Filling the forage gap

As the cooler months creep in, warm season forages may start to wane. In the Ozarks, producers have the opportunity to fill the forage gap that often occurs between the late fall and winter months, and the spring months. Farmers can bridge the lull in grass production by planting winter annuals. 

In Arkansas and other parts of the Ozarks, where Bermuda grass fills pastures, agronomists recommend overseeding the Bermuda grass with winter annuals. Since Bermuda grass goes dormant in the fall, there is a stretch of time from October until May that those fields are absent of forage. Planting a winter annual early in the fall will provide fall and spring grazing in those Bermuda grass pastures. 

Additionally, winter annuals help fill the gap on operations where producers have dedicated pastures set aside for winter grazing. “Say we are stockpiling fescue to graze in the winter, but you still have a period of time in October, November and early December, where you need something else,” John Jennings, Ph.D., forage extension specialist and professor, with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture said. “Some of those winter annual forages, if planted early enough, can help fill that gap.”

What to Plant

Agronomists recommend considering a variety of different grasses to add forage for the fall, winter and spring months. “The cereal grains like the winter oats, spring oats and cereal rye will produce the most fall pasture,” Jennings stated. Wheat and ryegrass are other options. Ryegrass creates little fall grazing, but it is a good spring forage producer. 

Jennings suggests keeping in mind the following order of fall forage production from greatest to least. Spring oats and winter oats would be similar in the amount of fall forage produced, then forage brassicas, cereal rye, wheat and lastly ryegrass. 

Ryegrass is a good option to mix and plant with other winter annuals. Though ryegrass does not produce much in the fall, it will come up and create good grazing in the spring. “We have had good success in mixing spring oats with ryegrass and planting that early in the fall,” Jennings explained. “Oats will give forage in the fall time and the ryegrass will start to grow in the spring and give us spring pasture and we can get two seasons of grazing with one planting.” 

Some plants in the brassica family can be grazed into winter. For example, forage radishes, forage turnips and rape hybrids can be grazed until mid-December.

When to Plant

Producers wanting to add winter annuals to their fields need to prepare to plant them by late summer or early fall. Dr. Jennings suggests planting winter annuals before Sept. 15. If the winter annuals are planted by that time, the plant should come up for fall grazing. 

Agronomists state brassicas should be planted the last week of August or the first week in September. The forage brassicas need to be planted early in order for producers to see any significant fall production from them. 

When to Fertilize

In order to get fall grazing out of the winter annuals, producers should fertilize at the time of planting. The fertilizer will ensure there is adequate nutrients in the soil to support the growth of winter annuals after it rains. During the cooler months, winter annuals need additional nutrients to grow. “Fertilizer is expensive. But if they plant seed and don’t fertilize it, then it is a waste of time in a lot of cases,” Jennings said. 

If producers are looking to get spring grazing out of the winter annuals, then experts recommend adding fertilizer to the fields in mid-February. A nitrogen fertilizer will spur growth and hopefully produce forage that livestock can start utilizing in March.


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