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Crops

Annual forages provide options for grazing, haying for producers during winter and spring months

Written by Gayle Smith

During the last several years, scientists have studied ways for producers to feed their cattle while resting their pastures. Because of that research, plant breeders have developed more annual varieties of forages that are taller and can produce more tonnage than traditional varieties.

Many annuals are now available for grazing. 

Some of the most common cool season annuals are oats, spring triticale, spring barley, field peas, Italian or annual ryegrass, turnips, radishes and winter wheat or rye. 

Warm-season annuals like millet, S-S hybrids, sorghum, sudangrass, crabgrass, teff and corn are also popular choices. 

Moving beyond tradition

Where ranchers were once limited to traditional annuals like winter wheat, rye or triticale, they can now plant other annuals like field peas, turnips and radishes, according to University of Nebraska Range and Forage Specialist Jerry Volesky. 

“Annuals can be a good fit with a grazing program,” Volesky says, “but planning ahead of time is crucial.”

Some of the traditional annuals like winter wheat, rye and triticale are planted in September and grazed the following spring. 

“Triticale is the most productive of the winter annuals,” Volesky says. “It will average four to five tons per acre. Common winter rye averages 3.5 tons to the acre. If they are harvested at the soft dough stage, both can be high quality forages with good protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN).”

 Spring-seeded small grains, like field peas and oats, can be planted and grazed in the spring. Turnips and radishes can be planted and grazed in the fall or spring, Volesky adds. 

“Spring-seeded oats can produce three tons of dry matter yield,” Volesky says. “Other spring forages, with a late March or early April seeding date, shouldn’t be grazed until they are six to eight inches in height, which is generally around the third week of May.”

Utilization

Volesky shares the different ways for animals to utilize the forage. 

“Grazing is not as efficient as haying these annuals,” he says. 

Grazing interrupts plant growth more than haying because haying takes place toward the end of the plant’s growing cycle. If a cow grazes off the growth point of an oat plant, any future growth of the tiller of that plant will be lost. 

Losses can also occur from trampling. 

One method becoming more popular is haying annuals, like millet, in the fall and leaving the hay in windrows for cattle to mob graze in late-winter or early spring. This requires a little more planning because producers will need to place electric fence around the perimeter of the field, unless the field has permanent fence. 

The producer will also have to build electric fence within the field that can be easily moved every day or two as the cattle graze out the windrows. 

Cool-season annuals, like oats and turnips, can be grazed after freeze-down or also by windrow grazing. 

Volesky researched utilizing windrow grazing during the summer with winter rye and showed the importance of harvesting the crop at the optimum maturity so the animals will utilize it efficiently in the windrows.

Producers who wish to use this method of grazing will need to determine the correct stocking rate, so they know how many windrows to give the cattle access to at one time.

“This can be a very efficient form of grazing if it is done properly,” Volesky said.

Density

Producers are always concerned about stocking density, especially when grazing annuals. Volesky said he likes to use an animal unit (AU) concept, based on one animal unit is equivalent to a 1,000 pound animal, and one AU month (AUM) as equivalent to 780 pounds of forage. This is based on 30 days in a month where 26 pounds of forage is consumed per day. A cow/calf pair is considered 1.5 AU, and a weaned calf weighing 500 pounds is considered 0.5 AU. 

When working with annuals, it is important to consider grazing efficiency. 

“A rule of thumb is 1.3 AUMs are available per ton of potential forage,” he says, assuming 50 percent grazing efficiency

Planning

The most important factor Volesky has garnered from his research is that producers need to plan ahead if additional grazing will be needed. The plants will need adequate time to grow to the appropriate stage or height before they are grazed, he says. 

Producers should also consider planting different types of annuals that can be rotationally grazed and to stagger the planting dates of warm season annuals to prevent them from growing too rapidly before they can be grazed. 

“Producers will want to start grazing these annuals at a younger stage of growth or at a shorter height,” he explains. “Animals can be added as needed depending upon the growth of the forage.” 

Producers should have a backup pasture in case plants are consumed quicker than expected or the stocking rate doesn’t work out as planned, he says. 

Volesky adds, “It is important to have something to fall back on.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..