Developing the right forage system for winter-grazing areas can extend the season and minimize hay use. But what works in one area won't work in another. In drought-affected regions, producers may need to go back to square one, scouting pastures to see what's viable and rethinking what will work. This is an opportunity to take pastures to new productivity levels.
Keith Johnson, Purdue University forage crops specialist, says, "Niche crops can be used as forages at particular times when need is most critical. Examples include small grains, brassicas and summer annual grasses. Alfalfa is drought-tolerant, and corn silage and stalks in the right rations make good-quality feed."
Determining the right mix as pastures are rebuilt may take some experimentation, as no one forage variety or species fits all environments or management styles. Producers should consider drought tolerance, cold hardiness, soil drainage, pH, grazing persistence, nutrient requirements, growth habit and palatability.
Regional differences. Rocky Lemus, Mississippi State University forage specialist, says a good selection of winter forages may include annual ryegrass, small grains (oats, wheat, rye and triticale), annuals (arrowleaf, ball, berseem, crimson and vetch) and perennial clovers (white and red). Incorporating clovers into winter pastures reduces spring fertilizer costs, as they can provide 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre or more depending on species.
Annual ryegrass is considered one of the highest quality winter forages in the South, with dry matter digestibility greater than 65% and high crude protein content. During the first months of growth, oats are high in protein (14 to 18%) and easily digestible. Similarly, wheat is high in protein early (14 to 20%) and very palatable.
Lemus says winter pastures are especially important for cow/calf producers who want to put gain on animals at weaning or for stocker operations. "Beef producers who start grazing when forage reaches optimum growth will find the high nutritive value of annual ryegrass can add 2½ to 3 pounds of gain per day," he says.
In northern areas, maintaining brood cows through the winter on stockpiled forage is less challenging than putting gains on yearlings, says Tom Griggs, forage specialist with West Virginia University. He advises northern producers consider warm-season annual grasses like corn, sorghum, sudangrass, pearl millet and true millets, in addition to small grains.
Overseed warm-season perennial pastures with cereal rye and annual and Italian ryegrasses. Tall fescue works well in many stockpiled pastures. One possible advantage of warm-season annuals is rapid growth during summer as a source of stockpiled forage, Griggs says. But he cautions the possibility of toxic nitrate levels is greater for warm-season annuals and cereals. Cereals planted late in summer won't provide the same mass of stockpiled forage for fall and winter grazing, but with the exception of oats, they will survive winter.
Producers who stockpile late-summer pasture regrowth for grazing face challenges, Griggs adds. They must set aside land for stockpiled forage when cool-season pasture growth rates are low. He advises winter grazing of late-summer/early-fall stockpiled cool-season perennial grasses as well as grass-legume mixtures.
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