Planting Fall Forage Crops

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As fall approaches, you may have been thinking about your pastures and how much grazing you have left. How much hay will you have to feed this year? Do you have enough? While these are important considerations, it is also important to note that there are several fall forage crops that you can plant that would reduce the amount of time you need to feed hay.

In the coastal plain of North Carolina, the ideal time to plant fall forage crops—such as small grains, tall fescue, brassicas, etc.—is the month of September. Cool season forages are planted at various depths and seeding rates, call the office for help with determining these amounts for your forage choice!

Rye is probably the most widely used cool season forage in pastures and hayfields. It can produce 1500-2500 pounds of forage from early fall until April if planted appropriately and fertilized adequately. The same goes for other small grains, such as oats, wheat, barley or triticale. Small grains are highly digestible forages (70-80% digestibility) and contain 15-20% crude protein (CP). Italian Ryegrass is a common forage in this area. Ryegrass generally yields 2-4 tons per acre and has the highest amount of growth in April and May. A pasture of ryegrass is highly nutritious, with digestibility at 77-82% and 14-20% CP but be warned that it does persist and can shade out Bermuda growth in early spring. Fertilization is similar for ryegrass and small grains—usually an application of 500-600 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer is appropriate at planting. Additional nitrogen, 60-80 lbs/ac, may be necessary on sandy soils when plants reach 2-3 inches tall (usually in November) and again in mid February.

Tall fescue may also be used as fall forage crop, although it is not as common in this area as it is in other parts of the state. This perennial grass reaches its peak performance from March-May and September-November. Tall fescue can yield 3-5 tons per acre, with 70-80% digestibility in the vegetative, young stages. Often fescue is combined with legume crops to create an even more palatable pasture. White clover, or ladino clover, is a perennial that is well adapted to this area. Adding legumes to your mixture will increase palatability of the pasture, increase the protein content of the forage, and adds nitrogen to the entire system.

Brassicas are gaining in popularity in grazing systems. Turnips, rape, kale, etc. are readily eaten by livestock and can provide high quality forage when the normal supply is low (October-December). Leaves of brassicas can have crude protein levels that range from 15 to 25% and turnip bulbs can be from 9-16%. They should not be used as the sole source of feed since they are greater than 90% water, low in fiber and contain substances that could become toxic (several weeks of strictly Brassica diet). Immature rape can be high in nitrates while turnips may cause an off-flavor in milk. Mixing these brassicas with other crops can result in high yields from your pasture and increased variability for your animals.

Use a recent soil test to determine appropriate fertilization rates; it is important to know what you’re working with and how to achieve the optimum performance of your field! Contact the extension office (919-731-1525) for help with soil testing or more information about any of the aforementioned small grains, grasses, or brassicas.