To Plant or Not To Plant: Producers Still Have Options for Late Season Forage Crops
While soil conditions and weather patterns vary widely from state to state and region to region, both UNL and NDSU extension forage crop specialists agree that it’s not too late to plant warm season annual forage crops.
Daren Redfearn, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Forage and Crop Residue Specialist said that there is still time for substantial forage production.
“Conditions vary from spot to spot,” he said. “Here in the eastern part of Nebraska we have been under an exceptional drought. We did receive some rain here near Lincoln, in Lancaster County; over the last couple of weeks we received five to six inches and it seems to have been fairly widespread. While it hasn’t eliminated our drought conditions it has put a little moisture back in the soil.”
In his area, Redfearn said, there should be sufficient moisture to get crops to germinate.
“You can plant summer annuals such as sorgum-sudan grass and pearl millet in dry soil but it will take a couple of rains to get it germinated and up,” he said. “A lot of the recent moisture has soaked in, so producers should go ahead and plant now into the moisture that we have; it seems like we have regular predictions of rainfall going forward so hopefully there will be enough rain to grow a little bit of a crop.”
While summer annual forage crops can be planted as early as Memorial Day in southeastern Nebraska, Redfearn said that producers can still expect decent production at this point in the growing season.
“If there is bad news it’s not all bad,” he said. “We may be halfway through the growing season, and a month late planting for most guys in South Dakota, but we can still count on roughly a sixty day growing season from mid-July to mid-September. There’s still time enough to produce some substantial forage.”
James Rogers, North Dakota State University Extension forage crops production specialist, works at the North Central Research Extension Center near Minot, North Dakota. He is currently midway through a field study of multiple annual forage crops and how they respond with a variety of planting dates.
“My thought is no, I don’t think it’s too late, but I’ll have a better answer next year,” he said. “We are doing a study in the field right now looking at exactly that question.”
Rogers said that he is doing the study partly because of changes in Prevent Plant rules.
Producers are now allowed to use prevent plant crops for hay, grazing and silage,” he said. “We are looking at several different combinations of both cool and warm season forages. We have three planting dates, one in May, one in June and one in July, and we haven’t planted our July crop yet.”
Everything hinges on the weather, and while environmental conditions are seldom ideal, Rogers reminded producers that these crops do perform best in hot weather.
“These forages are warm season grasses, they are designed for warm temperatures and function best in warm soil,” he said. “That being said, our sorghum hybrids nowadays have a tremendous amount of trait selection bred into them and like anything else when you start stacking in traits you add to the seed cost. I would caution to select a hybrid that suits your purpose. Select only what you need to try to keep seed cost down.”
Amanda Stricker, who helps on her family’s farm near Bayard, Nebraska, said that their area has been hit hard recently with multiple hailstorms.
“We have had so much hail this year,” she said. “There was a storm this weekend that wiped out a lot of guys, the corn is just gone. We came out lucky, this time, but it just breaks my heart to see the devastation.”
Stricker said that producers may opt to plant sorghum on hailed out fields.
“They will need some sort of cover crop so the field doesn’t blow all year,” she said.
Jerry Volesky, UNL professor of agronomy and horticulture works at the West Central Research and Extension Center at North Platte, Nebraska. He said that he is seeing quite a few acres already in annual forages, but that it is not too late to plant now.
“After a very dry April, we have had really good moisture through May and June and so far into July,” he said. “The pastures and crops look pretty good.”
While yields of warm season forages such as sudan grass or sorghum-sudan hybrids may be less than if they were planted earlier, producers can still expect significant yields provided there is moisture.
“These warm season annuals can be planted even through late July or early August,” Dr. Volesky said. “Significant hail or windstorms happen across Nebraska every year, and there is an opportunity to utilize that crop ground whether it is irrigated or dryland. Another option would be to seed cool season crops like oats, or cover crop mixes with turnips and other cool season forages for grazing. With the cool season crops you can go up to August fifteenth for planting and still have a pretty significant yield.”
Dr. Volesky did caution that producers should be aware of excess nitrates in feed grown on fields that had previously been fertilized.
“One danger on hailed out cornfields is that in most cases there is still a lot of nitrogen in the soil,” he said. “I do caution that when producers hay sorghum or sorghum sudan hybrids to test for nitrates and then feed accordingly. If nitrates are high you can dilute it with other types of safe feed.”
James Rogers suggested using a soil test prior to planting to determine what nitrogen is already present in the ground, and to be aware of what herbicides have been applied that may still be residual.
“At this point in the year we are getting calls from people wondering what they can plant on a crop that failed,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t get their planned crop in the ground due to weather conditions. Maybe they got hail and just need to get some forage out there. Get the soil tested to see how much nitrogen you have in the ground, and make sure there is no residual herbicide for whatever forage you want to plant. I’ve had some failures with millets because of previous chemicals in the ground.
Rogers said that residual herbicides commonly cause issues with forage sorghums, as there is very little labeled for them, but that they are fast growing and can be pretty competitive given the opportunity to get ahead of weeds.
Bill Larson, North Lemmon, North Dakota, says that he has had good success with sorghum-sudan grass the last several years.
“Our cows prefer it over millet; it is sweet,” he said. “Plus we can get a lot of bales off a few acres. The cattle like it, but it’s always a bugger to put up because the stalks are thick and it takes a long time to dry.”
Deciding whether or not there is sufficient moisture to get a late planting of annual forage to germinate is always the big question.
“It seems like you always resort to these extra forages when you have a dry year and you are short of hay,” Larson said. “We already have two strikes against us when we’re planting into dry conditions, but we have had good success with it for the last three or four years.”
This year, Larson said, their sorghum stand is very poor due to residual chemicals from the pre-planting burn-down.
“Our agronomist thought that it would be ok, but apparently it was the wrong thing,” he said. “They will refund us the cost of the seed since it was their mistake.”
Rogers is excited to see the results of this year’s field study.
“I came up with a factorial design for the study and tried to put together every possible combination of things I could think of,” he said. “I am really curious to see how they do.”
Rogers hopes that the study will help producers be more confident in their planting decisions.
“The best piece of advice I can pass along was from a farmer in Oklahoma,” he said. “I was supposed to be the one giving the advice. He was getting ready for planting winter pasture, and it was a dry, terrible year. He called me up and asked what I thought of the weather conditions. I went down my list of all the bad things that can happen when you plant in dry weather. He sat and listened for a while and then said, ‘Nothing is going to happen if I don’t put seed in the ground.’ I thought, you’re right, go plant it.”
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Extension specialists from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and North Dakota State University all agree that it is not too late to plant annual forage crops. “If you don’t put the seed in the ground, nothing will happen,” said James Rogers, NDSU extension forage crop specialist.
James Rogers, NDSU extension forage crop specialist encouraged producers to select a sorghum hybrid that is well suited to their particular situation to help keep seed cost down.