Approach of Fall Brings Thoughts of Forage Crops

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As I was sitting in my office trying to decide a topic for this week’s article, I realized it was already almost September! September means hot weather, possible hurricanes, prevalent insect problems, and the promise of cooler weather—if we just hold on a little longer. It also means the time to plant your fall and winter forage crops is approaching. For most of us that means fescue, clovers, alfalfa, vetch, or small grains.

A common practice in our neck of the woods is to plant a fall cover crop or small grain to utilize land well into cooler temperatures. For the cattle producers out there, this usually means overseeding small grains or ryegrass to provide fall and spring grazing. If managed correctly, this can be a great way to reduce the cost of supplemental feeding in your herd.

Let’s start with the types of small grains or clovers commonly used. Oats, rye, wheat, and barley are the typical small grains. Small grains are highly digestible, with 70-80% digestibility, and high in terms of quality, with 15-20% crude protein. Rye may produce about 1500-2000 lbs of forage between early fall and April if managed correctly. Annual ryegrass is often chosen for winter overseeding; it generally yields 2-4 tons per acre, with a large portion of the growth taking place in April and May. Ryegrass is nutritious (77-82% digestible, 14-20% crude protein) and works well in a winter pasture mix (rye/ryegrass).

Fescue may be a choice for some producers, with peak production months from March-May and again from Sep-Nov. It may yield 3-5 tons/acre and is a quality forage with 70-80% digestibility. The possible concern with fescue is fescue toxicity, associated with the endophyte in the plant. Contact your local extension agent for signs and symptoms of fescue toxicity in various species. Clovers are often planted to increase the palatability and protein content of forage pastures; ladino or white clover would probably the most beneficial in our soils.

As far as planting dates and seeding rates go, most small grains and clovers have the “best” planting dates of Sep1-Sep 30 (for the coastal plains area of NC). Oats and rye are probably better suited to wait a little longer before planting (dates of Sep 5-Sep 30). The dates listed are ideal, possible dates include Sep 1-Oct 15, Sep 1-Oct 31, or Sep 1-Nov 15 depending on the forage type in question. Most of these winter forages can be planted by broadcasting or drilling. The seeding rate depends on planting method and forage type; the same goes for planting depth. Contact the local extension agent for specific questions if you can’t find the answer.

When utilizing these winter annuals, rotational grazing has been shown to promote the growth and effectiveness of the pasture system. While they may be used for haying or silage purposes, pastures are the most common way to utilize winter annuals and small grains. Fall grazing should be delayed until plants are well established (6-8” tall). The stocking rate should be such that the top growth is not continuously removed (graze down to 2-3” and remove animals from pasture to promote further growth). Fertilizer may be necessary before planting; nitrogen application is of particular importance. Be sure to take a soil sample and have current results when planning your winter grazing system.

Stefani Garbacik is a Livestock and Forage Extension Agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. If you need any further assistance with forages or livestock concerns, please contact her at or (919) 731-1525.