September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
It's annual crops to the rescue. A variety of annuals can add diversity and flexibility to a farm's menu, according to Rhonda Gildersleeve, a University of Wisconsin-Extension grazing specialist and dairy farmer. She spoke at the April 16 pasture walk sponsored by the Great River Graziers in Gays Mills, Wis.
Annuals can fit well into plans to renovate pastures or rotate them into other crops.
The average grazing season in much of Wisconsin and nearby states lasts about 168 days, Gildersleeve said. It starts around May 1 and wraps up around Oct. 15.
Early spring - late March and all of April - sometimes brings 15 to 30 days of grazing. Likewise, late fall can bring another 60 or so days of grazing. The first real gap in the season itself arrives in July and August. This summer slump last roughly 45 days.
"The term annual is sometimes used interchangeably with cover crop. But they are not necessarily the same," Gildersleeve said. "True, some cover crops are annuals. But not all of them are."
When it comes to annuals, many people think of these: grain sorghum (milo), forage sorghum, Sudangrass, sorghum-Sudan hybrids, millet, teff and corn. But the list also includes annual grasses, like Italian ryegrass. Grains like rye, barley, oats and triticale are annuals, too. The list goes on with turnips, radishes, kale and sunflowers.
The early spring forage gap is probably our toughest one to fill, Gildersleeve said. This period's challenges include cold conditions, wet soil and slow plant growth.
Crops that can fill this gap include winter varieties of wheat, rye and triticale. But they must be sown the previous fall. These crops can be grazed very early in the spring, but then the livestock need to be pulled off them if they are to produce forage or grain later. Otherwise, the field can be rotated to a different crop.
Another option for the early spring gap is spring-seeded oats or Italian ryegrass.
"These come on a little later, but may fill a gap as an emergency option if renovation or rest is needed for other pastures or forages," Gildersleeve said.
Farmers will want to consider the characteristics of various annual grasses and small grains when they want to fill a forage gap. As far as forage quality and palatability, ryegrass, oats, barley, wheat, triticale and rye head the list, in that order, according to Gildersleeve. She said that the palatability trend is the same when seeds are in mixtures.
Turning to ease of establishment, the ranking is: Italian ryegrass first, followed by wheat, rye, oats, triticale and barley.
For yields, expect spring forages to follow this order: rye first, followed by Italian ryegrass, triticale, wheat, oats and barley. The order is not the same for all forages. Then the ranking is: oats first, followed by triticale, rye, Italian ryegrass, wheat and barley.
Looking at summer forage choices, Gildersleeve suggested relying on annual grasses. These include forage sorghum, Sudangrass, sorghum-Sudan hybrids, teff grass (an Africa native), corn and various millets, such as Japanese, German, pearl, browntop and proso.
These annual grasses generally are more tolerant of the warmer drier conditions summer brings. Plant brown midrib (BMR) types for better quality corn and sorghums, Gildersleeve said.
Wait until early to midsummer to plant these annual grasses. The soil needs to reach 60 degrees or so.
Summer annuals can grow fast, so it's a good idea to have a plan for how to use them. Will livestock graze them in stages, or will they be harvested by machine?
Gildersleeve talked about some of the traits of forages that are in the sorghum family. For example, forage sorghum can reach eight to 13 feet tall. Sudangrass grows a tad shorter - four to seven feet, and sorghum-Sudan can reach a height somewhere in between.
When it comes to their use as pastures, the ranking looks like this: Sudangrass - excellent, sorghum-Sudan - very good; and forage sorghum - poor. The hay ranking is: Sudangrass - excellent; sorghum-Sudan - fair; and forage sorghum - poor. Here's the silage ranking: Sudangrass - fair; sorghum-Sudan - excellent; and forage sorghum - also excellent.
Gildersleeve warned about prussic acid poisoning from Sudangrass, the Sudan hybrids, and sorghum. Avoid cutting or grazing them when they are shorter than 18 to 20 inches. Don't graze new shoots after a drought or within 10 days after a killing frost. Curing these crops by making hay or silage out of them lessens their toxicity.
Good, old corn makes for good grazing. It can be planted early - in April and May - and can provide tonnage.
Gildersleeve suggested not buying top-of-the-line seed for grazing corn, since an open pollinated variety will suffice. The actual grazing varieties can tiller, creating the potential for a longer grazing season.
Good fences will be needed with grazing corn. A good, strong energizer is needed, and the paddocks should be set up so cattle can't knock stalks onto the electric fence.
Fall forage gap
The fall forage gap brings its own set of challenges. These include a paddock or field's previous growing conditions, slower plant growth rates, and less consistent weather.
The options here, said Gildersleeve, include using dormant hay fields and stockpiling forages. Other choices include planting annual crops, grazing residue like cornstalks, and feeding stored forage.
Some annual forages do quite well in the fall. Brassicas, like turnips and kale, handle the cold quite well and can be grazed or mechanically harvested.
Their quality can be high and they can used with other feed to stretch the productivity of pastures. Yields can range from one to four tons per acre and their seeds can be no-tilled into light sod.
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