As ranchers plan their annual forage crops, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension specialists offer tips for creating a successful annual forage strategy this year.
“The first step to selecting a forage crop is determine when you plan to harvest,” says James Rogers, NDSU Extension forage specialist. “Then think about how you plan to feed it and if you would like to graze regrowth.”
Additional questions to ask include:
• Do you want hay, haylage, silage or grazing feed?
• Do you have the equipment to harvest high-moisture or thick-stem crops?
• Does the forage type need to be fed as is, or can you grind the hay to be mixed in a total mixed ration (TMR)?
• Do you want a dual-purpose crop that would allow you to take the first cutting for hay and then graze the regrowth?
There have been several wildfires this spring that have affected range and pasture lands across Nebraska. Although the immediate aftermath of a fast-moving fire can look quite devastating, most of our perennial pasture grasses will recover with adequate moisture.
“If the 2020-2021 drought taught us anything, it was to diversify your annual forage crops,” says Miranda Meehan, NDSU Extension environmental stewardship specialist. “For instance, moisture was good in the spring of 2020, and cool-season forages had average to good performance. Then the drought began in July, and if you only seeded warm-season annuals such as millet or sorghum, production was poor. In 2021, however, many received rain starting in mid-August, and warm-season grasses flourished, while spring 2021 moisture was limited, and cool-season forages such as oats and barley performed poorly.”
To create resiliency and reduce risk, Meehan recommends planting two or more annual forages and including both cool-season and warm-season forage types. For example, plant forage barley in early May and sorghum-sudangrass in mid to late June. This strategy would give barley an opportunity to capture the spring’s ample moisture while providing sorghum-sudangrass the chance to succeed if July or August moisture occurs.
Hay production from May to June
“Your best option for an early-producing hay is growing a winter cereal crop planted the previous fall,” says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist. “Planting a winter cereal in September 2022 will provide a hay crop in 2023.”
Both winter rye and winter triticale are ready for harvest by late May or early June. Palatability is reduced once they reach the heading stage, so grinding and mixing into a TMR is recommended.
For late June hay, NDSU Extension specialists recommend forage winter wheat varieties such as Willow Creek or Ray. Forage winter wheats also are a winter annual but grow slower than winter rye and triticale. Willow Creek and Ray winter wheats are lower in lignin than both rye and triticale and can be fed as is if harvested at the milk stage or earlier. Follow the same seeding guidelines as other winter annuals.
Early to late July
The specialists recommend spring-planted annual cereal forages, such as forage oats, barley, triticale and wheat, for harvesting hay in early to late July.
“Research trials at the Central Grasslands and Carrington Research Extension Center (REC) show similar production potential between oats, barley and triticale; however, in wet years, oats tend to be superior, followed by triticale,” says Sedivec. “Data on forage wheat is limited, but production was similar to forage barley near Wishek in 2020.”
The research trials showed that EverLeaf oats and triticale were highest in crude protein, while barley was lowest in lignin and highest in total digestible nutrients. Forage oats were the most economical option based on seed costs and production during trials at the Central Grasslands REC.
With the exception of EverLeaf oats, all other oats, triticale and barley reached the milk to soft dough stage within 50 to 60 days. EverLeaf oats reached the harvest stage at 60 to 70 days, and forage wheat reached it after 60 days.
Many would agree that there is nothing like the taste and nutrient density of produce that comes straight from a home garden. In much the same…
“Only forage barley is low enough in lignin content to warrant feeding as is,” says Sedivec. “Forage oats, triticale and wheat should be ground and fed as a TMR to assure intake efficiency when harvested after the milk growth stage.”
Late July through August
For hay production in late July through August, the specialists recommend warm-season annual grasses such as foxtail millet, sudangrass, a sorghum/sudan hybrid, pearl millet and teff, which should be planted in mid to late June when soil temperatures warm up.
“Foxtail millet tends to have the lowest seed cost, but it also is the lowest producing crop,” says Sedivec. “Siberian foxtail millet does best on drier sites and in drier regions, whereas German or common foxtail millet is better suited for central and eastern North Dakota.”
The specialists indicate that sudangrass and sorghum/sudan hybrids are the highest producing annuals recommended for hay. Sorghum/sudan is the most productive in most research trials in the region. Both these crops contain thicker stems and are harder to dry. Thus, a mower conditioner is highly recommended to ensure a quicker drying time and reduce the risk of mold.
“Sudangrass and sorghum/sudan plant cells contain the cyanogenic glycoside dhurrin,” says Rogers. “Plant stress and environmental conditions can cause levels of dhurrin to build in plant cells. When plant cells are ruptured such as with grazing or freezing, this causes the dhurrin to be released and can lead through a chemical process to the development of prussic acid and prussic acid poisoning. This most often occurs in animals grazing sorghums that have been stressed.”
High nitrogen levels can also increase risk, adds Sedivec. If prussic acid levels are high when plants are harvested for hay, they rapidly drop during the drying process. If harvested after reaching a height of 24 inches, toxic levels are rarely documented unless the plants are stressed by drought or frost damage.
“Pearl millet (not foxtail millet) and teff are ‘finicky’ grasses,” says Meehan. “They require both heat and ample water, or they become low producers—and in the case of teff grass, totally fail. Pearl millet is a high-quality feed that rarely reaches the heading stage in North Dakota. It is a very high-producing grass when all positive environmental conditions occur.”
Teff grass performs best when grown with irrigation, achieving multiple high-quality harvests. Teff is not recommended in the western two-thirds of North Dakota unless under irrigation.
Only teff and sudangrass are warm-season forages that can be fed as is in most cases. The specialists recommend that other warm-season crop species be ground and fed as part of a TMR to reduce waste and increase intake.
Best for dual use
“If you are interested in planting a dual-purpose crop that can be hayed and the aftermath regrowth grazed, you are limited to those grasses that regrow well with a low risk of prussic acid and nitrate toxicity,” says Meehan. “The best options are forage barley, sudangrass (assuming greater than 18 inches of regrowth), pearl millet and teff grass.”
Oats also can be a good option if the fertilizer used was only at starter levels or less and if no stress occurred from drought or a freeze, adds Meehan. A cover crop mixture containing only grasses and legumes also is suitable for dual use.
A solid annual forage strategy can produce cost-effective, high-quality feed, and for some varieties, it can result in aftermath grazing. NDSU Extension specialists recommend that producers select two or more annual forage crops (at least one cool-season and one warm-season) based on planned harvest time, environmental conditions, equipment available to ensure best drying conditions, and ability to deliver the feed to livestock with low waste and high intake. Utilizing both cool-season and warm-season annual forage crops reduces risk and can increase resilience in your forage system. — NDSU Extension