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Better Late than Never: Hay and Forage Crops For Late Season Planting

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Is it too late to plant a crop for hay? Not necessarily. If you’re looking at a field that was hailed out, in winter wheat stubble from an early harvest, or a low lying field that finally dried out and wondering how to put it to good use, here are some ideas.

SDSU Extension Agronomy Field Specialist Sara Bauder said that while it’s not too late to plant a crop for hay or fall grazing, it would be best to choose cool season varieties over warm season varieties at this time of the year.

“It’s usually best practice to try to plant warm seasons from June to about the third week of July,” Bauder said. “I usually suggest people don’t plant any warm seasons past August 1. Once August comes around we are getting to a point where average daytime temperatures are usually dropping due to night time lows and we can suggest people start planting their cool season crops. Ideally it would be best to start looking into cool season crops at this time of the year.”

Cool season annuals can be planted as a single species or mixture. Popular cool season grasses include annual ryegrass, barley, oats, spring wheat, triticale, winter wheat or winter rye; commonly planted cool season broadleaves would include clovers, common or hairy vetch, flax, lentils, peas, radishes, rapeseed, turnip, and kale.

Producers in areas dealing with excess moisture may find that planting certain species can help to use up some of the excess moisture in the fields. Brassica crops like radish and turnips, spring or winter wheat, triticale, and winter rye do a great job of using moisture.

“When planting a mixture in a very wet area, producers may see some species do much better than others,” Bauder said. This is one of the many reasons that we suggest planting a mixture of species as it helps make a quality feed at a decent quantity and it also spreads out the risk if some species don’t perform as well.”

Producers in areas lacking moisture should look at different species to meet their needs. Crops that have much lower water use include clovers, lentils, and peas.

“Sweet clover, kale, flax, and common vetch are considered to be average/medium water users,” Bauder said. “They will do well in areas with slight amounts of rainfall but are still on the dry side. By planting low water users growers in dryer climates might be able to produce additional forage while protecting their soils at the cost of much less soil water use than if high water demanding plants were planted.”

Before planting forage crops, check your soil nitrogen levels and if needed, fertilize accordingly. This usually means adding some nitrogen fertilizer.

“Producers should be very careful when adding nitrogen to forage crops, especially in dry areas,” Bauder said. “Too much nitrogen build up in the plant can lead to nitrate toxicity for livestock. We suggest fertilizing per university recommendations in your state, and if conditions get dry and there is question as to whether feed is safe, take samples and get the feedstuff tested for nitrates before grazing or feeding takes place.”

No one wants to think about frost yet, but anyone planting a crop now needs to consider the impact an early frost could have.

“Most of these cool season plants would be hardier than any of our warm seasons and should be able to take cooler temperatures much longer than the warm season row crops many farmers are used to dealing with,” Bauder said. “However, there are a few cool seasons that are a bit more winter-hardy than others. “Hairy vetch, sweet clover, and winter rye are all slightly more winter hardy and would be good to use in areas where early frost might be of concern.”

Are there crops that could be cut for hay and then grazed later? Possibly. Bauder said that in trials conducted at the SDSU Southeast Research Farm that sweet clover, red clover, Italian Ryegrass, and hybrid rye all showed nice regrowth and could provide some good grazing opportunities after haying. Typically they would be planted in the spring rather than the late summer when looking to produce regrowth. Other grass cover crops could also show some potential regrowth after the first cutting, but she said it can be very dependent on how mature it was when cut and the time of year the harvest occurs.

With a limited growing season remaining, how can producers maximize productivity, both in tonnage and quality, of a late planted forage crop?

“Typically, grass crops will provide better tonnage, while many of our broadleaf crops can outcompete the grasses in feed value,” Bauder said. “This is why grazing mixes or haying mixes are popular- you can add quite a bit of tonnage with grasses and have an added benefit of boosting feed quality with many of the broadleaf crops. With most of these annual crops, the earlier we cut, the higher the quality of feedstuff we will likely see; however, the longer we wait to harvest them the higher the tonnage will be up until heading. There is a tradeoff between quantity and quality and producers need to decide what is most important to them when choosing a mixture to plant and deciding when to harvest.”


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