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Winter Pasture Info


It is well known that feeding through the winter is the most expensive part of raising livestock.  Either we cut, rake and bale excess grass for the winter months, or we buy hay from those who do.  Regardless, stockmen then feed back the hay all through the winter months when summer pastures are not growing. 
A winter pasture could be clovers, ryegrass, or small grains such as wheat, oat, or rye.  Winter pastures are planted in the fall and typically provide very high quality grazing during a time where poorer quality hay is fed.  
The cost of many winter forage options can be very competitive with the price of hay.  You could easily budget as much as $50 to $100 an acre for seed, lime and fertilize.  And that acre should then produce superior forage for up to two cows.  Using the rule of thumb of three bales per cow per winter at an average cost of $40-60 for a round bale of hay, the economics weighs in favor of the winter pasture.  
Winter legumes (clover) can provide excellent grazing in March, April, and May, before summer pasture starts its growth. The seed cost of establishing legumes can range from $15-40 per acre. New releases of some clovers may provide longer season grazing than other legumes. The longer season clovers can also add extra nitrogen.  On total, these clovers provide about 3 tons more dry matter per acre to the total forage produced during the year.
Over seeding legumes can contribute to the overall production of summer pastures. Crimson or Arrowleaf clover can contribute in the range of 50-200 lbs. per acre of nitrogen for summer pasture. Depending on the current cost of nitrogen, legumes may return a net value of $30-120 worth of nitrogen per acre.
Another common forage option available to producers this fall is a cool season grass or grain. Grains include rye, wheat or oats. Ryegrass should not be confused with cereal grain rye.  
Rye is the most winter hardy of the annual winter pasture forages. Compared to other annual winter grains, rye produces more fall and winter forage. It matures early in the spring - usually peaking in early April. Rye is the most productive cool season annual grass on soils low in fertility, well-drained, and sandy in texture.  
Many producers use no-till drills with good results on bahiagrass sod. No-till drills are sometimes available for rent through the dealers. Drills differ in the amount of tillage they do. Some drills have straight cutting coulters in front for cutting through the sod. Other no-till drills have coulters that act more like off-set harrows and cut and remove more sod out of the seed furrow. There are many no-till drills on the market that have advantages over others. All no-till drills can do a good job if moisture is adequate and the sod is cut or grazed short before planting.
Ryegrass is another popular choice by many.  It gets a later start than many other options and must be kept short either by grazing or baling when summer pastures start to come along. 
The drawback to any winter forage program is that must do your homework and prepare before planting any seed.  Getting soil pH corrected with lime, and bringing nutrient levels up with fertilizer will greatly enhance production.  
If we have a dry fall, that too is often discouraging to producers.   Seed planted in too dry a soil will have difficulty germinating and taking root.  Adequate moisture at planting is key to the success of any winter annual forage program. 
Lane Dunn is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Shelby County. His email address is
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