Finding ways to extend the grazing season is a top priority for livestock producers in the southeast because grown forages are the cheapest source of feed for our livestock.
Slipping into fall means cooler weather, shorter days, and dormancy of our pastures is upon us. Livestock producers are preparing to supplement their herd for the next 120 days until the warm-season grasses come out of dormancy in the spring. Supplements are often tough to navigate away from completely but managing forage resources can help to minimize total dependence on supplemental feed. Establishing cool-season annual forages can work for you if the proper planning and management is enforced. Cool-season forages will work even better if you intend to build them into your forage system each year. Finding what works and how to manage these forages may take a couple tries, but we can help you miss the big mistakes.
Cool-season annual forages might mean small grains such as oat, rye, wheat, or triticale, various clovers and brassicas, or ryegrasses. Each of these forage types require different environments, level of input, and management which is why there is no uniform approach to planting cool-season forages. As the environment shifts from cooler to warmer climates or wet to drier soil conditions the forage options for those areas change as well. Stay informed on what will work best in your situation with this annual variety recommendation publication: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa266
Assuming you have worked with your local Extension agent and have determined what forage options will perform best for the given area and intended management we can move forward with a couple of thoughts. 2020 has been a year, to say the very least, and trying to predict the weather pattern and future planting conditions of the next 45 days presents a shot in the dark. What do we know? We know that cool-season forages need reduced competition, adequate moisture, and fertilization to perform. Cutting corners might work in the short term, but you will lose in the long-run every time when it comes to forages.
Reduced competition refers to the knockdown of existing vegetation, more than likely the bahiagrass (or whatever warm season forage you have) before planting. We can achieve this naturally with enough cold weather because we know bahiagrass will go into dormancy with lower temperatures and shorter days. In Florida, this approach may put us into late November or mid-December, often later than we would like to be planting. We can encourage reduced competition for an earlier planting in a few ways: intense grazing or mowing, burndown herbicide, or light disc to disturb the vegetation and roll or pack the soil prior to planting. Any of these techniques will be better than trying to plant cool-season forages into thick, abundant vegetation.
Relying on Mother Nature for moisture to our cool-season forages is definitely a job for the crystal ball and can be one of the most frustrating causes of stand failure. If you are fortunate enough to have means of irrigation, your stress level is immediately reduced and you will be able to plant earlier than the rest of us doing the rain dance. Current conditions favor a La Ninã winter, meaning a likely drier and warmer winter. This is not the best news for planting cool-season forages, but that is the gamble in ranching! All of this to say, planting too early in the fall (before mid-late October) might mean too warm, too much competition with existing vegetation, and possibly too dry.
At this point you are invested in the planting process with quality seed, land preparation, and stress from gambling on the weather, why promote failure by deciding to cut costs with no or low levels of fertilization? These annual forages will not thrive without fertilization, and if they do not thrive you will not get enough grazing out of them to make them worth your while. Part of your planting prep should include a soil test of the area if you have not analyzed your soil recently. This is a simple, cost effective strategy to know the current state of your soil and how to amend fertilization recommendations for your annual forages. Basically, a split application of Nitrogen is imperative as Nitrogen is the most limiting nutrient, but you might also need some Potassium, Phosphorus, or micronutrients depending on the management of the area and its use outside of the cool-season.
Planting cool-season annual forages is not cheap but might be cheaper than purchasing supplemental feed for 120 days. Annual forages should not be assessed as the end-all-be-all feeding strategy for your herd in the winter, rather a way to provide high quality grazing for classes of animals that might require it during a time when grazing would be limited. These forages can provide huge advantages to producers in the southeast, but before jumping in head-first know what will be expected of you in order to reap these benefits. These forages are NOT a crock pot, you cannot “set it and forget it”, you need to provide inputs and be an active manager. If being a livestock producer were easy, everyone would be doing it. Help us help you find ways to make it easier and more cost effective when at all possible. UF/IFAS Extension agents plant cool-season forage demonstration plots each year around the state, find one near you and take a tour to see how these forages perform in your area.
If this is the first you are hearing about cool-season forages, don’t rush to plant this year. Set yourself up for success by embarking on a learning journey this year in preparation for next fall. Have your Extension agent out for a site visit to determine the best course of action, immerse yourself in the learning process, and be the first in line to purchase seed next year.