If you were one of the many producers who either missed the fall planting window for cool season forages, had a stand loss due to weather or was just plain pessimistic whether sufficient rainfall would justify the planting, you might now be asking “what about spring planted forages?” Let’s take a systematic approach at answering this common question. Options available are seeding annual ryegrass, drilling oats or seeding clovers for this spring window.
It seems spring broadcast seeding of ryegrass is the most common choice I hear from producers; however, that would be my last preference and here’s why. Annual ryegrass is an excellent forage option for cattle producers when fall seeded but quickly loses merit as seeding is delayed to spring. Although ryegrass can be seeded in almost any month of the year and make a stand if conditions are right, producers should consider weather patterns and economics of establishment before seeding. This late in the game we should be concerned with maximum forage production compared to the lowest establishment costs, and the fact remains ryegrass seeded in the spring is not a strong producer compared to spring oats with similar fertility levels. I will mention that ryegrass does not need to be drilled and as such may fit some producers’ management scenario better.
Spring seeded legumes are another option that becomes intriguing when forages and hay supplies run short. One positive aspect of very short winter pastures during drought is the increase in seedling germination and survival we see from reduced competition. If clover has been in your long term establishment goals for a while, now might be a good time to consider the perennial clovers, white or red. However, if this plan is for a temporary “fix” from short feed supplies, an annual clover such as crimson might fit the bill. It is important to understand that regardless of what clover you pick production is limited by soil quality! A low pH or deficient phosphorus and potassium levels will spell disaster for your new clover stand. This means without proper soil preparation your money would be better spent on the two grass options listed above. A soil with a pH above 6.0 and P and K levels at 90 percent sufficiency or above will suffice for establishment. Of course, with proper inoculation of the seed, no nitrogen will be needed for lush growth. However, if you must add lime or phosphorus, these costs should be added to the establishment cost and compared to the potential yield of 1-1.5 tons/acre based on conditions.
Spring oats can be as good of an option as we can expect this late. Recent research from Texas A&M indicates that following poor wheat years spring oats have been an excellent “recovery” for short forage supplies. Of course, these oats must be drilled into short sod for the best stand and common seeding rates for upland stands are 50 lbs. of seed per acre. Optimum planting dates will range from February 15 – March 15 depending on latitude within the state. Farther north locales will see better success with the delayed planting dates. Oats can germinate at soil temps as low as 40° F, but warmer temps and more moisture speeds emergence and early growth. Research has shown that forage yields from spring planted oats will out yield spring planted wheat by 50 percent in normal years. However, since wheat needs proper chilling (vernalization), spring temperatures that are warmer than normal may result in wheat yields 5 times less than spring oats. For grazing, most varieties will have similar yields over the course of growth, but for a hay crop choose a medium to long maturity variety for the best one-time hay yield. Average grazing yields with the aforementioned fertility should result in at least 1 ton of dry forage per acre, and under-wet springs or irrigation can produce 2-2.5 tons/acre for grazing or hay with proper variety selection based on purpose.
These examples should help illustrate that producers on fertile soils have two viable options for late winter forage production starting in February: either fertilized spring oats or spring seeded legumes. Yet, producers on marginal soils should steer clear of legumes without correcting soil nutrient deficiencies or pH problems. Possibly an even better option is to use this year as a wake-up call. Determine proper stocking rates for the year right now, consider fertilizing warm season varieties to increase the health and yield of the stand and start formulating your plan for next spring’s forage strategy.