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Annual crops can extend grazing

Written by Saige

Some years, native pastures and hay aftermath don’t produce as much forage as needed. One strategy to increase forage production for grazing is to grow annual crops, which can include cereals and brassicas. 

Extending the grazing season with annuals can help reduce production costs. In dry climates ranchers often run short on late summer and fall pasture, since productivity of cool-season perennials is often limited during the heat of summer. 

Kevin Sedivec of North Dakota State University says the crops traditionally used as cover crops in a farming system – including turnips, radishes and other brassicas in combination with cereal crops and warm-season forages – can often supply late summer/fall grazing, into winter. 

He notes these can be planted in early to mid-summer. 

Winter crops

Other options for late fall and winter grazing include winter cereals.

“Winter rye, winter triticale or winter wheat work well in the Dakotas. As we go farther west into Montana and Wyoming, it’s mainly winter wheat. In the Dakotas and Minnesota, we often use winter rye,” he says.

Any of these three winter crops can be planted in late summer as a dual crop, growing enough to be grazed in the fall and grazed again the next spring. 

“We would seed those in early September, and they could be grazed from mid-October through early December, depending on how many animals are on it and how good the stand is. The animals should be taken off to allow regrowth, and it can be grazed again the next spring, prior to the joint stage,” he explains.

Usually the crops regrow enough to turn cattle out on them in May, but Sedivec says producers in South Dakota and Wyoming may be able to turn out as early as mid-April.

Grazing

“Cattle can go out on winter wheat and winter rye stands, grazing until they joint, and then be taken off to allow regrowth for a grain crop or rye hay later in the year. Winter triticale would be grazed in the fall, again in the spring and before putting another crop in, but the wheat and rye could be harvested as a second crop for grain,” Sedivec says. 

He adds, “If the plan is just to graze and then come in with a new crop like soybeans following winter rye, it could be grazed longer in the spring,” he says.

“If we are going to follow winter rye with a warm season crop like soybeans, corn or sunflowers, we can graze it hard, until it is grazed down completely, then drill the next crop into it and terminate the rye crop with the appropriate herbicide,” says Sedivec, noting the future plan is most important. 

Other factors

“It also depends on what we used for herbicides this year, since that will affect what can grow next year in that soil,” Sedivec continues. “Ask an Extension educator or a crop consultant regarding what to use for herbicide this fall and next year.”

Weather also makes difference on how well these crops grow, he says.

With shortages of hay this year, Sedivec says ranchers may be considering options for next year as far as what forages to plant.

“Producers should plan how to manage their grazing lands for next year, looking at what they can do based on what crops they have right now, herbicide carryover, costs, etc.,” he says. 

The costs of planting will also vary, depending on what is being planted and when.

Planting

“The nice thing about the winter cereals is that they are not expensive to plant, especially rye. That could be a good alternative for fall and into the next spring. Rye is almost always an economic option in terms of planting, compared to some cover crops,” says Sedivec.

Winter wheat or winter rye can be drilled in mid-September to have a crop for next year. 

“If we plant earlier, like early September, we might have a little more growth for fall grazing. If our objective is to only graze it this fall and not worry about a crop from it next year, it can be drilled any time,” he notes. “It could be grazed pretty closely, even with snow on it, as long as we don’t graze it too short or if we want some regrowth for spring grazing and less winterkill,” he says.

Late summer and fall seeding works well, as long as there’s moisture. 

“If there’s no moisture don’t waste the money for planting. It helps to have an idea about the weather forecast,” he says.

By October, it would be too late to plant anything for fall and winter pasture, but producers might also be looking at what their options might be for the next spring. 

“We could put in a cool season crop like a rye or any kind of cereal in April, since these are fast-growing plants. This could provide some grazing for May and June. Turnips or radishes could also be planted with the cereal crop early, for spring grazing,” he says. 

Looking ahead

If a producer has just come through a summer and fall when forage production was short, it’s good to start looking at what could be planted early the next year and maybe have a plan for summer annuals as well – to provide a lot of forage and extend fall grazing.

“For spring grazing, I would plant early with a brassica and rye or oats mix. These can produce a lot of bio-mass in a short time. If we can get into our fields in April to plant, depending on where the ranch is located, this would be a great option,” he says. “We can graze that well into June, which would allow us to rest our native pastures and let them recover in the spring.” 

“The biggest thing people need to do is find ways to give pastures time to recover in spring,” Sedivec comments. “An annual cool-season crop planted in April to give some grazing through the month of June could be a great alternative. Otherwise the only option is to keep feeding hay, and that’s an expensive option.”

Heather Smith Thomas 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..