extension Office that goes into greater detail.

And remember - fall forage growth still depends upon rainfall.

But if good moisture is present by Sept. 1 - go for it.

And do not forget to apply N to any grass pastures or grass hay fields that can be pastured October-December. Dairy heifers do OK on stockpiled fescue over the winter, too.

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