Planting annual forages may be a win-win for ranchers who are interested in expanding their herds, can't find perennial grass to rent or refuse to pay the high costs Nebraska grass is commanding in rental rates.
Pasture rent in Nebraska is becoming a hard pill to swallow for cattle producers. In central and southern Nebraska, producers are paying $50 to $60 per pair per month, which is $1.60 to $2 per pair per day. "That is quite expensive when you compare it to other sources of the same nutrients," says Mary Drewnoski, University of Nebraska extension specialist.
Chad Engle, who is the livestock operations manager at US-MARC, tells producers they have tried different annual mixtures, and most still pencil out cheaper than renting perennial grass.
At the station, pairs have grazed on Triticale in muddy, wet conditions. Even with taking them in and out of the field to keep the seedbed intact, he figures they still received 1.34 AUM of grazing. Pregnant spring-calving cows grazed an oat, radish and turnip mixture, and got 2.2 AUM. "It was 3 to 4 inches tall when we turned into it, and I wondered how it would work, but it continued to grow," he tells producers. "We use annual forage fields here as a transition to go to something else, like perennial pasture or corn residue," he says.
Planting annuals is one way producers can provide their cattle with high-quality forage at less cost, depending on which mixture they choose and when they want to graze. However, Drewnoski urges producers to keep in mind that annual forages are a crop risk, and they should have extra feed on hand in case the crop doesn't establish. "Anytime you are trying to establish something, there is a real opportunity for it to fail," she says. "I would have some hay stockpiled to avoid wrecks. Some people even have an extra field they plan to hay, but can graze if they have to. Don't put yourself in a situation where you have a crop failure, and realize that you have no feed for the cows," she states.
Lactating animals should also be fed a high magnesium mineral, especially in the spring and fall.
Drewnoski warns producers about pulmonary emphysema, which occurs when animals go from dormant pasture or low-quality hay to an annual pasture with high-quality forage.
"If they are not getting a lot of protein in the diet, and go to something with a lot of protein, a metabolite is produced in the rumen that is toxic to the lungs," she explains. Producers can prevent it by feeding some protein while the cattle are still on dormant forage, or feeding an ionophore at least seven days before the transition. "It usually happens in mature animals because they are more likely to have a low-quality diet," she says.
Oats are still the best choice for a winter-sensitive, cool-season forage, says Drewnoski. But spring triticale and barley can also be good alternatives. Annual ryegrass can also be planted to help maintain annual forage quality into the later part of the season.
"If you plant a winter-sensitive species in mid-March or early April, you could graze it into June, but it could get away from you in terms of forage quality. Adding an annual ryegrass or spring barley will help maintain quality," she explains.
Drewnoski recommends planting warm-season species May 1 through Aug. 1. "The earlier you plant, the earlier you can graze," she explains. "I would recommend planting cool-season varieties after Aug. 1. But if you intend to plant July 15, I would decide whether to plant a warm-season or cool-season variety based on quality. If you need yield, but not high quality, I would plant warm-season. If you need high quality for lactating cows or weaned calves, I would plant cool-season varieties," she says.
Harvest efficiency is also extremely important, the specialist says. "Fall forages don't decline in quality with maturity like it does with spring or summer forages. I would try and get all the yield I could and allocate grazing," she explains. Grazing is not as efficient as haying, but it is more cost-effective, she says.
"The first key to grazing management is starting at the right height, and not letting it get away from you," Drewnoski claims.
Small cereal grains like oats, rye and triticale should be 6 to 8 inches when grazed. "For rye, you may want to put cattle on it when it is 4 inches, depending on stocking rate," she says. Varieties like sudangrass should be 18 inches tall before grazed to prevent prussic acid or nitrate poisoning.
Clark writes from Potter, Neb.