Plant Early for Forage Success

Late summer may not be the time most people think of for planting, but for those wanting fall forage options or early grazing next spring, it’s the ideal time to get seed in the ground.

Fall forage options are typically species that will tolerate cold weather, but won’t make it through a full winter.  Oats, spring cereal grains and brassicas are all able to produce outstanding fall forages, both in quantity and quality if planted in August. 

For fall oat crops, planting date will affect the kind of seed you want to choose.  A forage oat variety is ideal for those able to get seed in the ground by early August. These varieties are later maturing and have greater production than earlier maturing traditional seed varieties. If you are unable to get seed planted early, this production advantage may not matter, so a cheaper grain variety may be used with little difference.

Brassica species include radish, turnip, and rapeseed.  Studies have shown August plantings of different brassica species have little difference in final quality of forage produced. Turnip and rapeseed are in most cases the two lower cost options and will produce high energy and protein above ground forage for fall grazing.  For those interested in soil impacts, rapeseed may not produce the bulb like turnips or radish, its long tap root may be just as beneficial for soil health and compaction as its bulb producing cousins.

Studies at cooperator farms and UNL’s Eastern Nebraska Research Center at Mead have shown 50 lbs/acre of oats and 3 lbs/acre of rapeseed have been an ideal mix for fall grazing.  This mixture produces similar quantities of forage as straight oat plantings, with the added quality bump from a brassica.  TDN levels have typically been in the 70-80% range with combined crude protein around 20%.

An additional advantage to an oat/brassica mixture is the ability to maintain quality well into the winter.  While visually, winter stockpiled forage may not have appeared to be high quality, studies showed that TND levels dropped less than 5% well into January.  Weaned calves grazing stockpiled oats and brassicas gained between 1.5 and 2.2 lbs/day.

 Strip grazing these high quality forages with temporary electric fence is often worth the extra time and effort.  By limiting the amount of new forage animals have access too, trampling and other waste is kept to a minimum.  Because these fall forage crops won’t regrow, no back-fence is necessary, making set up even easier.

Spring grazing options typically come from winter hardy species seeded in fall that continue growth after spring warm-up.  The most reliable winter grazer is rye, but other winter grains like wheat, barley or triticale can be used as well.  Rye will mature earlier than other small grain options, which can be good or bad depending on how quickly you can utilize it in the spring.  For those wanting a bit more yield and quality, a slower maturing option like triticale may be worth considering. 

While some fall grazing may be gained from these species, their time to shine comes in the spring.  If that’s the case, why worry about early fall planting?  UNL studies at Mead have shown that after September 1, a 50% reduction in fall growth was noted for every 7-10 days Elbon cereal rye planting was delayed.  This fall growth is key to getting plants up and going the next spring and the decreased fall biomass was carried over into reduced production the next spring. 

As we reach the end of summer this year, keep forage options for this fall and next spring in mind.  Plan ahead and get seed in the ground early for better growth and production.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: