Farming for ranching? Planting annuals can extend the grazing season |

Farming for ranching? Planting annuals can extend the grazing season

Extend the grazing season with annual crops

Cover crops can provide forage for summer, fall or winter grazing. Photo by Mark Hayek.
Grazing cover crops

When crop prices are low and drought is robbing your cattle of feed, it may pay to rethink the best use of your farmland. Many regions are short of hay this year so ranchers may be looking at what to do next year to get their hay supply built up and what the options are regarding forages they could plant—whether a warm-season or cool-season crop. “They should be planning how to manage grazing lands, to get by next year, looking at what they can do based on what crops they have right now, herbicide carryover, costs, etc.” says Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University .



Mark Hayek, state range management specialist with the NRCS in Bismarck, North Dakota, says some traditional cover crops work well for extending grazing in the spring. He suggests winter annuals like winter wheat, winter rye, winter triticale and hairy vetch, which is a moderately winter-hardy annual that will provide more protein and do well in a mild winter.

Producers need to plan ahead, though, as the fall seeding window for those crops is Aug.15 through Sept. 20 in North Dakota. There’s leeway to adjust this about 10 days, depending on local weather conditions.

Hayek suggests checking with the local NRCS office for recommended seeding dates. A Farm Bill program is available to help with costs, but has certain requirements that must be met. An extension educator can also give some guidance as far as what is best to plant, and when.

Sedivec says some crops planted in summer and grazed in the fall will regrow enough to turn cattle out on in early spring, usually in May. “For South Dakota and Wyoming it could be as early as mid-April. Cattle can go out on winter wheat and winter rye stands, grazing until they joint, and then be taken off to allow regrowth for a grain crop (or rye hay) later in the year. If it’s winter triticale you would graze it in the fall, graze again in spring, and then put another crop in, but wheat and rye could be harvested as a second crop for grain. If your plan is just to graze, and then come in with a new crop like soybeans (following winter rye), you could graze it longer in the spring,” he says.

By October it would be too late to plant anything for fall and winter pasture but producers should be planning for next spring.

Sedivec suggests considering a cool season crop like a rye or any kind of cereal, possibly accompanied by turnips or radishes, in April, since they are fast-growing and could provide grazing for May and June. “If a producer has just come through a summer and fall when forage production was short, it would be good to start looking at what could be planted early the next year,” he says.

Costs of planting vary, depending on what is planted, and when. “The nice thing about winter cereals is that they are not very expensive to plant, especially rye. That could be a good alternative for fall and into next spring. Rye is almost always an economic option for planting, compared to some of the cover crops,” says Sedivec.



If it’s too late for fall planting and you are making plans for next year, Hayek says there are some options to augment forage production.

Cool season small grains such as spring wheat, barley or oats would need to be planted from April until the middle of June in most areas. Soybeans or corn could be planted in early June.

For producers who can get into the fields in April, which is a possibility for most in South Dakota, and occasionally for those in North Dakota and Montana, Sedivek suggests an early planting of a brassica, like turnips or radishes, mixed with rye or oats. “These can produce a lot of bio-mass in a short time,” he says. “You can graze that well into June, which allows you to rest your native pastures and let them recover in the spring.”

He says this is a valuable option for producers to consider following the heavy use pastures often get during a drought.

“We need to find ways to give pastures time to recover next spring. An annual cool season crop planted in April to provide grazing through June could be a great alternative. Otherwise the only option is to keep feeding hay–an expensive option since many people are short on hay,” says Sedivec.



For a full-season cover crop, Hayek recommends a mix with both cool and warm season species since diversity is the key.

Sorghum-sudan grass, which is a high-volume warm-season grass, can be the centerpiece of a season-long crop, adding legumes, like a vetch or clover. Hayek suggests including a warm-season legume as well, like cowpeas or any of the pea options, with the goal of providing a lot of tonnage for a long grazing season.

Producers should plan to plant warm-season cover crops during early to mid-summer—June 15 to Aug. 15 in North Dakota.

“The earlier you get a warm-season plant in the ground, the better possibility for more tonnage by the end of the year,” Hayek says. Warm-season crop options include any of the millets, and warm-season legumes include soybeans and cowpeas.

The important thing for a season-long crop is diversity. This provides better diet for cattle, and there’s always something nutritious growing at different times. This makes a high-quality forage throughout the grazing season. The legumes also help with nitrogen fixation which is beneficial to soil health, and better growth for the other plants.

