Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

Sep 20
8 min read
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Cows Grazing
Chelsea Hafer Written By Chelsea Hafer

Forage crops play a vital role in ensuring the health and well-being of livestock. These crops not only provide essential nutrition but also improve soil health and sustainability. Before delving into the specifics of planting and managing forage crops, let's understand why they are a valuable addition to any livestock operation.

Benefits of Planting Forage Crops

  • Improved Nutrition: The improved nutrition provided by forage crops is important for livestock management, fostering health and optimal production. Forage crops offer a well-rounded blend of essential nutrients, including proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, ensuring that animals receive a balanced diet. Forage crops promote healthy growth, enhance muscle development, and increase milk and egg production in dairy cows and poultry. Furthermore, diversity in nutrition aids in maintaining strong immune systems, reducing the susceptibility to diseases, and supporting efficient reproduction in livestock. Overall, forage crops empower farmers to proactively manage the dietary needs of their animals, leading to thriving and productive herds and flocks.
  • Cost-Effective: One of the most compelling advantages of cultivating forage crops is their remarkable cost-effectiveness. By growing these crops on your own land, you can substantially diminish your dependency on commercially purchased animal feed, which can be a large expense for livestock and poultry farmers. This homegrown approach allows you to exert greater control over your operational costs while improving the nutritional quality of your animals' diet. Moreover, by managing your forage crops efficiently and strategically, you can reduce waste and ensure that your livestock receive a consistent and well-balanced food supply. This cost-effective method of feeding your animals not only results in significant savings but also offers financial stability, making it a prudent choice for both small-scale and large-scale agricultural operations.
  • Soil Health: These crops play a crucial role in maintaining and enhancing soil fertility and structure, benefiting both the land and the environment. Forage plants, with their deep and extensive root systems, help prevent soil erosion by stabilizing the topsoil, reducing the risk of nutrient runoff into water bodies, and preventing soil loss during heavy rains or winds. Their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere also contributes to soil fertility, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. Additionally, forage crops improve water retention in the soil, allowing it to hold moisture more effectively, which is particularly important during dry spells. The overall result is a healthier and more sustainable agricultural landscape that promotes long-term soil health, ecosystem stability, and improved crop yields for years to come.
  • Diverse Diet: One of the often-overlooked advantages of incorporating a diverse range of forage crops into your livestock's diet is the enrichment it brings to their daily meals. Just like humans, animals appreciate variety in their food, and forage crops provide an array of tastes and textures that can keep them engaged and satisfied. For instance, the tender leaves of clover and lush, green ryegrass offer a contrast to the crunchier textures of turnips and radishes. This diversity not only caters to the animals' taste preferences but also provides a broader spectrum of nutrients, promoting their overall well-being.
  • Sustainability:The sustainability benefits of incorporating forage crops into your farming practices extend far beyond just feeding your livestock. By including forage crops in your crop rotations, you're making a significant contribution to environmental stewardship. Forage crops, with their deep root systems and ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, help improve soil health and structure, reducing erosion and enhancing water retention. This translates to reduced runoff of harmful chemicals into nearby water bodies, ultimately benefiting the broader ecosystem. Moreover, forage crops play a crucial role in reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as they naturally enrich the soil and can disrupt pest and disease cycles. Embracing this sustainable approach not only conserves resources but also ensures a healthier and more resilient agricultural system.

Now, let's explore the planting and management of specific forage crops, specifically considering planting in the late fall and early spring seasons.

Planting Forage Crops in Late Fall and Early Spring

Rye (Secale cereale)

Rye is an excellent cool-season grass that can be planted in both late fall and early spring. It's suitable for a wide range of livestock, including cows, sheep, horses, and chickens. Rye grows quickly and provides high-quality forage, making it an ideal choice for early grazing.

Planting: Sow rye seeds at a rate of 2–4 lb per 1000 sq ft in late September through October for fall planting, or in late February through March for spring planting. Either broadcast the seed, or use 5 inch spacing. Roots improve soil structure.

Management: Ensure adequate soil fertility and moisture. Rye can be grazed when it reaches a height of 6 to 8 inches.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red clover is a cool-season legume that's safe and nutritious for most livestock, including cows, sheep, horses, and chickens. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, benefiting both crops and pasture. Because legumes can cause issues with bloat, it is best to grow legumes in a mix with other types of forage crops. Avoid using more than 50 percent of legumes in a mix.

