by Sally Colby
Many livestock farms rely on a combination of grazing and stored forages to feed ruminant animals throughout the year. This involves careful consideration of forage species that will work for both pasture and stored forage. Producers should plan ahead to minimize risk and ensure successful crop establishment.
The establishment of any forage crop begins with a soil test. Knowledge of the conditions where the crop will be established will also be a key factor in species selection, especially if the acreage includes wet or poorly drained soils. Ideally, planning for a new forage stand begins at least one year prior to the actual planting.
Since species selection is highly dependent on the individual operation, other factors such as the length of the grazing season, ability to harvest in a timely manner and the capacity to store harvested forage should be considered.
Dr. Jessica Williamson, Penn State assistant professor of forage management, says cool season perennials are a good choice for the northeast. “We can grow cool-season perennials very well, and in some years, we don’t experience much of a summer slump because we have optimum precipitation and may have cool enough temperatures for forages to grow throughout the year,” she said. “There’s a lag in production as temperatures are warmer in summer and precipitation drops off. These (cool season) species aren’t typically as drought tolerant as some of the warm-season annuals.”
The goal with cool season perennials is good regrowth each season, but that’s dependent on management. “If we don’t manage them correctly, they have a shorter stand life,” said Williamson, citing orchardgrass dieback as a major problem and that some of the newer orchardgrass varieties are lasting only several years. “There are several diseases prevalent in orchardgrass, and they’re overgrazed or mowed too short for hay, which causes early die-back. People are spending a lot of money on high-quality seed and not getting out of it the regrowth. It’s important to put in the correct type of forage.”
Another positive quality of cool season forages is high nutritive value. “These forages have a unique ability to cover the nutritional needs across all species of livestock at varying times of year, depending on management,” said Williamson. “They are also extremely palatable; some more than others.”
Williamson advises producers thinking about using new and improved varieties to consider the more palatable options. For example, tall fescue is historically Kentucky 31, infected with an endophyte and potentially toxic to livestock. “The new, improved fescues are soft-leaf varieties,” said Williamson. “Animals devour them, and prefer them over other pasture grasses.”
If bridging the gap between spring and late summer forage performance is one of the main goals, consider forages that maintain some level of productivity during the summer. “Reed canarygrass and fescue usually power through most summers,” said Williamson. “You’ll get a lot more production during hot summer months with reed canarygrass and fescue than with some of the other forages.”
Some forages, like bluegrass, produce well for a short time then head out early and start to lag early in the season. “If you have bluegrass in your pasture, it’s typically an indicator of the pasture being overgrazed,” said Williamson. “It isn’t high quality, and won’t have high yield. Bluegrass starts declining in production sooner than any other forages and there isn’t much regrowth in fall.”
The performance of forage species can vary greatly. Williamson says a field primarily comprised of bluegrass and Dutch white clover might appear to be well-covered, but might not be as productive as it looks. Orchardgrass has a production surge and will fade a little during the summer slump, but picks back up in fall. Reed canarygrass tends to have a major production surge in spring, and doesn’t completely bottom out during summer. “Smooth brome, which has been around for a long time, is becoming more popular,” she said. “It’s in more forage mixes, and is high quality and extremely palatable.”
For those who want to extend the grazing season into fall and gain longevity, tall fescue is a great option because it continues to grow weeks after other forages go dormant. Some of the newer endophyte-friendly and endophyte-free varieties reduce the risk of fescue toxicity.
Timothy isn’t a good option for acreage that will also serve as permanent pasture. It typically greens up about one month later than other species and provides good early grazing or harvest option, but drops in production for the rest of the year.
Some alfalfa species are good for grazing, and might be a good choice if soil pH is not an issue. “If you have 6.5, 6.6 or higher pH, you may want to implement a grazing alfalfa,” said Williamson. “It’s great through summer because it was developed in the Middle East where they don’t have a lot of precipitation and have high temperatures.”
High vigor is important for producers who have less than optimal growing conditions but want quick germination, and will be broadcasting seed instead of drilling. Orchardgrass, perennial rye, smooth brome and tall fescue all rank high in seedling vigor.
Drought-tolerant species for the Northeast include tall fescue, reed canarygrass and smooth brome. “Tall fescue does an excellent job in droughty conditions,” said Williamson. “In wet soils, reed canarygrass outperforms other forages. It isn’t great for forage quality but it will do well in adverse conditions.”
Reed canarygrass and tall fescue also tolerate low pH conditions.
For producers who rely on high tonnage of stored forage, tolerance to frequent harvest is important. The highest-ranking species include bluegrass, orchardgrass, ryegrass, reed canarygrass and tall fescue.
For legumes, all of which are highly palatable, soil pH is critical. “If you want to incorporate alfalfa in pastures, make sure the pH is optimum,” said Williamson. “If you want to reseed pastures and a soil test says to add two tons/acre of lime, do not add two tons of lime then seed the hay field or pasture with alfalfa. It takes a long time for lime to react. We typically recommend a minimum of three months, hopefully six months for lime to start making a difference in the soil pH.”
Legumes that are more tolerant of low pH include red clover and ladino clover. “In shallow, shale ground, this is a great option,” said Williamson. “Trefoil is less picky about pH, and prefers slightly higher pH than clovers.”
One of the most important factors in establishing a new stand is seedbed preparation. “Regardless of the forage species being planted, make sure forages get a chance with optimum seed-to-soil contact,” said Williamson. “This is difficult with broadcast seeding, so I recommend broadcasting the seed, then putting animals on to ‘hoof it in’. Even better is to pull the animals off right before it’s going to rain. That ensures enough water for seeds to come up. Forage legume seeds will take up about 125 percent of their weight in water. Forage grasses will take up about 100 percent of their weight in water.”