Adding warm-season options to pastures and hayfields can improve production and performance
David Moore, right, MFA range and pasture specialist, shares details about a summer annual strip-grazing trial on Atkisson’s farm. The side-by-side study compared the growth, nutrition, yield and grazability of sudangrass, sorghum-sudan, pearl millet, forage sorghum and teff.
Access to water can be a limiting factor in rotational grazing. Atkisson installed several of these concrete waterers in his grazing paddocks.
Speaking near a patch of newly sprayed weeds, Atkisson shares some of the challenges he’s faced in keeping undesirable plants from competing with the desired forages on his farm. Weed control is especially critical in establishing new stands of native warm-season grasses, which initially grow slowly and don’t compete well with weeds or cool-season grasses.
Summer annuals provide a temporary source of high-yielding, nutritious forage that can be grazed or harvested for hay and silage, depending on the species. They can also be used to fill in the gap as pastures are being converted from cool-season to warm-season perennials.
Livestock Key Account Manager Brittany Kelsey studies the production parameters and forage analysis of the summer annuals included in the strip-grazing trial on Atkisson’s farm.
By carefully managing the forages on his farm, Atkisson told tour attendees that he tries to feed his cattle hay for no more than 45 days and no less than 30. He also experimented with bale-grazing last year. The practice involves leaving round bales in the field where they were harvested or spacing them out in certain pastures, which can be more efficient and cost-effective than hauling hay to cattle daily.
Speaking to the forage tour group, Atkisson shares some of the successes and failures he’s had in establishing native warm-season grasses on his farm. He’s currently working on renovating some former Conservation Reserve Program ground that he recently purchased. The acreage was already in native grass, he said, but had not been managed very well.
Nearly 75 guests, including MFA personnel and customers, attended the 2021 Forage Tour on July 20, hosted by Drexel Atkisson on his farm in Everton, Mo. The event offered a full day of educational sessions and demonstrations on perennial and annual warm-season grasses to diversify forage production.
Forage Tour attendees saw benefits of good pasture management in a striking demonstration by the NRCS Rainfall Simulator. The contraption demonstrates how various ground cover types are affected by 1 inch of precipitation. The runoff and infiltration from these different management scenarios are collected in clear jars. Examples of well-managed pastures absorbed 80% or 0.8 of that inch of rain, whereas the overgrazed pastures only captured 20%. “In those cases,” Jones said, “the rest of the water is running off the field, taking with it soil particles, fertilizer and the moisture needed for growth.”
Diversification reduces risk. It’s a concept that drives the financial world. Investors build diversified portfolios so that if one stock dips, another can rise to restore the balance.
The same concept works when producing forage, said Landry Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation grazing specialist. In fact, diversification was the theme of the 2021 MFA Forage Tour, held July 20 on Drexel Atkisson’s farm in Everton, Mo. The tour, attended by MFA staff and customers, highlighted perennial and annual options to expand the forage selection on Midwest farms.
“The vast majority of our cattle farms are nearly 100% cool-season grass-based,” Jones said. “That’s great in the spring and fall, but it leaves a pretty big gap in the summer when those grasses are not productive or nutritious. By incorporating a warm-season forage, producers will gain more grazing days and provide more nutrition for their herds.”
The predominant forage in Missouri pastures is fescue, a cool-season grass that dwindles in quantity and quality in warm weather, becoming even more toxic. Removing the herd from fescue during this time can benefit both animal health and performance, Jones said.
“Anytime we can get those animals off fescue in the summer, the more productive your farm is going to be, especially in calf weight gains,” he said. “And that’s what you’re selling—pounds of beef.”
During the forage tour, Atkisson, who also serves as area soil health specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, shared some of the advantages he’d seen in grazing warm-season grasses versus fescue. He weighed 100 calves every 30 days throughout the spring and summer months. Calves on fescue averaged 0.8 pound in daily gain, while those on warm-season grass gained twice as much weight.
“It’s often hard to see the negative effects of fescue,” Jones said. “Just from the animal performance side, it’s pretty critical when you can add that kind of weight to your calves or improve pregnancy rates, which can also decrease when cows are on toxic fescue.”
Maintaining warm-season pastures also allows producers to stockpile cool-season grass for the fall and winter months while the cattle graze elsewhere, he added.
“Feeding hay is the No. 1 expense for cattle producers,” Jones said. “When they can reduce the number of days they’re feeding hay, the more profitable they’re going to be.”
Much of the MFA Forage Tour focused on native warm-season grasses (NWSG) because of their suitability to Missouri’s summer growing conditions and soil types, Jones said. Atkisson has worked for several years to renovate some of his pastures with native grasses, so attendees had a chance to see real-world examples of different stages and success rates of establishment.
Jones said one of the biggest hurdles when establishing native warm-season grasses is weed control. A thorough burndown is essential before planting.
“It will take the warm-season grasses a while to establish,” he said. “The plants essentially grow down and build a good root system before they grow up. The time it takes for those grasses to put on above-ground growth opens the window to weed competition, so you must have a plan in place to manage those weeds.”
Proper seed placement is another consideration for good stand establishment, Jones said.
“These aren’t like any other forage or small grain,” he said. “Planting depth is critical. You can’t plant them too deep, and you need good seed-to-soil contact. You can’t have too much thatch there.”
