RAPHINE, VA — Richard Clemmer and his wife Becky recently hosted more than 60 people on their farm in far-northern Rockbridge County for a dinner and evening farm tour. On display were a variety of summer forage options they have planted for their 200-cow beef cattle operation.
Attendees came from across the Shenandoah Valley, central Virginia, southwestern Virginia and West Virginia.
“I want to learn some new ideas,” said Kent Shipe of Mathias, WV, explaining his decision to attend the event. “I’m particularly interested in crabgrass.”
Clemmer planted the warm season forages as part of a multi-year pasture renovation project. His ultimate goal is to have a high-quality stand of perennial grass. Along the way, he is planting a variety of annuals which will not only provide high-quality forage, but also improve soil health.
The first stage began last year and involved growing pearl millet and soybeans for summer grazing. Last August, Clemmer planted a winter annual mix which included a variety of species, including spring oats and turnips for fall grazing, and small grains such as Italian ryegrass and crimson clover for spring grazing.
A group of cows grazed the cool season mix once in the fall, taking it down to about 60 percent cover and getting about 60 grazing days off of 25 acres. During that time, Clemmer’s other pastures rested and continued to grow, which allowed Clemmer to put off feeding hay until January, the latest he’s ever started feeding hay. The cool season mix was grazed again in the spring.
On May 25th, about half of those 25 acres were planted to a variety of summer forages. One item tested was the Summer Feast mix from King’s Agriseed’s, a blend of pearl millet and forage brassica. The millet is included, said King’s Agriseed’s Tracy Neff, to provide effective fiber.
The planting date for the mix, said Neff, should be May 15 or later. The mix is planted only a half-inch deep, so you, “need to get it in when you have soil moisture.” In the mid-Atlantic, that means by early June, not waiting until the summer when long dry spell regularly occurs.
The mix, said Neff, is used by dairymen and cattlemen, as well as sheep and goat producers. Small ruminants, he said, “like the forbiness of the mix.”
Another forage mix tested included buckwheat, sorghum sudangrass, soybeans, cowpeas, pearl millet and brassica. At the time of the farm tour, the stand was about waist-high and noticeable for flowering buckwheat. Over the course of the summer the sorghum sudangrass will likely become the most prominent species.
Eventually, Clemmer hopes to have his calves graze that stand, to take advantage of the high protein and “really help them grow.”
A third strip had crabgrass drilled into fescue sod. Crabgrass does have the possibility of being perennial, if it’s allowed to re-seed.
A fourth test plot has MasterGraze BMR corn, a high-tillering corn which provides optimum forage when grazed at tasseling. It is best planted with a corn planter, not a drill. Clemmer planted 40,000 seeds per acre.
Grazing corn does not, once grazed, regrow like sorghum sudangrass, but because it is corn, it can be planted earlier than sorghum sudangrass, in late April. One strategy Neff suggested is to graze the forage corn once and then follow behind it with sorghum-sudangrass for the rest of the summer.
Forage corn does provide good weight gain for finishing animals, so if you’re interested in it as a summer forage you might want to consider planting it in stages, to have a number of stands to work through. It is best managed as a monoculture or with one other species, something like cowpea or a brassica, rather than as part of a several-species mix.
The fifth and final test strip has annual lespedeza, which Clemmer expects to continue to grow as the summer progresses.
One of the take-home points of the field day, said Extension Agent Matt Booher, is “When you’re renovating perennial pasture, you can do so without pulling acreage out of production.”
Terry Sage of Mt. Crawford attended the event because he said he is, “seriously considering going to something like this. It’s interesting that you can double crop over the winter, get a harvest in the spring and still put in a row crop.
“I’m always looking for ways to optimize my production.”