The importance of balancing forage production
One lesson that farming has taught me is that there is no silver bullet.
You hear a lot about selecting THE right forage for your area as if there is a single forage that will meet the need. In the Southeast, as part of the transition zone of the United States, there is no single forage to meet our every need. Based on your soil type and geography, you likely have one of two base grasses as part of your operation: fescue or bermudagrass.
Fescue is a fantastic forage with heavy spring and fall production that can easily be stockpiled to graze during the winter period. It is not the most palatable forage, but often has decent nutritive value. Given that it’s not very “cool” during June, July, and August in the south, this cool-season perennial does not actively produce much forage during the summer. This results in a summer slump, especially in dry summers. We have been seeing a decline in fescue pastures the last few years and using these cool season pastures just prior to and during a drought has a huge part in that. Rest these pastures during the summer by having warm season acreage.
Outside of the sand, Bermudagrass gets a pretty bad reputation for being an invasive weed that is poor quality. While the nutritive value of Bermuda is not exceptional, it is a staple in sandier soils for good reason: drought tolerance. There are few other forages that can withstand the lack of rainfall as long as bermudagrass can. While it maintains mature cows and other moderate nutrient requirement animals well, Bermuda will be slow to add weight to younger livestock without significant supplementation. It also goes completely dormant late fall, resulting in a pretty huge forage deficit during the winter and early spring. After dormancy, it can be overseeded with winter annuals, allowing us to take acreage dedicated to warm season production into cool season production.
Each of our base forages has some very strong qualities, but is not perfect alone. This is why diversity is needed when trying to minimize hay feeding days. When I refer to diversity here, I’m not talking about planting 5-6 different seeds in one pasture (although I am a fan of that kind of diversity as well)—I’m talking about not having all of your pastures in predominantly ONE forage. It takes several different forage species being intentionally managed to result in minimal hay feeding.
Given the base forage I have, how should I diversify?
If fescue is your base forage, you need some acreage dedicated to warm season production. This will protect your fescue stands during the summer so they don’t get overrun with summer weeds and will ensure you have thick fescue come fall. The warm season grass can be a perennial, like Gaucho bermudagrass, or it can be a pasture you keep in an annual rotation with something like Red River crabgrass or Summer Breeze. Additional considerations for summer pasture locations would be shade and water availability.
Highlights: Drought tolerant, high yield, high fertility requirements, need to prepare a seedbed for establishment, expect 1-2 grazings in establishment year late season
Highlights: Moderate drought tolerance, high palatability and moderate yield, is a true annual but will reseed itself if allowed to drop seed, can be broadcasted, expect grazing in 60-90 days (8” tall)
Highlights: Moderate drought tolerance, high yield, needs to be drilled, expect to graze in 60-75 days (2 feet tall), must leave behind 6-8” of residual each grazing to ensure regrowth occurs
These are just a few examples of options. Other summer annuals like AS9301 sudangrass or Prime 360 millet are also suitable for developing warm season grazing. Checkout the Warm Season Grass Selection Guide to help you determine what summer annual would make the most sense given your needs, constraints, and soil conditions.
If bermudagrass is your base forage, late fall through mid-winter is a huge forage gap for you. Most of us who have bermuda are already overseeding with winter annuals once the bermuda is dormant; however, this often happens late and we don’t get grazing off of this acreage until mid to late spring. If all of your acreage is tied up in bermudagrass pasture, you probably won’t be able to avoid a hay feeding period. While it’s amazing that bermuda does go dormant, it happens so late in the season we can’t expect winter annuals to be ready to graze until at least January. To reduce this window, I would recommend keeping some acreage in annual rotation so that you can start grazing winter annuals more quickly. Spring oats have shown their incredible importance in filling this window- from planting to first grazing is 45 days on average. Mix and match your winter annuals to maximize growing periods.
Highlights: low cold tolerance (2/3 days of sub 20 degrees can result in freezing out), fast high quality forage, needs to be drilled at 90-120lbs/A
Highlights: the fast forage of spring oats with the long lasting traffic tolerance of ryegrass, drill shallow at 100-120lbs/A
Highlights: A facultative variety that grows more quickly out of the gate, needs fertility to be productive, best on well drained soils
The most important thing you can do to make sure the new forage you are seeding will work is TERMINATING THE EXISTING STAND OF PERENNIAL FORAGE. I don’t care if you use herbicides or don’t or if you use tillage or don’t—just get rid of it! So many stands of annuals and perennials have failed because folks are scared to commit to the new crop they are putting in. Imagine you are having a discussion with a row crop farmer-—they had a partial failure of their corn crop and they only have about 10K plants per acre instead of the 28K they intended. They know it’s not enough to make a good crop, so to ensure they get some kind of crop off of the acreage, they decide to plant soybeans into the thin stand of corn. “Well, the corn was already there and might make an ear so I don’t want to tear it up when I planted the beans.” You can’t have your cake and eat it too. For example, if you have a thin stand of fescue that has been declining for a few years, that is all that it will ever be—a poor, thin stand of fescue. That existing plant may seem sparse and harmless, but it will provide substantial competition for the new forage you are putting in. Commit to something—either you need to manage that pasture with fertility and rest to try to thicken it up, or you need to take the bull by the horns and renovate it. Take this opportunity and need to diversify your acreage as a reason to renovate some of your worn out pastures. Take your worst pasture and turn it into your best. This will be the quickest way to improve the total yield of your farm.
There is no formula to determine exactly how many acres of each forage you will need— this will take time and patience on your behalf. We live in an amazing part of the country where it is realistic to graze for 300 or more days a year. There is no single forage that will help us do that, so diversity is the name of the game. What is your plan to diversify?