Planting: Sow perennial red clover seeds at a rate of 1.2–2.5 lb per 1000 sq ft or 10-20 lb/acre in late summer or early spring. Hardy to -30 F.

Management: Red clover can be grazed when it reaches 6 to 8 inches in height. Allow it to reach 12 inches before grazing it for the best balance of yield and quality.

White Dutch Clover (Trifolium repens)

Perennial White Dutch clover is a versatile legume suitable for various livestock, including cows, sheep, horses, and chickens. It's a low-growing ground cover that provides high protein content.

Planting: Sow white Dutch clover seeds at a rate of 2–4 lb per 1000 sq. ft in late fall or early spring. Hardy to -30 F.

Management: Keep clover height between 3 to 4 inches for optimal nutrition. Rotate grazing to maintain crop health.

Red Winter Wheat (Triticum aestivum)

Red winter wheat can serve as both a cover crop and a forage crop. It's safe for most livestock, including poultry and pigs. Offers good nutritional value.

Planting: Sow annual winter wheat seeds at a rate of 2–4 lb per 1000 sq. ft in late September through November. Hardy to -25 F.

Management: Allow wheat to reach a height of 8 to 12 inches before grazing. Avoid overgrazing to maintain root health.

Oats (Avena sativa)

Oats are a versatile cool-season grain that can be grazed or cut for hay. They're safe for various livestock, including cows, sheep, horses, and chickens.

Planting: Sow oats at a rate of 30-100lbs/Acre in late summer or early spring.

Management: Oats can be grazed when they reach 6 to 8 inches in height. Alternatively, allow them to mature and harvest them for hay.

Turnips (Brassica rapa)

Forage turnips are an excellent choice for late fall grazing. They're best suited for cows, sheep, and horses due to their size, but may not be ideal for chickens.

Planting: Sow turnip seeds at a rate of 2 to 4 pounds per acre in late summer.

Management: Turnips are ready for grazing when the bulbs are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. They can also be left for winter grazing.

Radishes (Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus)

Forage radishes are similar to turnips and are suitable for cows, sheep, and horses. They're not commonly consumed by chickens, but can be.

Planting: Sow radish seeds at a rate of 2 - 4 lb per 1000 sq. ft in late summer.

Management: Radishes can be grazed when the roots are 1 to 2 inches in diameter. They also improve soil structure.

Corn (Zea Mays)

Corn is a warm-season crop suitable for late spring planting. It's primarily used for silage but can provide forage for cows and, when dried, chickens. For forage use, select dent corn varieties.

Planting: Sow corn seeds in late spring when soil temperatures reach 50°F or higher.

Management: Allow corn to grow until the grain reaches maturity for silage, or let it dry for use as livestock feed.

Soybeans (Glycine max)

Soybeans are a warm-season legume suitable for late spring planting. They provide excellent nutrition for cows, sheep, and chickens.

Planting: Sow soybean seeds in late spring when soil temperatures reach 50°F or higher.

Management: Soybeans can be grazed when the plants are 12 to 18 inches tall. They can also be harvested for hay.

Forage crops are a valuable asset for any livestock operation, offering improved nutrition, cost-effectiveness, soil health, dietary diversity, and sustainability. By understanding when and how to plant specific forage crops and which animals can benefit from them, you can optimize your livestock's nutrition and overall well-being. Whether you're planting Rye, Red Clover, White Dutch Clover, Red Winter Wheat, Oats, Turnips, Radishes, Corn, or Soybeans, these crops can make a significant difference in the health and productivity of your livestock, as well as the sustainability of your production.

Chelsea Hafer, True Leaf Market Writer

Chelsea is a passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture and loves getting her hands dirty and watching things grow! She graduated from Georgetown University in 2022 with a degree in Environmental Justice and now resides in Park City, Utah, where she works as a ski instructor. Her love for nature extends to gardening and hiking, and she has gained valuable insights from working on farms in Italy, Hawaii, and Mexico, learning various sustainable agriculture techniques like permaculture and Korean Natural Farming.

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John Buerger

I began my land all natural reclamation business for large acreages in 1996 across western Colorado.

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