Corn Belt farmers with pasture and forage crops will do well to develop a renovation and rejuvenation strategy following the damage caused by the drought.  With cattle prices expected to rebound sharply in the next two to three years, the opportunity to rebuild herds and develop forage supplies will be high on many checklists for the fall and winter.

The drought destroyed forage supplies for many head of livestock and subsequently many were marketed earlier than the normal schedule.  Some producers have exited the business, but others who are hanging on despite record high prices for hay, will quickly want to restore pasture and forage resources.


As University of Missouri agronomist Pat Miller says, “A farmers most economic forage harvesters are livestock, because they don’t need diesel fuel, and they drive themselves.”  With that bit of Show-Me advice, Miller says your plans to rebuild forage in 2013 will start with a soil test now.  That means 20-30 cores of six inch depth in a pasture, and then blended together.  For a plan on how to do that, she offers a strategy.


When there is sufficient moisture, Missouri’s Miller says pastures may need to be overseeded with grasses or legumes, but can also be frost-seeded to allow the freezing and thawing of the soil to work seed into a good contact with the soil.  She also warns about the use of herbicides used to clean up weeds, and their impact on newly germinated seed.

If you need quick grazing, winter annuals, such as ryegrass, wheat, or cereal rye may be options, but before spending money on seed, check the USDA plant hardiness map to see what varieties are suited for your zone.  Arkansas forage specialist John Jennings says, “A cheap variety becomes very expensive if it does die in the cold or if it’s stunted by cold weather and produces little forage. In a year like this, it can pay to plant known varieties to ensure forage production.”


  1. Ryegrass can be planted as early as late August with good soil moisture. Early planted ryegrass can provide grazing in late fall. Late planted ryegrass – November – will not provide significant grazing until late winter – March – except in warm winters like 2011-12.

  2. Wheat is another option. While most varieties are selected for grain production, a growing number of livestock producers plant wheat for grazing, he said. Variety selection for forage is important because some popular wheat varieties for grain production produce very little fall forage growth. Earlier maturing varieties tend to produce more leaf growth for grazing in fall.

  3. Triticale, a cross of wheat and rye has a growth pattern and yield closer to rye than wheat, and makes very good forage. Grazing trials at Arkansas has shown good results and other tests show certain varieties have the potential to make a hay or baleage crop by late November to early December, if planted by early September.

  4. Rye, a rapid-growth option, provides more fall grazing and earlier spring grazing than wheat. Come March, rye will take off, so producers need to be ready to handle the fast growth by grazing, using as hay or as baleage.

  5. Baleage is forage that ferments in bale form when sealed by plastic wrap. Baleage can be harvested earlier than hay since it only has to be dried to 50 percent moisture before wrapping and storing.

Grazing strategy

Cattle prefer the fresh growth and will go to that area without cleaning up grass that is quite good, but a little tougher.  Rotational grazing with small paddocks will allow adequate regeneration, good manure distribution, and stretch forage supplies. 

Another strategy is to allow livestock to graze forage as much as possible because baling it can cost an additional $30-$35 per ton.  This is also considered to be stockpiling pasture,  which forage specialist John Jennings says is similar to managing for a last cutting of hay.

That allows cattle to graze into the fall and winter, with the help of some fertilizer.  He says if the pasture begins to green up in the fall, and then apply the fertilizer, which can yield 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of dry matter per acre.  Jennings says, “The recommended fertilizer rate for fescue is 50-60 pounds per acre of nitrogen to match that yield potential. Producers should add phosphorus and potash fertilizer according to soil test.”

Low quality forage

If low quality forage must be used, Beef Specialist Justin Waggoner at Kansas State suggests the application of anhydrous ammonia to improve digestibility and intake.  Stack the bales, cover with black plastic and apply the ammonia, then let it cure for a couple weeks.  Watch a video for the details.  Waggoner said weeds in the forage can produce toxins.

Toxicity concerns

With the lack of traditional forage, some alternatives may be explored, but some of those may come with toxicity concerns, such as high nitrate levels.  Kansas State’s Waggoner said such forages should be tested to ensure the health of your livestock. “Nitrate content up to 3,000 ppm is considered safe, while 3,000 to 6,000 ppm only moderately safe and should not constitute more than half of the ration for stressed animals. If the content is 6,000 to 9,000 ppm, the forage could be toxic and should not be the sole source of feed.”

Before soybeans became an oilseed crop they were used for forage and with great success.  Some farmers this summer baled soybeans that were failing in reproductive efforts as a means of feeding livestock. 

University of Missouri toxicologist Tim Evans said before that is done, ensure that you know what herbicides were used on the soybeans, because many of them can be toxic to livestock.  One of those is Cobra which can cause liver disease, and is labeled for not being appropriate for soybeans that will be fed to livestock.  While some feeding can eventually occur, there is a grazing restriction time for many, as indicated on this factsheet.  Observe the required withdrawal times to protect your livestock. 


Livestock producers may be suffering the worst from the drought because of loss of pasture that can only be replaced with time and good management, not a crop insurance indemnity check.  But development of a good strategy to check fertility needs, seed varieties that will quickly produce grazing forage and then management of grazing areas to maximize forage will be a key to success.  Producers may also consider alternatives, but need to conduct the proper research and quality checks to ensure the livestock are not hurt by experimental strategies.

Source: FarmGate blog