Grazing Options

Alternative Grazing Gaining Support

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Southern Plains cattle producers are employing some innovative grazing systems. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo by Barb Baylor Anderson)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Alternative grazing programs are allowing cattle producers to graze cattle more efficiently while raising crops and utilizing such conservation practices as cover crops.

In a Great Plains Grazing webinar on Jan. 27 titled "Grazing Cropping Systems in Oklahoma," Jason Warren, Oklahoma State University soil and water conservation/management Extension specialist, explored some of the more innovative grazing systems Southern Plains cattlemen are employing.

GRAZING COVER CROPS

Among the inventive systems is grazing summer cover crops between wheat crops. Warren said this system has gotten a great deal of interest from the people he works with, and many wheat and cattle producers are trying this grazing method.

"OSU has plenty of data to show that summer covers do not generally impact wheat grain yield in central Oklahoma," Warren said. "This system doesn't really diversify the system as we are still growing wheat every year; however, it can increase annual forage production."

While grazers would see more forage by grazing summer cover crops, there are some challenges in planting and utilizing this forage, Warren said.

Those who graze summer covers must be quick to utilize the summer forage, especially after a wheat grain crop. The fast-growing crops, which might include things like sunn hemp, sorghum-sudangrass or cowpea, need to be grazed before these crops enter the reproductive stage of growth, and this window could be missed if not enough cattle are present, he said.

Another challenge with grazing using this system is keeping enough residue cover on the soil to protect it from erosion. Producers need to be thoughtful in both the crop and livestock management of this system, he said.

Warren said Oklahoma producers can also utilize continuous graze-out with summer cover crops.

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Producers could graze a cool-season forage, including wheat, triticale, rye, barley, oats, or even a mixture of these, and graze it out completely. Then, in the spring, if little residue remains, a cover crop of sunn hemp, sorghum-sudangrass or cowpea would be planted. The summer cover is terminated in July/early August and another cool-season forage crop can be planted in late August.

Late August is usually really hot or dry in the Southern Plains, so this system works because there is plenty of moisture in the leftover crop residue, Warren said. Heavy residue may require the next crop to be planted earlier to offset the slower rate of growth of small grains in this environment.

GRAZING INSTEAD OF DOUBLE CROP

Warren also touched on replacing double-crop plantings with forage grazing, which would be another form of cover crops. Instead of planting another crop after the winter wheat crop is harvested in June, forages are planted and then are grazed. The next crop would be planted the following spring.

Warm-season crops can be planted anytime between June and September, and the planting will depend on the forage needs. Warren said among the most popular versions of this system is planting a warm- and cool-season forage mix, which provides residue after winterkill as fodder and a cool-season grass for protein for cows.

The advantage of a system such as this is there is less chance of losing a crop planted in summer, and it offers flexibility for cattle producers. If corn, soybeans or milo are planted after a wheat crop, the chance of the crop failing is higher than for a forage crop.

"Forages don't have the critical growth stages that a grain crop would have like pod filling," he said.

August-planted covers also provide a nice blanket of crops during late summer and will limit the growth of weeds. With less weed pressure, a herbicide application can be eliminated, he said.

DYNAMIC ROTATIONAL GRAZING

Dynamic rotational grazing is another alternative grazing system, Warren said. In this practice, producers will plant cool-season grasses in the fall followed by warm- and cool-season forages planted whenever moisture is available. Wheat for grain could still be planted in this system in October.

Producers would graze the cool-season crops down to a residue level they want and remove the cattle. Then, a next crop of warm-season grass would be planted either early or late in the summer, depending on when moisture is present.

"I like this system as wheat alone is not very profitable right now, and you can have forage nearly year-round," Warren said.

But dynamic rotational grazing also has it challenges.

As with the other systems, getting enough cattle out there to eat rapidly-growing, warm-season grass before it grows out of condition could be a problem. Also, providing enough water to all of the cattle needed to graze when the grass is ready to be grazed could be another question.

Warren also discussed continuous graze-out with summer crabgrass, a common practice in Oklahoma. After the wheat crop is harvested, crabgrass is allowed to grow while broadleaf weeds are sprayed. Cattle can graze in this system from mid-June to late July or early August.

The advantage of this system would be that it reduces seeding costs, because the crabgrasses reseeds itself every year. The downside to this grazing practice is that by allowing crabgrass to grow, it would be more difficult to control in the future if other crops or grazing practices are used, he said.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN

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Russ Quinn