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Annual Forages for Grazing
by Jacob Hawes, Soil Conservationist

If you are looking to improve the soil health on your farm or possibly ways to extend your grazing season and reduce your reliance on stored feed, there may be a new cost-share opportunity available with NRCS. A new conservation practice has been created to introduce annual forages into grazing systems and help producers supplement existing forages. For producers interested, NRCS will help develop a plan to seed a multispecies mix of annual forages to be grazed by livestock or harvested for later feeding. This practice could be used in conjunction with other conservation practices in a soil health plan or grazing system plan to help producers address resource concerns or achieve management goals within their operation.

Adding annual forages on cropland allows producers to add an additional crop to their rotation that can help build and scavenge nutrients and boost biological activity in the soil, making nutrient uptake more efficient for plants and reducing input costs for the producer. Producers focused on livestock production can utilize the practice to introduce a forage crop when production on pastures are at their lowest.

For example, a mix of ryegrass, clover, and brassicas planted after the harvest of a small grain in July, will be ready to graze late fall after corn and beans are harvested, potentially providing nutrition into the winter months, and offsetting the demand for hay. Additionally, planting a field to forage sorghum and cowpeas in early summer can provide multiple grazing opportunities later in the summer when pastures are experiencing the dreaded summer slump, or the forage could be chopped for silage to be fed to livestock through the winter.

Annual forages can also be used on existing pasture as a way renovate rundown pastures. In cases, where pastures are dominated by endophyte infected fescue or possibly the soils are heavily compacted, annual forages can provide a “Reset Button” for existing pastures.  Terminating existing stands and seeding to annuals can help smother undesirable species, promote biological activity in the soil, and break up the existing hard pan. This practice can be scheduled up to three consecutive years on the same acres to help achieve these results. Once those issues are alleviated, pastures can be reseeded back to a perennial grasses/legume mix to provide years of quality forages under proper management.

So, you may be wondering how this practice differs from a normal cover crop? Well, this practice should be implemented with livestock and forage production being the central focus. Species seeded in a mix should be meticulously selected to ensure that the forages grown will be optimized for the targeted grazing or harvest periods. This includes ensuring that some species are not planted in too high of ratios or grazed during a timeframe where certain plants can cause potential health issues such as bloat, prussic acid poisoning, or even photosensitivity. Additionally, seeding rates should be substantially higher than a typical cover crop. Most species should be expected to be seeded at double the standard seeding rate to ensure maximum biomass production during the growing season.

If you are looking for additional ways to improve your soil health, cut annual inputs, or lengthen your grazing season, there are cost-share opportunities available to help integrate annual forages into your management system. Whether you are looking to revamp your pastures or diversify your cropping systems, annual forages have their place. If you are interested in how to integrate this practice into your current farming operation, contact your local NRCS office to learn more.