Are you ready for summer forages?

cattle pasture
Cattle on pasture

As I flipped the calendar to June, I wondered where in the world did the month of May go?

 I spent most of the month of April wondering if I would ever have any decent pasture to graze due to the wet and cool weather slowing down the growth of our forages. And then mother nature flipped on the light switch in May with warmer days and plenty of moisture allowing cool-season grasses to grow at a rapid pace. This season’s spring flush was like a 100-yard dash! 

As I recorded my forage heights this spring, I saw increases in forage height of 2-3 inches in a 24-hour period. This extreme growth presented a relief for many producers looking at a thin stored hay supply; on the other hand, it also presented a challenge to grazers trying to capture the greatest quality of forage before seed production and quality degradation. 

As cool-season forages continue to mature and enter the reproduction stage, acid detergent fiber and neutral detergent fiber content will increase dramatically cause lower digestibility. Maturing cool-season forages will become less palatable and unappealing to livestock. 

There are a few options and practices that can help with forage palatability. One option is to harvest the forage for hay or clip the seed head off and allow it to decompose. When seed heads of forages are removed, it triggers the plant to reenter the vegetative growth stage rather than the reproductive growth stage. 

Another option is to increase the stocking rate to force livestock to consume the seed heads. I try to avoid this on perennial ryegrass and Tall Fescue-based pastures due to the endophyte bacteria that infect the plants at this stage of growth and cause health issues with livestock.

At the end of the day, our cool-season forages are getting tired and wanting to take a summer vacation! So as grazers what do we do from now till late August and September when cool-season forages come back from vacation?

June, July, and August are commonly referred to as the summer slump season; this is when cool season perennial forages slow in growth to survive the hot and dry summer climate. 

Fortunately, there is an option for grazing operations running out of grass. Warm-season annuals forages have grown in popularity over the years to help fill in the forage deficient period we call summer. 

There are multiple options to choose from, and if you are like me — a kid in a forage candy store — it can be hard to make a good choice of which species is the right fit. Here are some factors you will want to consider before purchasing any seed: 

1. Explore your options. There are many options when it comes to species selection, variety types, mixes and end uses. Species that are very common for Ohio include Sudan grass, sorghum Sudan cross, pearl millet, grazing maize or forage corn, Teff, forage soybeans and Foxtail millet. 

When searching for seed, make sure to ask seed company representatives about variety differences, quality characteristic, diseases resistance, environment adaptation, fertility requirements and maturity ranges. Forage producers should put the same emphasis in seed selection as corn and soybean producers do when deciding which seed to plant, remember cheap is not always better. 

2. What is your goal. Every operation is different when it comes to its needs and management styles. Livestock species and uses will also play a key role; for example, a dairy cow or goat producer will want a forage that has high digestibility and crude protein for ultimate milk production while a beef cow producer or meat goat producer will not be as concerned about milk production. 

Each type of summer annual forage has a unique characteristic when it comes to growth habit and quality aspects. Sudan grass is a fast-growing forage that grows to medium/manageable heights that make it well suited for grazing. Sorghum Sudan grass has a large growth with a girthier stem that makes is better for silage production; both sorghum Sudan and Sudan grass present the risk of prussic acid poisoning after a frost event. 

Peal millet is great option for later grazing due to not producing prussic acid after a frost. Producer interested in grazing pearl millet should look for dwarf varieties because they do not get as tall as traditional varieties. Pearl millet is more susceptible to stunting if grazed or harvested too short. 

Foxtail millet is lower growing forage that is easier to mechanically harvest compared to other summer annual forages. Foxtail millet is usually a one harvest and done making it well suited as a bridge crop between a new cool-season perennial forage seeding. 

3. Establishment is critical. As you make plans to purchase seed and start planting, take time to get a good game plan together to prepare a proper seed bed. Remember that most summer annuals are being planted out of the normal windows of planting any kind of crop going into summer, moisture declines and temperatures increase. 

Fortunately, summer annuals love that type of weather but are not immune to drought, floods or other extreme weather events. It is critical that seeds are placed in a weed-free clean seed bed and planting depth to match the variety of forage. 

For example, Sudan grass and sorghum Sudan need to be planted at depths of 1 inch for proper establishment and root formation. Planting too shallow can cause poor root establishment or risk of wildlife eating the seed. Planting too deep can cause poor stands due to inability to emerge. 

On the other hand, summer annuals such as foxtail millet and teff need to be planted into a firm shallow seed bed. This is especially true for teff grass, with 1/8-1/4 inch being the proper seeding depth. If planting depth is greater than 1/4 inch, stand failure is likely. 

4. Pay attention to your soil fertility. If you have not taken a soil test for a while, you will want to pull a sample. Knowing what your current soil fertility is will allow you to provide adequate nutrients to capitalize on yield and prevent soil nutrient mining. 

For example, according to the tri-state fertility guide Sudan grass or sorghum Sudan grass will remove approximately 31 pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 pounds of phosphorus and 45 pounds of potassium per estimated tons of yield. 

5. Manage your grazing practices. Sometimes producers push summer annuals harder due to their fast growth and short periods of growth. Grazing height should be maintained at 5-6 inches, as this allows for better regrowth and minimizes the risk of nitrate poisoning during droughty conditions. 

Grazing can begin at 45-50 days after planting. Grazing too early will capture quality but also delay regrowth, grazing too late will equate to lower quality and digestibility and delay regrowth. For Sudan and sorghum Sudan grass, restricting grazing after a frost is recommended due to prussic acid poisoning risk to livestock. 

In summary, summer annuals are great options to help fill in the forage gap during the summer growing season. They are also a great bridge crop to help prepare the land for an early fall perennial forage seeding for hay or pasture. 

Taking advantage of summer annuals’ ability to grow during the challenging summer weather can help your livestock stay fat and happy until our cool-season forage friends come back from their summer vacation. For more information, check out these great articles:


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