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Annual Cover Crops a Forage Source

Warm-season forages will be the best hay production option for planting this late in the growing season.

Recent rain in drought-stricken portions of North Dakota may make annual forages and cover crops viable forage options for hay production or grazeable pasture, North Dakota State University livestock and range management experts say.

Soil moisture has not been adequate to support the growth of annual crops in much of the state. In addition, recommended planting dates and seed availability will limit producers’ options. Forage species selected will vary based on the primary planned use: hay, fall grazing or next-spring grazing.

Forage Species for Hay Production

“The best options this late in the growing season will be warm-season forages,” NDSU Extension Service livestock environmental stewardship specialist Miranda Meehan says. “Foxtail millets have the shortest growing period (seed germination to heading). With drought conditions, Siberian millet will be your best option. Other options include sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids.”

These warm-season crops should be seeded no later than early August. Harvest the crops before a hard frost or directly following the hard frost to retain forage quality and palatability. Because of the shorter day length and cooler temperatures in late summer/early fall, getting sufficient dry down to put up hay can be difficult for sorghum-sudangrass hybrids.

Fall/Winter Grazing Recommendation

Producers have many options for planting forage that can be grazed late this summer through early winter. Foxtail millet, sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass also can be used as pasture. However, once these crops freeze, livestock tend to be more selective about what they eat and increase waste through trampling.

“Cool-season cover crop mixtures make excellent pasture well into the early winter period,” NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist Kevin Sedivec says. “Cool-season plants are less water-efficient and will be more prone to fail if the drought persists. Make sure ample moisture is available in the topsoil for plants to establish and grow.”

Options for late-season cover crop mixtures include oats or barley, turnips and radishes. A combination of the species is best. Add a warm-season grass such as millet or sorghum-sudangrass to provide fiber in the diet.

A cost-effective seed mixture is 20 pounds of oats, 1 pound of turnips, 2 pounds of radishes and 4 pounds of millet per acre. Do not apply additional fertilizer because an increased risk of nitrate toxicity will occur.

Spring 2018 Grazing Recommendation

Winter annuals can be used for grazing next spring, helping reduce pressure on already stressed rangeland and pastures, Sedivec says. Winter annuals should be planted in September. Winter annuals include winter wheat, winter rye and winter triticale. Winter annuals can be used for early season grazing or haying later in the season.


Many annual forages have toxic risks when growing under stress. Cereal grains, turnips and millet can be high in nitrates when grown in droughty conditions. Do not add any nitrogen fertilizers when planting these forage crops this summer.

The specialists recommend that producers also test for nitrate levels, especially if plant growth occurs under drought stress. Sorghum, sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids are susceptible to prussic acid toxicity when immature or under stress, or directly after a frost.

“We realize that some producers may be reluctant to plant annual forages because of the fear of soil moisture depletion and desire to recharge the soil,” Meehan says. “If the cover crop develops enough structure, it will aid in trapping snow and reducing evaporation for moisture conservation, potentially improving soil moisture for spring planting.”

Visit http://tinyurl.com/CoverCropOptions for more information.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - July 21, 2017

Source:Kevin Sedivec, 701-424-3606, kevin.sedivec@dnsu.edu
Source:Miranda Meehan, 701-231-7683, miranda.meehan@ndsu.edu
Editor:Ellen Crawford, 701-231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu
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