Are they worth the time and money?

If producers are looking to add winter cereals to their pastures in hopes of getting additional forage for spring grazing or even a boost to their fall crops, now is the time to plant. But before landowners invest money in seed and their time to plant it, there are some considerations to keep in mind.

Winter cereals will only work well in limited situations. In much of the Ozarks, farm fields flourish with fescue. This hardy perennial proves to be a tough competitor for other grasses. Even if the winter cereal is properly drilled in, as the tender seedling grows it must compete with fescue’s deep root system. 

Farmers hopeful for additional forage after planting winter rye, winter wheat or winter triticale may be disappointed when the annual plants start to emerge and are choked out by the fescue. “It sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work well in practicality very often because of the competition issue,” Patricia Miller, field specialist in agronomy with the University of Missouri Extension, said.

However, planting winter cereals can be successful in some circumstances. Fields that contain a mix of grasses other than fescue, overgrazed fescue pastures with very low stands, or land with little forage due to drought are situations in which drilling in cereals could be fruitful.

Another scenario could be landowners who want to convert a pasture to a novel endophyte fescue. In this situation, producers spray to eliminate all forage then plant the winter crop and then in the spring they spray again and plant the novel endophyte. “So, it would fit into that system where you are looking to convert to a novel endophyte, where you are going to spray and kill everything else out anyway,” Miller stated.

Typically winter rye, winter wheat and winter triticale are the most commonly used winter cereals. “I would also favor triticale over the other two cereals as it will give the biggest bump in forage production,” Nathan Bilke, district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said.

If winter cereals are planted, due to current conditions, the seeds should be incorporated into the fields at about 30 pounds of per acre. “For this year’s fall bump, I would drill right now,” Bilke stated. “In other years, I would drill first of September with that month being ideal for fall bump.”

Experts recommend using a no-till drill to incorporate the winter crops into the fields if the land has a good seedbed. Many local soil and water conservation districts have no-till drills available for farmers to rent for free. It some cases, depending on the fertility of the soil, regular drilling may be necessary in order to work the nutrients into the soil.

Once the annual plants start to fill the fields in fall and winter, producers should consider leaving part of the pasture for spring. “If you graze it when it gets to about 6 to 8 inches and you want early spring growth, I would stop grazing it early to mid-November, then you should get a spring flush of annual growth that will help lengthen the grazing season,” Bilke explained. 

Another way to protect the fragile annual, is to plant in areas where there are no livestock. Keeping livestock off the winter cereals until the plants are established will allow it to grow to a proper stand. “If you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, move livestock off the pasture until it is a grazing height of around eight inches,” Bilke said. 

Planting winter cereals on continuously grazing operations may not make sense if landowners cannot give the pastures rest. Farmers need to have paddocks to rotate their livestock onto in order to be successful with winter cereals.

If winter cereals are not an option, experts recommend planting turnips into cropland or incorporating oats in mid-February to get additional spring forages.


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