Alternative Forage Options for Spring 2023

Chad Guthrie
District Extension Agent, Crop production and Forage Management
Southwind District
210 S. National
Fort Scott, Kansas 66701
Office: 620-223-3720
Cell: 308-991-8415
[email protected]

Much of Southeast Kansas experienced drought through the late summer and fall months of 2022. This has affected pasture health, forage yields, and hay prices, causing some producers to worry if they will have enough forage to maintain their herd numbers. In this article we will lay out a few forage options that producers may not be utilizing.

Many tall fescue pastures in SEK went into dormancy early last summer, and never seemed to come out, leaving producers to worry if the fescue is dead. While it is difficult to tell how much will recover, we know that stand health will be poor this spring. In some cases, spring oats can be drilled into fescue stands to provide additional forage. Using low seeding rates and a no-till drill, oats make a great companion crop allowing the fescue to rest.

Winter wheat can be used as a dual-purpose crop, where producers graze the stand early in the spring, and then pull cattle off to have a harvestable wheat crop. Winter wheat can be grazed until the first hallow stem stage without impacting yield potential. Research has shown a 0% yield impact from grazing prior to the first hallow stem stage, and then a 2% yield loss each day the wheat is grazed after the first hallow stem stage. The first hallow stem stage can be identified by splitting the main tiller on the wheat plant and finding the developing wheat head. The first hallow stem stage begins when the developing wheat head is approximately 1.5 centimeters above ground, roughly the diameter of a dime.

Winter wheat can also be used solely as a forage crop with the ability to rotate to a summer crop. In this system, wheat can be grazed until planting time. Wheat can be terminated via tillage or herbicides.

For producers who did not plant winter wheat in the fall there are a number of spring- planted cereal crops that make excellent grazing options.

Cereal rye is a cold-hardy, fast growing cereal crop that will produce a large amount of forage quickly. Cereal rye is most often planted in the fall, but in SEK, late winter plantings can also achieve adequate stands. Rye is best served as a silage crop because it matures quickly, but it will also give producers the earliest grazing option.

Spring oats is the next earliest forage option. Spring oats can be planted as early as February 15 in a warm and dry winter, or as late as March 10 in a cold and wet winter. Oats will freeze kill, so plan to plant after the last threat of a freeze.

Spring oats will not produce tillers, so yield potential will not be as high as other cereal crops. Grazing should begin when plants reach 6-8 inches tall and then grazing should end when plants reach 2-3 inches tall to maintain regrowth.

For producers looking to get more forage from their spring crop, spring triticale can be a great option. Spring triticale will mature later in the season than cereal rye and spring oats, so it is not recommended if producers want to rotate to corn in that field. Double-cropped soybeans would be an option in SEK.

Spring triticale has many hybrids that are designed for different forage types, meaning it can have good grazing potential, but triticale is best served as a hay/silage crop.

With a glim outlook on spring pasture health, producers may need to look beyond their typical spring grazing options. Cereal crops can be an inexpensive and high-quality forage to fill a need while tall fescue pastures recover from last year’s drought. For more information on using alternative forages, contact Chad Guthrie, crop production and forage management agent, at any Southwind Extension District office.

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