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Extend the grazing season with unconventional forages

Glenn Shewmaker and Christi Falen Published on 01 April 2011
A cornfield

Evaluations to extend the grazing season look promising for: spring grazing of winter cereals; summer and/or fall grazing of pearl millet, teff, cereals, vetch or rapeseed combinations; and fall/early winter grazing of turnips or rapeseed with stockpiled pasture/pearl millet/cereals.

Utilizing cereals, annual forages, stockpiled tall fescue, perennial pasture and management-intensive grazing (MiG) allowed a Lincoln County, Idaho, producer to nearly triple livestock and farm production on the same farm.

One size does not fit all – what will improve profits for your operation?

Winter cereal crops

Natural precipitation reduces irrigation costs and cattle do most of the work to harvest winter cereals grown for forage.

To reduce hay costs, increase grazing days on winter cereals during spring, summer or fall. Consider raising and selling alfalfa, while using more marginal ground for winter cereals to feed your own livestock.

Rising feed costs and irrigation shortages negatively impact livestock operator finances. Higher water use and input costs for corn silage and alfalfa necessitate assessment of other forage.

In 2008, winter triticale, Willow Creek winter wheat (WCWW) and a winter barley blend were harvested on May 22 and again July 1 for use as silage or hay.

WCWW provided a longer interval for grazing, harvesting for hay or silage, since it did not head out until at least 20 days after triticale.

Relative Feed Value (RFV) has been used as an index for pricing and quality of forages. Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) is the newer index that provides a more comprehensive quality evaluation.

Barley RFQ was highest in May and July. WCWW and triticale RFQs were similar. As forages head out, quality decreases. The disadvantage with WCWW was lower yields compared to triticale.

Barley offered quality advantages, but yields were not as good as triticale.

Winter cereals planted the previous fall can be utilized for early spring or mid-summer grazing. Winter cereals harvested in May had RFQs ranging from 157 to 199 and, when compared to alfalfa cost and forage quality, winter cereals offered cheaper forage.

The re-growth in early July ranged from 109 to 170 RFQ. In July, the 30-hour digestibility was better for WCWW and barley than triticale. The higher the digestibility, the better cattle can obtain needed nutrition.

If the re-growth is captured for forage, the only additional cost is a few irrigations.

Winter cereals planted in August could be grazed in the fall, and again in spring, as well as mixed with turnips or legumes like hairy vetch to increase the forage quality for fall/winter grazing.

For very minimal seed costs and a little irrigation water, you can have a winter cereal/turnip combination that could extend the grazing season into December.

If winter cereals don’t fit your operation, then substitute spring cereal crops such as oats, barley or wheat for extended summer and fall grazing.

Warm-season annuals

Teff and pearl millet, two warm- season annuals, show promise for low-cost rotational forage between stands of alfalfa or pasture, extended grazing or hay.

Planted after all danger of frost was past, these warm-season forages grew well during hot summer months in southern Idaho.

In farm trials, teff RFQ ranged from 78 to 120. Feed quality decreases with maturity, so harvest timing is important. Repeat harvests are necessary for higher forage quality.

Teff provides a viable option for grazing during July and August when cool-season grass has slowed due to hot weather. Grazing teff during this time can allow perennial pastures time to rest and re-grow.

Pearl millet can be used for summer, fall or winter grazing. Forage quality will be highest in the vegetative stage before it heads out.

On one farm, pearl millet was harvested in September. The RFQ declined from 175 to 91 from the same field in a month. Careful attention to repeat grazing when forage quality is high will result in the most benefit for livestock weight gain.

Pearl millet required very minimal inputs. It was planted in mid-June after winter triticale and only received small amounts of liquid nitrogen applied through the pivot. The field was planted back to triticale in the fall.

On another farm, pearl millet was left in the field until December for extended grazing. The pearl millet was strip-grazed to reduce trampling by livestock.

Pearl millet was chosen because of its limited nitrate and prussic acid poisoning concerns for livestock. The forage stood 5 to 6 feet tall and stayed upright in the snow.

A large biomass of forage (up to 6.7 tons per acre on a 100 percent dry matter basis) was produced during a short growing season (June to September).

Protein supplements were fed along with pearl millet because the available protein was 4.5 percent, which was below expectations.

Pearl millet RFQ was 135 to 145 in October and decreased to an RFQ of 58 to 83 in December. Even with protein supplement cost, pearl millet provided a large amount of forage to meet livestock energy requirements and was cheaper than purchasing hay.

Forage combinations

A combination of forages is a good option for maximizing forage production and quality. In a farm trial, the RFQ was 183 for pearl millet/turnips, and 155 RFQ for turnips/oats in August.

Turnips planted in August, then strip-grazed with stockpiled perennial pasture, provided high-quality forage well suited for late fall/early winter grazing.

The feed quality of turnips alone can be too high for maintenance livestock diets. In September, from a research trial in Kimberly, Idaho, turnip RFQ was 223.

Forage nitrate turnip concentrations should be monitored with nitrogen fertilizer applications. Rapeseed resulted in an RFQ of 215. So turnips and rapeseed should be mixed with teff, pearl millet or cereals and the nitrate monitored.

Legumes (hairy and chickling vetch) resulted in good forage quality. In September, at Kimberly, hairy vetch RFQ ranged from 141 to 175 and chickling vetch had an RFQ of 128.

Available crude protein was 19 percent to 20 percent for hairy vetch and 17 percent for chickling vetch.

They both offer high-quality forages that can be mixed with cereals, teff or pearl millet to increase yields, while keeping the forage quality balanced to meet livestock maintenance and weight gain requirements.

If field setup is possible, vetch, turnips or rapeseed could also be grown separately, and then strip-grazed along with stockpiled perennial pasture, cereals or pearl millet.

Planning for summer

Extended grazing with annual forages provides an opportunity to produce a larger quantity of high-quality forage at a lower cost than purchasing alfalfa.

Producers may increase farm/ranch profitability by selling hay, while meeting their livestock’s nutritional needs with extended grazing.

To start using annual forages for summer and fall grazing, this spring consider planting spring cereals or spring cereal/vetch.

To start this summer, consider planting teff, pearl millet, vetch/teff or pearl millet, or a rapeseed/teff or pearl millet combination in June.

Graze these during the summer, or stockpile in the field for fall/early winter grazing. In early fall, consider turnips or rapeseed/winter cereals for a late fall/early winter grazing, plus grazing the following spring, and potentially again on summer cereal re-growth.  end_mark

Christi Falen and Glenn Shewmaker are extension specialists with the University of Idaho.

Christi Falen

Christi Falen
Lincoln County
Extension Educator
University of Idaho – Extension