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Using Summer Annuals To Extend Fall Grazing

Extending the grazing season can help reduce production costs for cattle. Even though about 95 per cent of swath grazing in Western Canada is done with perennial forages, some producers are using summer annuals to extend their grazing period in the fall and winter. Lorne Klein, a grazing and forage specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, says producers in his area are mainly using oats, barley, corn and millets for this purpose.

These are usually swath grazed, but corn is generally left standing. Basically we are using cereal crops, seeded in the spring. We have about 105 to 115 frost-free days here. It s a trade-off regarding seeding date. If you delay the seeding date you will have better quality of feed later in the summer, but the potential yield will be reduced due to the heat of summer, he explains.

When swath grazing was first invented, people were trying a late- June/early-July seeding date. Normally, our wettest month of the year is June. If we try to seed a crop after the June rains, then we are getting into the hot, dry weather of July and August and the yield is potentially reduced. So then we decided to look at warm-season crops like the millets. But now we realize that if we don t seed ahead of June rains whether it s a cool-season crop like oats or barley or a warm-season crop like millet or corn we may not have a window of time in which to seed. It may rain all through June, he says.

Then the rain suddenly stops and you are waiting for the fields to dry enough to seed, and you re getting into July, and it doesn t rain again. Currently we are recommending that people seed in early June before the June rains begin, even though every year may be different. This year we had many acres that were left unseeded, on much of the farmland in southeastern Saskatchewan. It rained from April through June and didn t stop raining, so many grain farmers were not able to put in a crop, he says.

The annuals that are commonly used to extend the grazing season are oats, barley, or millets seeded early. After 65 days we cut the crop and put it in a windrow, holding it at that stage of maturity. Leaving it stand is not an option because it matures too much, and if you try to graze it standing, the cattle trample and waste too much. So we put it in a windrow, explains Klein. What you do with it afterward may depend on seeding date.

Let s say it was seeded May 20 and cut July 25. Rather than leaving it lying there weathering from July 25 until November 1 (before they start grazing it), some people are rolling it up with a minimum of twine, and bale grazing this forage, he says.

There has also been some talk lately about planting cocktail cover crops putting in as many as 10 different species. You might put in sunflowers, beets, corn, millet, oats, barley etc. The research on this has been very thin, however. There are numerous ranchers in North and South Dakota who are doing this, and claiming some benefits, but there is virtually no research on it up here, says Klein.


In Western Canada and the western U.S. ranchers often run out of late-summer and fall pasture, especially when productivity of cool-season perennial grasses is limited during heat of summer. In 2008 the University of Idaho s Nancy Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center (Salmon, Idaho) began looking at ways to extend grazing with use of summer annuals.

We looked at species that grow well in dry corners of pivot-irrigated ground, to increase hay yield or pasture, says John Hall, extension beef specialist. This evolved into a project to increase forage production for fall grazing.

Test plots were continued for three years, 2008 through 2010. Last year, production was a little lower, and we felt this was due to the cooler summer, says Hall.

When irrigation was available during the 60-day growing season the first year, some species produced two to three tons to the acre. Part of the plot was given only a month of irrigation, with water turned off August 1, to simulate what happens on many ranches when water is no longer available.

The first test plots contained five species of warm-season annuals: Sudex, Teff (an annual grass produced in Idaho), German Foxtail Millet, Pearl Millet and Grazing Corn, planted July 1. Production varied from 0.5 tons per acre for Pearl Millet with no irrigation after early August to 5.6 tons per acre for Sudex (sorghum-sudan grasses) with full-season irrigation. The most promising species that year, according to Hall, were Sudex, German Foxtail Millet and Teff. They all produced more than 2.5 tons per acre in less than 60 days.

The next two years the entire plot was irrigated. The same species were planted, but with a change from grazing corn to a short-season silage corn. The grazing corn put out more tillers, but in subsequent years we used silage corn because we got more tonnage. We also used white Proso Millet. The red millet is what the Canadians generally use, but we were not able to get it, explains Hall.

All three years, the plots were planted the first of July a late-season planting. Part of the reason for planting that late was to avoid possibility of frost, he says. Timing of planting would also depend on your grazing needs.

Some of the annuals we put in for fall grazing, if planted earlier could be grazed once and left to grow again for fall. This would depend on the length of your growing season. One of our reasons for planting late (since we planned to graze only once, in the fall) is that these plants hit the physiological stage where they provide maximum yield and still have good nutrient quality for fall grazing. For example, corn is usually producing tassels and silk by then, but not much grain formation. The Sudex has headed out but is not mature and the same with most of the other species. The frost hits it at that stage and it doesn t become overly mature.

With corn, instead of grazing corn stalks, you are grazing frosted standing corn, with more nutrients in the total plant. Over the three years, the nutrient analyses we ve done with frost hitting these plants at their maximum growth stage but before they become overmature crude protein levels have been between nine and 10 per cent on the low side, and on the high side between 13 and 14 per cent. The energy values also exceed what a dry cow would need after weaning her calf, says Hall.

This would make ideal forage for young cows or any cows that lost body condition while raising calves through the summer. This is something we can graze without any need for supplementation, he says.

We found that our top-yielding species was corn, if we could get it planted properly. That was one of our frustrations until recently, because we didn t have a corn planter. The other species are easier to plant. Many people have access to a no-till drill, which can be used for the sudex or German foxtail millet, says Hall.

Sorghum sudan grass was a close second to corn, for top production, followed by German Foxtail Millet another good performer. These are all excellent species, if you plan to graze them once. If you have opportunity to graze twice, you can use Teff. It produces a crop so quickly that you can graze it several times. It does require a prepared seedbed, however. This is the only species we didn t no till. But we just disked the ground a couple times and used a Brillion grass seeder, he explains.

Over the three-year project, corn produced between three and five tons per acre. The variation was related to our ability to get it planted properly. The Sudex was very consistent at about 3.5 tons per acre. The German Foxtail Millet was between 2.5 and three tons per acre, under irrigation. The nice thing about German Foxtail Millet is that ranchers can use it on totally dry land with no irrigation and get about one to 1.5 tons per acre in a country that gets about 14 inches of annual precipitation. Actual production may depend on pattern of rainfall during summer, however, he says.

We followed the normal seeding rate on all species, and strip grazed in the fall. On the Sudex and the corn we got about 70 animal grazing days per acre. The German Foxtail Millet gave us about 60 animal grazing days per acre. We grazed these plots in the fall, with heifers, he says.

We learned that Sudex and corn work very well if you want to graze after snowfall. They stand up and the cattle can get to it and root it out of the snow. If you plan to graze the other species after snow, you might have to put it in windrows, creating additional cost.

If it s just a light snow, cattle continue to graze the millets, but these mash down in a heavy, wet snow. As long as it doesn t crust over, cows will dig for it, if they know it s there, but Sudex and corn worked a lot better because there was always something sticking up for cows to grab and pull out of the snow. We grazed a lot of that in December, says Hall.

One drawback to annuals is that wildlife are attracted to them. Deer hit us hard last year. Any time we extend grazing late in the season, in this part of the country, deer and elk come into it. They didn t seem to bother the Sudex as much as they did the corn.

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