Patience is also necessary, Jones added. Typically, he recommends planting native grass species in the spring of one year and waiting two years to graze or hay them. There are ways to speed up that process, however.
“Some newer herbicides on the market, such as Panoramic and Plateau, have greatly decreased the amount of time it takes to utilize these forages,” he said. “The less weed competition they get, the more growth they’re going to incur that first year. Being able to use these herbicides makes weed management much simpler and more effective.”
The NWSG varieties Atkisson demonstrated on his farm were big bluestem, Indiangrass and little bluestem, all of which have tolerance to Panoramic and Plateau, Jones explained.
“With those species, you can spray before or after emergence without any ill effect,” he said. “There are some other species such as switchgrass and gamma grass that are great, but they’re not tolerant of those herbicides in the first year. Those species take a little more management.”
Though weed-control needs may be intensive, fertility needs are not, Jones said. A soil test should be taken prior to establishment, with phosphorus and potassium applied to reach optimum levels. He said nitrogen is not recommended during an establishment year because it would mainly feed the weeds. Lime is not required unless pH levels are below 5.5.
“Native warm-season grasses typically don’t require as much nutritional input as cool-season grasses,” Jones said. “They’ve got a lot deeper root system, so they’re more efficient in nutrient uptake and in converting sunlight to plant growth. Warm-season grasses will produce in three months what cool-season grasses will produce in six months.”
Beyond grazing, NWSG can provide high-quality, high-tonnage hay that can be harvested during the summer when other grasses are past their prime.
“The haying opportunity doesn’t get talked about a lot,” Jones said. “Most perennial forages hayed in Missouri are cool-season grasses. To optimize their production, you should be harvesting in May. However, that’s when it’s usually rainy and cool, and we just don’t have the days to physically dry hay. Warm-season grasses, on the other hand, peak in nutritional quality in late June and July, when it’s good hay-making weather.”
While establishing native warm-season grasses is a long-term solution, planting summer annuals can also effectively fill the forage gap in the short term. Species such as sudangrass, sorghum-sudan, forage sorghum and pearl millet can be used to supplement permanent pastures and enable better management of perennial forages.
“Summer annuals provide high-quantity, high-quality forage at a time when others may be lacking in yield and nutrition,” said David Moore, MFA range and pasture specialist. “Some are better for grazing, while others are best for hay or silage. It all depends on your goals.”
During the Forage Tour, Moore shared results of a strip-grazing trial featuring seven varieties of summer annual grasses—teff, Trudan 8 sudangrass, pearl millet, Sweet N Green sorghum-sudangrass, Forage Plus BMR sorghum-sudangrass, NK 300 forage sorghum and Silo Pro BMR forage sorghum.
“We planted them side by side to compare their growth characteristics and forage analysis when grown in a like environment,” Moore said. “Each one has its pluses and minuses, but they’re all good alternatives to add to your forage mix.”
Overall, each of the summer annuals in the trial proved to be high in yield and nutrition, with protein ranging from 16% to 23% and TDN levels ranging from 60 to 64. They were also highly popular with the cattle on Atkisson’s farm, Moore said.
“We turned cattle in on all of these strips, and it gave us an opportunity to look at what they liked and what they didn’t like,” he said. “They didn’t hit the teff very hard, but the others were grazed pretty tight.”
No matter the type or combination of forages in production, rotationally grazing pastures is highly recommended, Jones said. On his farm, Atkisson subdivided pastures into paddocks of about 15 acres each. Livestock is moved from one paddock to the next as forages are grazed to recommended heights—3 to 4 inches for cool-season pastures and 12 to 15 inches in warm-season grasses, Jones said.
“Rotational grazing puts management decisions back in the producer’s court,” he said. “In a continuously grazed system, the animals dictate when they graze, where they graze and how much they graze. By rotationally grazing, the producer makes those decisions.”
Duration is key, Jones said, recommending a rest period of at least 30 days before a paddock is grazed again. That allows the plants to recuperate and regrow.
“As much as we want to embrace diversity with our forages, we have to embrace diversity with our grazing management, too,” Atkisson said. “Sometimes, we might need to move the cattle every three to four days; sometimes, it might be a week or two. You need to watch the forage in the paddock where the cattle are grazing and watch the forage in the paddocks ahead to make sure you’re grazing them at the optimum time.”
For those new to rotational grazing, Jones recommends taking small steps, perhaps sectioning off a few paddocks at first and learning how to manage the system. Infrastructure, such as fencing and water sources, will be a limiting factor in where and how many paddocks can be created.
“The beauty of rotational grazing is its flexibility,” Jones said. “It can be as simple as dividing a pasture into two pastures, and you’ll see positive effects on plant and soil health. The more you subdivide those pastures, the greater the benefits are going to be.”
“Winter is a good time to start thinking about what you want to do and how you’re going to do it,” Jones said. “Whatever steps you take—whether you’re going to establish this spring or a year from now—make sure you’re following a solid plan and doing the right things. It’s not something you can decide to do on a whim.”
Both state and federal cost-share assistance is available to establish NWSG and rotational grazing systems, Jones said. Producers should contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office, Soil and Water Conservation District or Missouri Department of Conservation to learn more about available options.
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