Developing a fall and winter grazing plan can help you save money on winter feed costs. The less you spend on harvested forages, the better, right?
But crops that aren’t corn, soybeans and wheat feel a little unknown. It can be challenging to know what winter forages to plant, or when and how to plant them. So, you might be thinking, where do I even begin?
To make it simple, here’s some easy-to-understand winter forage information to get you started.
What Forages Are Best for Winter Grazing?
The best winter forages are cool season crops such as wheat, cereal rye, clover, winter pea, triticale, vetch, turnips, radishes, annual ryegrass, oats, kale and winter lentils.
Winter forages can vary by geography and be impacted by rainfall, time of planting, fertilization, seed depth, soil texture and pH. So, selecting the right variety is critical when choosing your forages. It’s essential to pick a variety of species that best fit your operational goals, rainfall, economics and region.
For the Midwest, the best winter forages are cover crops such as cereal rye, radishes, turnips, annual ryegrass, oats and triticale. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) follows the Rule of Three principle for cover crop diversity. Each variety should include three primary plant groups – grasses, legumes and forbs (broadleaves) with two to three species from each group. That means six to eight plants would be included in each cover crop mix.
To select the suitable varieties for your area and goals, use a cover crop calculator, such as this one from the Midwest Cover Crop Councils, or contact your local NRCS office to choose which crops best fit your operation.
Where and When to Plant Winter Forages?
If you’re planting winter cover crops as you’re combining row crops, you’ll plant early or late September. In this case, it’s important to understand your cover crop mix’s carbon (C) to nitrogen (N) ratio when you’re planting into existing fields. You don’t want the cover crop to impact the nutrients in the soil for the following cash crop rotation.
According to NRCS, a good rule of thumb is that cover crop mixes with a C:N ratio greater than 24:1 will make N less available to plants and will decompose more slowly. Mixes with a C:N ratio less than 24:1 will make N more available for plants and will decompose more rapidly.
If you’re planting winter forages by overseeding existing pastures, follow the planting dates on the mixes. Planting dates for each winter forage will vary but most can be planted from early August to early September.
The NRCS states that planting cover crops varies by moisture. If you have irrigation or plenty of moisture where you live, aerial or broadcast seeding is best. Some species of cover crops, such as peas, soybeans and mung beans will do better if they are drilled into the soil.
Is Mineral Needed with Cool Season Grasses?
Winter forages are high in protein and contain a lot of energy; however, they can be low in calcium and magnesium. In this case, grass tetany or wheat pasture poisoning (winter tetany) is the most significant risk for your herd.
Grass tetany is caused by low magnesium levels in cattle blood. It occurs when cattle begin grazing on grasses that are high in potassium. High levels of potassium decrease the absorption of magnesium and calcium, causing reduced levels in cattle.
Treatment of tetany typically includes an IV injection of calcium-magnesium and a mineral supplement containing a high level of magnesium (10%) and calcium (15-20%). For prevention, provide mineral containing highly available magnesium and calcium with daily intake ranging from 2-4 ounces. Take note that when dealing with macro-minerals like calcium and magnesium, cattle will need to consume closer to the 4 ounce mark to ensure enough calcium and magnesium are ingested.
Another possible issue with winter cover crop mixes that include legumes is bloat. Rumensin® and Bloat Guard® can help with bloat or frothy bloat, which is common in this scenario.
How to Increase the Quantity and Quality of Winter Forages?
Cover crops may require a certain amount of fertilizer or added nutrients at planting. Biostimulants can help replace the need for added fertilizers and increase the nutrient potential of pastures.
Biostimulants work by stimulating the microbial populations in the soil to release tied-up nutrients to plants. This results in forages with greater biomass, higher crude protein and faster regrowth to get the most out of your forage supply.