Photo by Mary Drewnoski --

Cattle grazing cereal rye cover crop near Tecumseh on April 9, 2016.
Photo by Mary Drewnoski -- Cattle grazing cereal rye cover crop near Tecumseh on April 9, 2016.

With spring rapidly approaching, producers may want to consider planting some annual forages to provide their cattle with some 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,” she says.

Pasture rent in Nebraska is becoming a hard pill to swallow for cattlemen. In central and southern Nebraska, producers are paying $50-$60 per pair per month, which is $1.60 to $2.00 per pair per day. “That is quite expensive when you compare it to other sources of the same nutrients,” she says.

Chad Engle, who is the livestock operations manager at USMARC, tells producers about the 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 AUMS of grazing. They have grazed an oats, radishes, turnips mixture with pregnant spring cows and got 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,” he tells producers. “In the end, most everything we have tried was still cheaper than pasture rent. One word of caution, if you are planting annuals on irrigated ground, it may be hard to justify it to a banker,” he says.

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 hearty varieties will overwinter,” she explains. Winter sensitive varieties have two planting dates, March through April, or in September. Winter hearty varieties can be planted in the fall as early as August, but September may be better. 

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

Drewnowski recommends planting warm season species May 1 through August 1. “The earlier you plant, the earlier you can graze,” she explains. “I would recommend planting cool season varieties after August 1, but if you intend to plant July 15, I would decide whether to plant a warm season or cool season variety based on quality. If you need yield, but not high quality, I would plant warm season. If you 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 it does with 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 you,” Drewnowski claims.

Small cereal grains like oats, rye and Triticale should be six to eight inches in height when they are grazed. “For rye, you may need to put cattle on it when it is four inches, depending on stocking rate. It can get away from you quickly.”

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.

Lactating animals should also be fed a high magnesium mineral, especially in the spring and fall. Drewnowski also warned producers about pulmonary emphysema, which occurs when animals go from dormant pasture or low quality hay to an annual pasture with high quality forage. “If they are not getting a lot of protein in the diet, and go to something with a lot of protein, a metabolite is produced in the rumen that is toxic to the lungs,” she explains. Producers can prevent it by feeding some protein while the cattle are still on dormant forage, or feeding an ionophore at least seven days before the transition. “It usually happens in mature animals because they are more likely to have a low quality diet,” she says. 

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 you 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. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you have a crop failure, and realize that you have no feed for the cows. Annuals are not like perennial grasses,” she states.