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Planning Fall/Winter Forages

by Brian Rizk, Lucedale, MS

Winter is the most expensive time of year for most producers. Hay, supplements, and planting cool season forage all contribute to these costs. I have always been a firm believer in the idea that we can graze our cattle cheaper than we can feed them. However, with recent seed and fertilizer prices, if you haven’t been careful, you could have overspent on your winter forages. With a few helpful hints and some well thought out plans, you can cut some costs and benefit your soil and livestock as well.

Before you get started with what to plant, how much to plant, how to plant it, when to plant it, and how much it costs to plant it, you should spend a little time defining your goals and resources. Some things to consider are:

  • What species of livestock are you grazing?

  • What class of livestock are you grazing? Pregnancy status (fall or spring calving), dry, stockers, replacement heifers?

  • When do you plan to start grazing it? This will depend on your class of livestock.

  • How are you able to graze it? Time graze, strip graze. Are your cows trained to electric fence?

  • What planting equipment do you have available to you?

  • How much time do you have to plant it?

Once you have these things worked out in your head or written down on a piece of paper you can move forward with your planting decisions.

Diversity is key in fall forage planting in Louisiana
Diversity in planting foraagaes

What to plant

There are 4 main categories of things you can plant: grasses, legumes, broadleaf plants, and brassicas. I like to provide my cows, soil, and wildlife with a diverse mixture of plants in all four categories. Examples of grasses are ryegrass, oats, wheat, rye, and triticale. Legumes can be clovers, vetch, and winter peas. Broadleaf plants are plantain, chicory, and buckwheat. Brassicas are turnips, kale, rape, radishes, and mustard. There are more things that can fit in these categories, I just selected some of the most common ones.

Grasses typically provide you with the most amount of grazing and longest growing season but have higher nitrogen requirements. Legumes can fix their own nitrogen and supply some nitrogen to the plants around them but that comes with a higher seed cost. Broadleaf plants and brassicas can provide a good amount of forage at very targeted times, but cost can vary depending on variety. All four categories have different root structures, require different nutrients, and have different nutrient profiles, which is why diverse mixes are key to livestock nutrition and soil health.

The most important thing when selecting what to plant is to refer to your goals. You should select species that mature at the correct time according to when you plan on grazing. If you have a long growing season, select multiple species from each category that mature at different times to provide good nutrition for the longest time possible. You can also select a variety of species that thrive at different temperatures. This will ensure that no matter what kind of winter we have, you will always have something that will thrive. In my opinion, the more the diverse the mix the better. Nothing in nature occurs in a pure stand; neither should what we plant. A quick online search or talking to a trusted source at your feed store or co-op can provide more in-depth information on different species and varieties and planting rates. It is also important to communicate with your locate feed store or co-op to see what varieties are available for purchase or if there are seed blending/bagging capabilities.

How much to plant

Deciding how much to plant can be broken down into how many acres to plant and planting rates of each species in your diverse seed mix. When deciding on how many acres to plant, you should refer to your goals once again. This will depend on how many animals you have, what kind of animals they are, how long you plan on grazing them, and how you can manage your grazing.

Planting more acres than you think you need can lower your fertilizer needs because of having more forage spread out over more acres. You can plant 20 acres and fertilize it heavily or plant 40 acres and fertilize it lightly or maybe plant 80 acres and not fertilize it at all. This of course depends on how much land you have available to plant. Being able to control your grazing with methods such as time grazing, strip grazing, rotational grazing, or adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing can make better use of the forage you planted and therefore lower your fertilizer requirements or lower your total number of acres planted. My goal is to plant every acre of pasture I have at some point during the winter growing season. This ensures living roots in the ground as long as possible throughout the year. You need to refer to your goals and resources to decide what makes sense for your operation.

When deciding on your planting rates for your mix, things can get a little complicated. I’ll break it down in the simplest way possible. You should have an overall goal of planting 1.5 times the normal rate. In my experience this is a good starting place, but some of my mixes come out to more than this. Take your total rate of 1.5 and divide it by the number of species in your mix. This will give you a percentage of each species. Take that percentage and multiply it by the full rate for each species. Here is an example of a 10 species mix. We will use oats at a full rate of 90 lbs/acre for our example.

Follow this math for the remaining 9 species in your mix and you will come up with a total mix. Like I said, this is the simplest way to come up with a mix possible. You can start there and adjust the quantity of each species to account for your goals and resources. Please note, you should be taking detailed notes on what your mix looks once planted and how it performs as a whole and how each species performs individually to adjust some species up or down for future plantings. I normally like to lean heavy on the legumes and let the grass supplement the legumes with the broadleaf plants and brassicas being a little lagniappe. Coming up with diverse mixes can seem a little daunting. has a free feature called Smartmix calculator. You input your grazing dates, goals, and select your seeds from a list and it calculates the mix for you. In my opinion their mixes come out a little light, but it can give you a good starting place if you’re having a hard time deciding where to start. Another great resource is The Wax Company. They supply seeds to most feed stores and co-ops in Louisiana and Mississippi. They have custom mixing and bagging capabilities and can help you come up with a mix. Reach out to your local feed store or co-op and ask them about using The Wax Company for help with your diverse seed mix.

