Fill-in forages extend grazing season

Drought throws a wrench into our best strategies. It can ruin a market garden. It robs our livestock of needed forages. It throws plant growth cycles off. It is difficult to deal with.

After a year of extreme heat and dry weather, most farmers are thinking about strategies that can help them deal with a dry cycle. Many family farms rely on livestock in their operations to help cycle nutrients, utilize forages and provide products to market through varied avenues. Livestock are often the key cog in the wheel that makes everything turn.

Last summer was a tough one for farmers who owned livestock. Nearly every grazing expert I’ve heard speak over the past few months has recommended that pastures be grazed this upcoming summer with great care. In regions most hard hit by drought, turnout on pasture this spring should be delayed considerably, and some producers should consider no grazing at all this season on grasslands decimated last summer.

For farmers who rely heavily on livestock to provide meat products that are sold directly to consumers off the farm or through farm stands or farmers markets, this is bad news. How do you compensate? How do you keep your operation together?

Key Points

• Fill-in forages can be planted throughout the growing season.

• Annual forages can take advantage of a few precipitation events.

• With late pasture turnout or complete rest, fill-in forages might be key to keep herd.


Fill-in forages planted on land normally devoted to crop ground can provide important grazing potential for your herd. Producers who fall-seeded rye or other winter cereal grains and were able to irrigate, or enjoyed a few fall rain showers, will have extra grazing this spring for their livestock, without digging too deeply into valuable hay supplies.

This spring, producers still have the option to seed oats or other spring cereal crops, to provide late-spring and early-summer grazing. Then, this summer, annuals like millet, corn and forage sorghum can be planted to provide silage or grazing later in the year. Like the farmers in the old days who used to drop a handful of turnip seed on the fender of their tractor when they were cultivating, varieties of turnips and other brassicas can be interseeded today into growing crops, providing extra grazing on stubble after harvest.

These fill-in forages can be planted to take advantage of a few precipitation events throughout the year. They can be mixed, to offer a salad bar for livestock. They are flexible and take advantage of nutrients already in the soil. Once they germinate, they grow roots that can hold the soil, build organic matter and conserve nutrients.

Annual grazing crops like oats, rye, winter wheat, turnips and millet have been saviors on our farm over the years. In 2002, we planted several acres near our farmstead to millet. In late summer when pastures were dried up, we were able to cross-fence the field and strip-graze millet, keeping our cow herd happy, even when most other forages were done for the year. Because the field was close to home, cattle also had the option of watering there, alleviating that concern.

Drought causes many concerns for farmers in general, but for farmers who rely on livestock, fill-in forages might be the key to keeping the herd fed, even in dry weather.

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This article published in the February, 2013 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2013.