“We target soil health as well as cattle nutrition–increasing soil fertility and organic matter,” says Hayek. “The root system of a sorghum-sudan grass can do that, as well as reducing erosion from wind or water. It helps capture and recycle/redistribute nutrients in the soil profile. With diversity we can reach farther down in the profile with deeper-rooted cover crops. Sunflowers can be a poor forage source, but they add to diversity, help pull up some of the nutrients and break some of the compaction. They also provide benefits for pollinator insects,” he says.

A diverse cover crop also minimizes weed/pest problems by having the soil covered with a desirable crop. “We can manage soil moisture and minimize soil compaction. There are many benefits other than just grazing. As folks design their mixes they need to consider some of those secondary benefits,” says Hayek.



Producers in the Dakotas and Montana thinking about extending fall grazing should have a plan in place well ahead of mid-August. “For a cool-season mix, we might want to plant a little earlier (given optimum moisture and weather conditions) to get the crop going soon enough, in case winter comes early,” says Hayek.

Sedivec says the crops traditionally used as cover crops in a farming system (turnips, radishes and other brassicas in combination with cereal crops and warm-season forages) can often supply late summer and fall grazing, into winter, if planted in early to mid-summer. Other options for late fall and winter grazing include winter cereals—rye, wheat and triticale. Winter wheat is the primary choice in Montana and Wyoming. Winter rye is a more reliable option for most in the Dakotas and Minnesota, as it does better at surviving the winters, Sedivec says.

Any of these three winter crops can be planted in late summer as a dual crop, growing enough to be grazed in the fall, and grazed again the next spring. “We’d seed those in early September and graze them from mid-October through early December, depending on how many animals and how good the stand is. Cattle should be taken off to allow regrowth, and it can be grazed again the next spring, prior to joint stage,” he says.

Winter wheat or winter rye can be drilled in mid-September to have a crop for next year. “If you plant earlier, like early September, you might have more growth for fall grazing. If your objective is to only graze it this fall (and not worry about a crop from it next year), it can be drilled any time. It could be grazed pretty closely, even with snow on it, as long as you don’t graze too short (if you want regrowth for spring grazing), or there’s more risk for injury and winterkill,” Sedivec says.

Late summer/fall seeding works well, as long as there’s moisture. “If there’s no moisture you don’t want to waste the money for planting. It helps to have an idea about the weather forecast,” he says.

Hayek says that in the fall you should plant something that’s frost-tolerant, that will stay green and hold its nutrients and not be killed at 27-degree temperatures. “We may get an early frost and then it warms up, with more growing weather. The brassicas are good for this. Mustards, rape, canola, radish, kale and turnips are very winter-hardy. Typically they don’t stop growing until air temperature drops below 25 degrees,” he says.

“When targeting that fall window I generally center a mix around brassica species and choose a cool-season grass to go with that. Depending on grazing needs, a person may want a winter rye, triticale or just a plain oat crop or spring wheat. Those grasses will help fill in and provide extra tonnage. The brassicas tend to be high in moisture (and go through the animal swiftly) so including a grass species is a better mix nutritionally, and helps slow down the material as it goes through the cow.”

If you do a brassica mix, you should provide enough dry matter as supplemental feed. “It all depends on the situation. If cattle are going into a wheat field, sometimes you get regrowth from the wheat. This depends on how you are planting, and whether or not you are applying spray to kill any regrowth of the earlier crop,” Hayek says.



The Menoken Demonstration Farm near Bismarck, North Dakota, owned and operated by Burleigh County Conservation District, did some work last year with Jay Fuhrer, soil health specialist, NRCS, in North Dakota, sampling the top and bottom halves of various cover crop plants in terms of nutrients. “About three-fourths of the plant nutrients are in the top half. As cattle graze down the plant, the bottom half is where the nutrients really drop off,” says Hayek.

“If you are grazing animals that need high performance—such as weaned calves or yearlings—you don’t want them to get down into the bottom half of the plants. You want to keep them moving to new plants,” he says.

Freshly-weaned calves do well on cover crops because of the nutritional quality in those mixes. “This can help calves deal with weaning and maintain or improve weight and body condition prior to shipping and marketing—or going into a feedlot,” says Hayek. This is also good feed for replacement heifers.

The season-long cover-crop mixes are also a good choice for yearling heifers prior to breeding. The high nutrient quality can help with body condition, and get them to flush and cycle before putting them with a bull. This is another good tool for feed management.