Disking can cause soil destruction
Disking causes soil destruction

How to plant

There are three main methods of planting: overseeding, drilling, and prepared seedbed. Overseeding is throwing the seed on top of the ground. No groundwork or prep. Sometimes you can pull a drag harrow after overseeding, but in a nutshell, overseeding is just throwing the seeds out. This can be done using a three-point hitch spreader or a fertilizer buggy from your local co-op. A three-point hitch spreader will allow you to plant when you want and allow to you throw your seed out without any additional fertilizer. If you get a fertilizer buggy from your co-op, you can cover more acres at a time, but will have to mix some fertilizer with it and make multiple trips if you want to stagger your planting. Typically, overseeding takes the longest to come up and start growing, but I’d say is the cheapest and easiest method. Take caution trying to overseed early in the fall. My general rule of thumb is not to overseed earlier than November.

Drilling seeds allows you to put your seeds directly into the ground with a seed drill. I prefer no-till drills. No-till drills are expensive to purchase, can be hard to calibrate with a diverse seed mix, but provide the best seed to soil contact without tearing up your ground. If owning a seed drill is not an option for you, most county or parish NRCS offices have seed drills to rent. Drilling seeds provides a little quicker germination than overseeding and allows minimal disturbance of your ground which is good for soil health.

The most common way to create a prepared seed bed is disking. Over disking or continual disking of a field can destroy your perennial warm season grass stand, destroy soil structure, and cause erosion. Planting in a prepared seed bed does offer the quickest germination, and shortest amount of time between planting and grazing. As always, consult your goals and available resources when selecting planting method. You should also select planting method in conjunction with what forage species you are going to plant. Some seeds don’t perform well or germinate at all when overseeded. Seeds require different planting depths making diverse mixes hard to drill all at one time if there isn’t a small seed box on your drill or the drill you plant to rent. As you’re doing your research on the species you want to plant, write down seeding depth. I do a mixture of drilling and overseeding with 2 separate mixes planned for each. I drill earlier in the fall and overseed throughout the winter as my warm season grasses die and moisture increases.

Diversity in planting dates for your forages
Planting date diversity

When to plant it

I can’t say it enough times; refer to your goals and resources. Your planting date is going to depend on when you want to start grazing. If early grazing isn’t a goal or a need for you, then early planting isn’t required. Early planting, before October, provides the quickest grazing, but is risky if we get a hot and dry October or November. Planting date will also depend on planting method. Overseeding doesn’t work early. You can drill whenever, but preparing a seedbed would be hard once we start having our wet winter weather.

Planting date is also dependent on species. Some species can stand to be planted early, and some species you wouldn’t get any benefit out of planting late. Planting date is also dependent on what equipment you have available to you. If you own your own equipment, you have the most flexibility. If you rent or borrow your equipment, you’re going to be a little more restricted on your planting date.

Make sure your planting dates match your goals and are compatible with the seeds you are selecting. I stagger my planting dates from late October all the way through January or February. Some mixes planted at different dates perform differently depending on what the weather was like at that planting. Diversity in planting dates is just as important to me as diversity in species.

How much it costs

Everything we have discussed up until now will affect how much it costs you to plant. There are hundreds of combinations you can put together, and we can’t cover them all. I will run a quick comparison between 2 different winter grazing strategies on differing ends of the spectrum. We will be using a spring calving cow-calf operation that would like to graze some replacement yearling heifers as well.

Disclaimer – the prices in these examples are estimates only intended for a quick comparison. They will vary for each individual operation and depend on the local prices. Seed prices were pulled from an online seed company. At the time of writing, local seed prices haven’t been put out yet. This is not an in-depth cost analysis, just a surface comparison.

Example 1 – prepared seedbed – single species mix – low number of acres planted – heavily fertilized – not much grazing management

Seed costs – ryegrass – 30 lbs/acre - $31.50/acres

Planting costs – prepared seedbed – disked twice then cultipacked - $45/acre

Preplant fertilizer – medium low rate – no initial nitrogen – $48.75/acre

Side dress fertilizer – 3x – $123.75/acre

Costs for managing grazing – no management - $0.00/acre

Total cost per acre - $249.00

Example 2 – drilled – diverse seed mix heavy in legumes – more acreage planted – no fertilizer at all – grazing managed intensively

Seed costs – diverse winter forage mixture – $60.00/acre

Planting costs – renting drill from NRCS – $15.00/acre

Fertilizer costs – none – all natural – regenerative – legumes provide nitrogen – $0.00

Costs for managing grazing – electric fences – minimal once spread out over years of use - $0.00

Total cost per acre – $75.00 – should plant more acreage – 2x - $150.00

Disclaimer – the prices in these examples are estimates only intended for a quick comparison. They will vary for each individual operation and depend on the local prices. Seed prices were pulled from an online seed company. At the time of writing, local seed prices haven’t been put out yet. This is not an in-depth cost analysis, just a surface comparison.

Example 1 is your more expensive option. It does give the quickest grazing and easiest management but, is inferior in soil health benefits and doesn’t provide the livestock, wildlife, or soil with a diverse diet.

Example 2 is cheaper, quicker to plant, better for soil health, and provides the livestock, wildlife, and soil with a diversity of plants to eat but is harder to manage the grazing and you need 2x the amount of acres.

Diversity in pasture plantings forage builds resilience
Diversity builds resilience

The best way to ensure your success is using a well thought out plan according to the needs, goals, and resources of your operation. The second-best way to ensure success is to use diversity to build resiliency into your operation. I plant multiple diverse mixes at different times using different methods. Not every planting in every field will work out perfect, but some of them will. A one size fits all approach is not the answer. Figure out what’s best for you, your soil, and your animals, and analyze costs and effectiveness along the way.


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