For many cattle producers in the state the first killing frost means grazing has ended and hay feeding starts. It is common to hear discussion on how much it costs to feed hay and since hay is such an expensive forage, cattle producers look for ways to extend the grazing season and feed less stored forage. One common way to extend the grazing season and lower input costs is to plant small grains, ryegrass, and legumes, or a combination of these. Winter annuals are an excellent option because of their ability to provide adequate nutrition for lactating cows. High forage quality and yield can easily be obtained with good soil fertility and cooperation from Mother Nature. Rye and annual ryegrass are the most commonly planted winter annuals. Wheat and oats are also relatively common in livestock forage production. Each of these species differs in forage production distribution, disease tolerance, forage quality, and seeding rate.
Several different methods are used to plant winter annuals. Some of the planting methods include broadcast, no-till, and clean till. Consider the type of land, type of forage, and availability of equipment when deciding which planting method(s) will work best. Most producers utilize no-till equipment and will sodseed into bermudagrass or bahiagrass. These pastures must be closely grazed or mowed short. Planting into short sod decreases shading, increases establishment rate, and improves early season forage production.
Good soil fertility is one of the crucial keys to obtain the desired forage production for winter annuals. Cutting corners on fertilizing will lead to decreased production and likely a disappointing experience with winter annuals. By providing adequate fertility it is also possible to decrease the amount of winter annual acreage needed. Please refer to your soil sample and local county extension office for more specific information on fertilizing needs for winter annuals.
Winter Grazing Planting Options
Rye is the most popular small grain for winter pastures in South Carolina. It is the earliest maturing and most cold-hardy small grain species. In South Carolina, rye generally matures by late April. Rye works best when planted into a clean-tilled field; however, no-till will also work well. Rye should be planted at two bushels to the acre for a pure stand.
Some years seed costs can be less than rye but this varies from year to year. Wheat is also cold hardy and matures later than rye. Wheat will produce less fall forage than rye or oats, but because of later maturity, can be grazed longer into spring. Wheat should be planted mid-September through October 1st at 2-2.5 bushels to the acre for a pure stand.
Oats are the least cold hardy of all winter annuals. Stands can be thinned or lost in severe winters making this option a little more risky than the others. Oats are similar to wheat in maturity. Oats should be planted by mid-September through October 1st at 3-4 bushels to the acre for a pure stand.
Annual ryegrass will perform better than other winter annuals on wet soils and will produce high yield and excellent quality forage from early March through May. Annual ryegrass will provide little to no fall grazing. To ensure success be sure to buy high quality seed. Paying a slightly higher price for seed with a certified germination and good disease resistance will pay big dividends later. Be aware when planting ryegrass that it can delay green up of bahiagrass and bermudagrass pastures. If this is the case it is important to either graze or mow ryegrass very short to give bahiagrass or bermudagrass a chance to green up in late spring. Ryegrass may produce a small amount of forage in late fall when planted on clean-tilled land, but this forage production is highly dependent on rainfall and temperature. Ryegrass will typically produce higher quality hay than wheat, oats, or rye, but can be difficult to cure in wet spring months. Annual ryegrass should be planted by mid-September through October 1st at 25-30 pounds to the acre for a pure stand.
Grazing winter annuals can be a challenging practice. We must be patient and allow them to establish by delaying grazing until plants are 6-8 inches tall and are beginning to tiller or produce shoots. This allows the plant to produce a vigorous root system to help prevent plants from being pulled up by grazing cattle. Although plants can tolerate close grazing, great forage production will be reached by maintaining 4-5 inch stubble heights. Plants established in dormant warm-season sods can be grazed slightly earlier than those in clean-tilled pastures because losses from uprooting, trampling, and overgrazing are decreased.
Cool Season Legumes
Another consideration to make is to incorporate cool season annual legumes. Cool season annual legumes are an excellent source of forage quality, can be utilized to mix with other winter annuals to extend the grazing season, and can also provide nitrogen for our summer perennial pastures. These follow the same planting schedule as other winter annuals which make them an easy addition to winter annual forage production. Winter annual legumes can be broadcasted, no-tilled, or established on a prepared seedbed. Consult your local Livestock and Forages Agent for differences in seeding rate depending on method(s) used.
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Use higher seeding rate when broadcasting