Grazing Series Part 3: Questions to ask before planting cover crops, alfalfa & perennial grasses on irrigated pastures

April 16, 2015

4 Min Read
Grazing Series Part 3: Questions to ask before planting cover crops, alfalfa & perennial grasses on irrigated pastures

Every Thursday in April, I’ll introduce a new segment to my grazing series exploring how ranchers can get the most out of their pastures and hay fields this spring and summer. This week’s topics are the economics of cover crops, planting companion or nursing crops in alfalfa fields, and which perennial grasses work best on irrigated pastures.

In case you missed the first two installments of the series, you can check them out here:

Grazing Series Part 1: 3 tips for spring hay & pasture management

Grazing Series Part 2: Extensive vs. moderate grazing, effective cross-fencing & more

1. Do cover crops pencil out?

There are numerous benefits to planting cover crops. These include improved soil health, better water quality, extended grazing for cattle, and a great habitat for wildlife, just to name a few. However, it all comes down to the economics. Does it make financial sense to plant cover crops?

That’s where the USDA’s Cover Crop Economics Decision Support Tool comes in. The tool is an Excel spreadsheet created by two economists with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service – Bryon Kirwan in Illinois and Lauren Cartwright in Missouri.

Read more on the cover crop tool here, and scroll to the bottom of the page to download. 

READ: Do your homework before planting cover crops

2. What should I plant in irrigated pastures?

Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension forage specialist, says, “Irrigated pastures can produce very high yields for high-quality grazing. But profits from these pastures don’t just happen. Good planning and high management is needed. Part of your success depends on planting the best adapted grasses. Plant at least three grasses in a mixture rather than a single species in irrigated pastures. No single plant is best adapted to all situations, so mixtures help maximize your pasture potential.”

Anderson recommends orchardgrass, smooth brome, meadow brome, creeping foxtail, tall fescue, festulolium, intermediate wheatgrass, perennial ryegrass, reed canarygrass, big bluestem, switchgrass, and indiangrass. Be sure to contact your local Extension office for recommendations on which grasses would work best in your area.               

3. Should I plant companion crops when seeding alfalfa?

In one of Anderson’s most recent Hay & Forage Minutes newsletters, he recommends using oats or other companion crops when planting alfalfa this spring and lists the pros and cons of various options.

“Alfalfa often is seeded with a companion crop like oats to control weeds and erosion,” he says. “Clear seeding alfalfa alone, without a companion crop, also works well. A preplant herbicide like trifluralin, Balan, or Eptam often is sprayed and incorporated first to control weeds in a clear seeding.”

Anderson prefers clear seeding where erosion is unlikely as the alfalfa is more productive.

He says, “Companion crops reduce alfalfa yield the first year, and often they cause thinner stands. Also, yields and stands in following years almost always are better with a successful clear seeding than when using a companion crop. So if you want alfalfa, plant only alfalfa. But, if erosion is a problem, include about half a bushel of oats with your alfalfa. Then kill oats early using Poast Plus or Select herbicide, or Roundup if your alfalfa is Roundup Ready. Likewise, if you want oats, plant only oats. Then seed alfalfa into oat stubble next August if soil moisture is good. Your alfalfa will be better because of it.”

Do you plant cover crops? If so, what mix works best for you? How about perennial grasses? Which varieties thrive on your irrigated pastures? Will you reseed alfalfa this spring? What are you doing right now to get the most out of your pastures and hay fields this summer? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Don’t forget to tune in next Thursday for the fourth installment in our grazing series, which will focus on feeding and grazing strategies to get through times of drought.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or Penton Agriculture.


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