Emergency forage for spring pasture
John Jennings – Professor, Forage Specialist
Drought damage lingering from last summer is forcing many producers to think about emergency forages for spring pasture or hay. If winter annuals such as wheat, rye, or ryegrass were planted last fall, then managing to increase yield of those forages would be the best option. Even volunteer ryegrass can make significant forage yield if fertilized with nitrogen. It is not too early to fertilize winter annual forages. Nitrogen applied in February will help jump-start forage growth for March and may be enough to end hay feeding for the winter. Fertilizer rates should be 50-60 lbs/acre of N. Apply P & K according to soil test recommendations if needed. Not all winter annual pastures should be fertilized at the same time unless forage demand can keep up with the growth. The spring growth surge starts with cereal rye, followed by wheat, then with ryegrass reaching peak growth later. If both small grain pastures and ryegrass pastures were planted, fertilize the small grain first and the ryegrass can be fertilized in March. If only ryegrass is available, some pastures can be fertilized in February and others can be fertilized later in March to spread out the growth response to the nitrogen.
Spring oats are an option where no winter annuals were planted in fall. Planting winter oats or winter wheat this late may not be a good option. These forages require a short-day, cold temperature stimulus called vernalization to produce a seedstalk and seedhead. Late planted winter wheat and oats may not become properly vernalized and would produce low yield. Spring oats can produce a good forage crop, but must be planted early. The recommended timeframe for planting is mid-February to mid-March. Seeding rate is a minimum of two bushels per acre up to three bushels per acre. That is a rate of 64-96 lbs/acre. Seed of spring oats is available through several seed distributors in Missouri that supply agricultural dealers in Arkansas (Green Seed in Springfield and Missouri Southern Seed in Rolla are two examples) . Varieties of spring oats include Jerry, Legett, Ogle, and Horsepower. Do not plant “feed oats” because the seed quality is unknown and there is a high likelihood of the seed being winter oats. Seed should be planted like wheat. It can be drilled or broadcast on a tilled seedbed. Forage growth development will be faster on a tilled seedbed than when no-till drilled into sod. Plant ½ to 1 inch deep. Apply 50-60 lbs/acre N at planting. Forage yield of well-established stands will average 2,000 lbs/acre of dry matter. Earlier planted stands have a greater yield potential than late planted stands. Oats mature rapidly when spring temperatures begin warming. Grazing can begin when the forage is 8-10 inches tall.
It is important to not begin grazing until the stems begin to elongate (similar to 1st hollow stem in wheat). Hay should be harvested when the plants reach the early head stage. There is no appreciable increase in dry matter after that point, but forage quality drops rapidly as the crop becomes more mature. Waiting until the early dough stage results in low quality forage and will increase rodent damage in stored hay.
Spring oats may provide a fairly quick spring forage crop. Other forage management options should also be employed including improved grazing, fertility management, weed control, and deferred grazing to allow other drought-damaged fields to recover.