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Drewnowski offers grazing alternatives to paying high grass prices

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With spring rapidly approaching, producers may want to consider planting some annual forages to provide their cattle with additional grazing this year.

“Some producers choose to add an annual forage to their production system when pasture rent is too high or they want to expand and can’t find more pasture,” according to Mary Drewnowski, University of Nebraska Extension specialist. “They may find that it doesn’t pencil out to plant corn, so instead, they may plant an annual forage this year and go back to their crop rotation when corn prices are better.”

Pasture rents

Pasture rent in Nebraska is becoming a hard pill to swallow for cattlemen. In central and southern Nebraska, producers are paying $50 to $60 per pair per month, which is $1.60 to two dollars per pair per day.

“That is quite expensive when we compare it to other sources of the same nutrients,” she says.

Chad Engle, livestock operations manager at U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), tells producers about different annual mixtures they have tried at the station. They have grazed pairs on triticale in muddy, wet conditions, and he still figured they received 1.34 animal unit months (AUMs) of grazing. They have grazed an oat-radish-turnip mixture with pregnant spring cows and seen 2.2 AUMS.

“It was three to four inches tall when we turned into it, but it continued to grow,” he notes.

“We use annual forage fields as a transition to go to something else, like perennial pasture or corn residue,” Engle tells producers. “In the end, most everything we have tried was still cheaper than pasture rent.”

“One word of caution, if we are planting annuals on irrigated ground, it may be hard to justify to a banker,” he says.

Annual forages

Planting annual forages is one way producers can provide their cattle with high-quality forage, at less cost, depending on which mixture they choose. Drewnowski encourages them to choose carefully, depending upon when they want to graze.

“Winter sensitive varieties will die over the winter,” she says. “They can be planted in the fall and will produce more forage in the fall than the winter hearty varieties planted at the same time.”

“The winter-hardy varieties will overwinter,” she explains.

Winter sensitive varieties have two planting dates, March through April or in September. Winter-hardy varieties can be planted in the fall as early as August, but September may be better.

Oats are still the best choice for a winter-sensitive, cool-season forage, according to Drewnowski. But, spring triticale and spring barley can also be good alternatives.

Annual ryegrass can also be planted to help maintain annual forage quality into the later part of the season.

“If we plant a winter sensitive species in mid-March or early April, we could graze it into June, but it could get away from us in terms of forage quality. Adding an annual ryegrass or spring barley will help maintain quality,” she explains.

Drewnowski urges producers to keep in mind that annual forages are a crop risk, and they should have extra feed on hand in case the crop doesn’t establish.

“Anytime we are trying to establish something, there is a real opportunity for it to fail,” she says. “I would have some hay stockpiled to avoid wrecks. Some people even have an extra field they plan to hay but can graze if they have to.”

“Producers shouldn’t put themselves in a situation where they have a crop failure and realize that they have no feed for the cows,” Drewnowski comments. “Annuals are not like perennial grasses.”

Planting and harvest

Drewnowski recommends planting warm season species May 1 through August 1.

“The earlier you plant, the earlier we can graze,” she explains. “I would recommend planting cool season varieties after Aug. 1, but if we intend to plant July 15, I would decide whether to plant a warm-season or cool-season variety based on quality.”

“If we need yield but not high quality, I would plant warm season. If we need high quality for lactating cows or weaned calves, I would plant cool-season varieties,” she says.

Harvest efficiency is extremely important, the Extension specialist says.

“Fall forages don’t decline in quality with maturity like spring or summer forages. I would try and get all the yield I could and allocate grazing,” she explains.


Grazing is not as efficient as haying, but it is more cost-effective, she continues. How cost-effective it is depends on how well grazing is managed.

“The first key to grazing management is starting at the right height and not letting it get away from us,” Drewnowski claims.

Small cereal grains like oats, rye and triticale should be six to eight inches in height when they are grazed.

“For rye, we may need to put cattle on it when it is four inches, depending on stocking rate. It can get away from us quickly,” she adds.

Drewnowski cautions producers who plan to graze varieties like Sudangrass and other warm-season grasses to wait until they are 18 inches tall if they could have prussic acid or nitrates.

“They need to be managed carefully,” she warns.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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