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Spring Planting, Annual forages can add to grazing, hay resources

Ranchers with access to cropland may want to consider planting some annual forages this year for additional grazing or hay. 

According to University of Nebraska Forage Specialist Jerry Volesky, now is the time to be planting cool season annuals for summer grazing. 

Planting dates

Spring crops like oats, spring triticale, spring barley, field peas, legumes and Italian or annual ryegrass should be planted between mid-March and mid-April, Volesky said. 

“The soil temperature needs to be 43 to 45 degrees,” he said, “but the later these annuals are planted, the less they will yield.” 

If they are irrigated, Volesky also recommends fertilizing them with 50 to 75 pounds of nitrogen per acre. 

If producers want to wait longer before they till the soil, Volesky said they could consider planting warm season annuals in late spring or early summer. 

Millet, S-S hybrids, sorghum, sudangrass, crabgrass, teff, corn and several varieties of legumes can produce valuable forage and can be planted when it is warmer. Some varieties, like pearl millet, need a soil temperature of at least 70 degrees to germinate. 

“Most of the warm season annuals need to be planted when the soil temperature is 60 to 70 degrees. The later they are planted, the less they will yield and the regrowth potential declines,” he explained. 

They also need about 40 to 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre to fertilize the soil. 

“Cool season annual forages must be planted by Sept. 1 to produce significant fall forage,” Volesky said. “Warm season annual forages should be planted by Aug. 10.”

What to plant

Producers should look at when they need extra grazing or hay to determine what type of annual forages to plant and when to plant them. Summer or late-summer seeded annuals can provide forage for fall and winter grazing. 

Crops like oats, barley, spring triticale, spring wheat, ryegrass, peas, turnips and other brassicas can be planted in late July or August, he explained. Other crops like winter wheat, rye and triticale can be planted in late August or September and still produce some fall and winter forage if conditions are right. 

However, chances are likely more forage will be produced the following spring. 

Cover cropping

Producers can also plant annuals as a cover crop, but Volesky admits the cover crops can use up a lot of soil moisture if it is a dry year. 

“It could hinder the next year’s crop if there is not enough moisture to replenish what is used,” he explained. 

Turnips, oats, radishes, annual ryegrass and winter rye can all be good choices for forage crops that can be planted in corn residue. 

“The success of these crops can vary depending upon the weather,” he explained. “In a good year, they can provide grazing, erosion control and crop residue to enhance the soil. The key is to plant these crops as soon as the corn is harvested. The earlier the corn is harvested, the better chance of success you will have.”

Grazing forage is not as efficient as haying. Grazing interrupts plant growth and may reduce potential growth. There are also losses from trampling the plants. 

Volesky says the key to grazing these annuals is making sure they are at the appropriate height or stage of growth. 

Staggering dates

“I also recommend staggering the planting dates and doing simple rotations to get the most use out of the warm season annuals,” he said. 

If the plants become stressed, producers need to have a backup pasture, so they can be flexible with their stocking rate. 

Stress can also cause the plants to develop high nitrate levels and prussic acid. If there is too much rain or the pasture is irrigated, a lush green pasture could cause grass tetany, so producers should have some dry hay and a high-magnesium mineral available.

For spring grains, Volesky recommends grazing when the plants reach six to eight inches tall. 

For warm season annuals, like sudangrass or pearl millet, he recommends the plants reach 15 to 20 inches in height and encourages 18 to 24 inches of growth for S-S hybrids. 

Volesky also showed a simple example of a staggered planting and grazing rotation to help producers get more out of their annual forages. 

In his example, sudangrass was planted in three fields with staggered seeding dates. 

First, field A was seeded on June 1, grazed when plants reached 15 to 20 inches of height for seven to 10 days, and then animals were moved to field B. 

Field B was seeded on June 12 and grazed for seven to 10 days before moving animals to field C.

Finally field C was seeded later – on June 26 – and grazed for seven to 10 days. Livestock should then be moved to field A, and the grazing rotation should be repeated. 

“Growth at different stages prevents forage from accumulating and getting away from the producer,” Volesky says.

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..