Annual Winter Forage Following Wheat Harvest

Jamie Hampton, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Auglaize County, Ohio State University Extension

The wheat has been harvested and the fields are now ready for a different purpose. Some farmers will leave them fallow for the winter, others will plant double crop soybeans, but forages for winter grazing are an option. 

Most producers look to extending the grazing season to help reduce the need for storage of feed.  Extending the grazing season can be accomplished by seeding into a harvested wheat field.  While grazing cover crops does reduce the need for winter storage, there are other benefits to acknowledge.  Grazing cover crops provides the opportunity for a significant savings in feeding costs, improved soil health, and grazing offers higher nutrient values when compared to harvested and stored forages.

While corn silage and alfalfa are the most common selections for stored forage, the list of choices for grazing is extensive, including crops such as cereal grains, oats, annual ryegrass, peas, vetch, Sudan grass, brassicas, and clovers. The crop that is selected will depend on planting date and end goal. When grazing cover crops, most producers are looking to get the most out of the crop and tend to plant a multispecies mix to provide the best nutrition for their cattle. 

Annual or Italian ryegrass can be planted in late summer to produce a high-quality forage in late fall to early winter. Sudan grass, sorghum x Sudan grass hybrids, pearl millet, and forage sorghum grow rapidly in summer and produce acceptable yields. The brown midrib trait in sorghum has been shown to produce a forage as good as corn silage with less starch.

Oats and spring triticale can produce a harvestable yield by mid-October when planted in late summer. By November, this crop could be in the boot stage. Oats will not die until temperatures dip to the mid-20’s for several hours, and other grasses can survive even longer before they go dormant. This allows for late fall and early winter grazing.

Annual legume crops offer high nutritional values as a grazed crop but only in the first harvest because they do not regrow. Companion planting with legumes encourages better development of the grass crop.  Field peas or soybeans added to oats and spring triticale can increase crude protein 3 to 4 percentage points when planted together. Some other annual legumes to consider would be Alyce clover and lablab (bean plant).

When including brassicas, there are a few things that need to be considered.  Brassicas have very high nutrient concentrations and should be considered a concentrated feed. Research has shown some brassicas to be 18% or more crude protein and have levels of total digestible nutrients equal to or greater than 70%. Brassicas should not be more than 75% of the animal’s diet. Brassicas are not as palatable as some other forages, so it is recommended to introduce them slowly so that the animal will acclimate to the taste of the forage or use an intensive grazing strategy.

There are some management practices to keep in mind when planning for extended grazing. The cover crops that are planted should be of high-quality seed because they are providing a crop that will be harvested, just not mechanically. Consider plant disease issues; for example, you do not want to plant brassicas in the same field for more than two consecutive years because this will lead to disease buildup. When choosing your crops, consider drought resistance and if they cause health issues in your livestock. When planning to graze your summer seeded cover crops, be sure to check for any regulations concerning government programs.  For example, if you participate in the H2Ohio program, you must have a grazing management plan to go along with your nutrient management plan. You can do this with your Soil and Water Conservation Board.

Double cropping annual forages offers many opportunities to produce and utilize supplemental forage within cropping systems. It increases the efficiency of land use while protecting the soil, which would otherwise sit idle and without cover for an extended period (Mark Sulc, Ohio State University).

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