You can use forage instead of grain

August 06, 2012|By JEFF SEMLER

As I write this article, I feel like Yogi Bera ... “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

It’s another hot, dry summer and some parts of the U.S. are suffering, causing record high grain prices.

So where do we start?

First and foremost, cattle, sheep, goats, alpacas and llamas are classed as ruminants, and are designed to eat forage and 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 into the lie of maximum production instead of optimum production.

Grain can, and at times should, be fed, but forage should still make up 60 percent or more of these animals dry matter intake. When we get down to 50 percent or less, we are flirting with disaster.

In order to extend your grazing or increase your stored forage reserves, we will look at seeding winter annuals. In order to hold the line on costs, you must produce as much of your own feed as possible. First, every winter annual has a place, but you must choose the one that works for your particular system.

Let’s look at following our summer annuals, such as corn or sorghums. Cereal grains such as rye, wheat, barley, triticale or spring oats can be used, as well as annual ryegrass. Your choice will depend on your management system. Seed winter cereals, now until late October (wheat should be seeded after Sept. 15) at rates of 2 to 3 bushels per acre. Remember, the purpose is forage, not grain. 

Well-fertilized late- summer seedings and a moist fall can make a lot of vegetative growth by Thanksgiving. You can mechanically harvest 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 nitrogen (or manure equivalent).  Apply nitrogen (or manure) again in late March to early April for spring growth according to your nutrient management plan. Spring growth can be grazed or chopped at boot stage.

Spring oats can be seeded now until 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. This can be chopped to fill silo, made into round bale haylage or grazed. If grazing is the option, begin at six inches of growth and flash graze paddock by paddock. Oats will stop growing when the ground begins to freeze. Quality will hold until after several very hard freezes, then decline slowly. Oats will die in the winter, so there will be no spring growth.

You can seed oats with winter peas for more protein. Chop for silage or roll for balage in mid- to late November. You can also seed oats with rye or annual ryegrass to get a good fall harvest and a spring harvest.

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 titled “Fall Seeded Winter Annuals for Forage” from the Extension office for  greater detail. And remember — fall forage growth still depends upon rainfall. But if good moisture is present or promised, go for it. And do not forget to apply nitrogen to any grass pastures or grass hay fields that can be pastured from October to December.

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

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