Summer Pasture Annuals

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To the livestock producer, winter feed costs are the biggest cost of production. Like squirrels gathering nuts, we rush around all summer, trying to dodge rain showers, get through equipment breakdowns, safely navigate local highways and spend our last dollar to fill up with diesel fuel, in order to be sure our livestock don’t go hungry when the chill of old man winter arrives. Cool season grasses, such as tall fescue and Orchardgrass predominate our pastures and hay fields in Burke County. These grasses are productive during spring and fall, but become semi-dormant during the summer months. Adding an annual hay crop or a summer grazing forage can be a valuable asset to our management regime. There are many options when it comes to summer annuals. Sorghum- Sudan hybrids, pearl millet, Teff and crabgrass are the more frequently utilized forages and can normally meet our forage needs during summer.

Sorghum-Sudan hybrids are generally higher yielding than pearl millet. With the introduction of Brown Mid-Rib varieties, producers can be assured of a more palatable product that has a higher digestibility. BMR hybrids have been bred to reduce lignin content, and these varieties exhibit a brown rib down the middle of the leaf. There are many management concerns with sorghum-Sudan grass hybrids, such as nitrate poisoning and prussic acid poisoning, which require special attention. These grasses are better suited to ruminants and should never be used for horses. Sudex should be planted at 45lbs/acre broadcast, and 30lbs./acre drilled, between April 20th and July1st. Hay yields from Sudex can be tremendous and should be harvested when forage growth is around 40” for the best quality.

Pearl millet can be used for horses and provides excellent forage, though not as high yielding as Sudex. It has a higher leaf to stem ratio, and is generally more palatable. Pearl millet can be grazed once it reaches 12 inches in height, while Sudex should be grazed after reaching 18 inches in height. When using Pearl millet as a hay crop, set mowers to leave a stubble of 6-8 inches, which helps the crop to tiller and maximize regrowth.

Teff is a warm season annual grass native to Africa, which is often used as alternative forage. Teff is a five stemmed leafy grass with a shallow root system, which was first grown in the US as a forage crop in 2003. Teff is very sensitive to frost, and will not handle freezing temperatures at all. There are no known disease or insect threats, however weeds in seedling stands can be a problem, and warm season annual weeds can invade, to which there is no herbicidal help. There are numerous varieties of Teff on the market, with no real data to suggest the best variety. Seed cost is similar to clover, and both raw and coated seed are available. Because of its sensitivity to frost, soil temps should be 55-60’F at seeding.

Teff can be seeded into July with yield and cuttings reduced. Seed at 4-6 lbs./acre raw seed, or 8-10 lbs./acre for coated seed. Seed placement should be around 1/4 -1/8 inch deep. Mid-May seedings should produce 3-4 cuttings with good growing conditions and yields can range from 3.5-6 tons per acre. Protein analysis can range from 12 to 20% crude protein and quality varies with stage of maturity at harvest. Teff has a shallower root system than other summer annuals and care should be taken when grazing the crop. It is often better to harvest as hay the first time and graze it later in the year. It has excellent forage quality and is very similar to Timothy in nutritional value.

Crabgrass is also a great summer annual and our native varieties persist even though we have spent years trying to eliminate them. Crabgrass is well adapted to North Carolina. It is an annual that acts as a perennial when allowed to go to seed; otherwise it must be reseeded every year. It can work well in a double crop situation with one of the small grains such as wheat or barley. Crabgrass is a species of opportunity and it will emerge and thrive in bare spots of existing pastures and hayfields when given the opportunity. It has good yield potential and excellent forage quality when compared to other temporary forages.

Crabgrass can be satisfactorily established by overseeding into small grains, planting into a prepared seedbed or no-till planting. The optimum establishment method for crabgrass in the first year is to prepare a good seedbed and drill in the seed in early May or after the deciduous oak trees begin to leaf out. A less desirable but satisfactory approach is to broadcast seed crabgrass. General recommendations for broadcast seeding are three pounds of pure live seed per acre in a fertilizer mix between February and May. Dry sawdust, cracked grain, dry sand, and fertilizer can be mixed with the crabgrass seed to provide bulk for better distribution. Be sure to check the spread of the seed to figure the desired swath overlap. Fertilizer usually is thrown twice as far as the crabgrass seed.

Summer annuals fill a niche in our cool season grass forage system by providing quality forage throughout the summer. So consider planting a summer annual now to provide your livestock reliable forage this summer or quality hay this winter.