Plan now to extend your grazing options

Plan now to extend your grazing options

Both annual and perennial forages can help fill in the gaps in your grazing season. Here’s a look at some plants to consider.

Some forage species are more energy-dense than others, containing higher levels of sugars. Beef producers around the world have been utilizing some of these species in grass-fed beef production, using forages instead of grain for finishing beef animals. Some of these forages can also be beneficial in a fall and winter grazing program.

Geoffrey Brink, a research agronomist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis., works with forages and nutrient needs of livestock. “Energy-dense forages are more digestible, delivering more nutrients to the animal during a day’s worth of feed or grazing,” he explains.

There are a number of forage species that fit nicely into a forage beef production program, supplying adequate nutrition for growing animals or finishing animals. Brink says that in the South, the most popular option is overseeding a warm season grass pasture with annual ryegrass.

“This is a very high-quality, low-fiber, highly digestible grass oversown on Bermuda and other warm season grasses. We also investigated oats planted in late summer to provide fall grazing. This gives a very high quality feed from early September until snowfall, depending on when it is planted,” Brink says. This could fill the gap in late fall when other grasses have dropped in nutrient quality and productivity.

“For spring grazing options, some grazers plant a mixture of turnips and wheat in the fall, to provide fall and early spring grazing. This is a fairly high quality mixture compared to most other forages,” he says. 

Many stockmen try to have a variety of forages to provide high quality feed at various times of the year, with no gaps. “It depends on the growing season, however. There is no such thing as a foolproof crop. It’s a matter of looking at the options that work in your own climate for filling in the gaps.”

Dan Undersander, Extension and forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin, says ryegrass is one of the most energy-dense grasses. “The ryegrasses are actually a continuum, varying in energy density from Italian (with highest sugar levels) which some people call annuals, to the perennials, and there are crosses between the two,” he says.

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You need a forage that will grow well in your climate. “Annual ryegrass is ideal, but needs a cool, wet environment. In hot or arid regions, we have several other choices. The sorghum/sudan grasses are a good choice for finishing cattle, particularly the brown midrib types. These annuals will grow in warmer weather. To get good productivity for these grasses, however, we need 20 to 30 inches of water annually. They would be most appropriate for wetter regions of the West, Midwest and South, or for irrigated pastures,” he says

The best species to use will vary from region to region. “The main thing is, use species that are adapted to the local environment and then harvest or graze them at an appropriate stage when they are high in quality,” he explains.

“The brown midrib sorghum/sudan grass would be the counterpart to ryegrass for hotter, drier periods of the year. The brassicas like grazing turnips can be a high quality feed but are much higher in protein than in energy. They can be as much as 20% protein, which is more than these animals need. They do best in a cool, wet environment and not so well in a hot, dry climate,” says Undersander.

Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, Idaho.

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