Plant annuals to help boost forage resources

July 10, 2007|By JEFF SEMLER

Boy, it's getting dry; this is a phrase I have heard more than once recently. Weather is almost always a blessing and a curse. The dry weather has allowed for excellent grain yields such as wheat and barley. Additionally, it is great for making dry hay and baling straw. However, we need the rain now for our pastures, second cuttings of hay, as well as our corn and soybeans.

The corn and soybeans are approaching a critical time in their lifecycle. As these plants bloom, they need rain. This will determine the grain yields.

Our pastures and forages also need rain. We are in short supply of hay, as well.

Question is how we extend our forage resources. I advised early this summer about planting sorghum/sudangrass. It is on the late side for that, so what else can we do?

Look around the farm and take a land inventory. What land do you have available? Are there wheat or barley fields or poor pastures?


In these poor or fallow fields, you can plant annuals to help boost your forage resources. Many of these crops such as wheat, rye, barley, oats, triticale and annual ryegrass are more common. Some not so usual are kale, turnips and rape.

The first group is annual cereal grains that can be used for grazing, haying or chopping. They can be seeded alone or in combination with the second group known as brassicas.

Brassicas can be planted at different times of the year and with various companion crops. For example, they can be sown with in oats late-summer.

Production of Brassica crops for forage production can occur in many locations, including soils where conditions may not be suited for production of alfalfa or corn. These locations are often the most difficult or neglected sites where forage production problems such as soil acidity, low available nutrient content, poor drainage and/or droughty soils, and soils with topographical limitations exist.

On hill land and droughty soils, the distribution of forage over the growing season is poor, with availability of forage being a serious problem in summer and fall. While sheep, cattle, dairy replacements, and dry cows sometimes graze these fields, many are neglected and some continue to revert to forest.

Use of alternative forage crops could also improve soil fertility and by increasing home-grown forage, will have a positive impact on maintaining environmental quality.

Rotating shallow-rooted traditional grasses with deeper rooted Brassica species is very effective in enhancing nutrient use efficiency and may reduce the cost of fertilization for farmers.

Brassicas have also been used by farmers to renovate run-down or sod-bound pastures and hayfields where conventional tillage is impractical because of rock and stone.

Brassicas are high in dry matter digestibility at 85 to 95 percent, which contrasts with good alfalfa at 70 percent. This is significant because the digestible energy of most forage crops is low for high gains and growth in animals.

Brassicas increase the availability of certain minerals and are also high in protein. Leaves contain 18 to 25 percent crude protein, while the root of turnip and swede contains about 10 percent crude protein.

These quality traits are important reasons why these leaf and root crops have been commonly grown in New Zealand and Europe as nutritional fodder for sheep and cattle.

The most promising aspect of Brassica usage is for late summer or fall grazing.

Once established, Brassica crops require little attention and can be grazed in situ, or depending on the crop, cut with a forage harvester (green chop) or roots can be lifted. Brassicas retain their nutritive value well into freezing temperatures and can be expected to be grazed in most years as late as the end of December.

Forage rape and turnip reach their maximum yields after 90 to 100 days from planting, while swede and kale require 150 to 180 days. Swedes and kale may have a higher yield potential than forage rape and turnip.

Not to be overlooked are soybeans. If you think your soybeans are not going to be worth combining, they may be worth chopping for silage.

With our dry weather these less traditional crops may help you extend your forage resources.

However remember, every plant needs moisture; the beauty of these crops is their short production windows.

For more information on emergency forage crops, contact the Extension office.

Pasture walk July 19

With the summer comes our pasture walk series. Thursday, July 19, we will be at the Hendershots on Rockdale Road east of Clear Spring.

The Hendershots milk Holsteins and have recently moved into a new barn and planted 60 acres of pasture.

Come out and join us at 10 a.m. Rockdale Road is off National Pike so follow the yellow signs.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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