Winter Pastures are our most productive, highest level of nutrition source of forage. It is also one of the most cost effective sources of nutrition for livestock. With good management and good weather, we can make our best gains in the winter and early spring months. Ryegrass is the backbone of our cool season pasture program. It is well adapted to our environmental conditions. It produces high protein forage. There are other grass species that also have an advantage in the cool season. These are not as adaptable as ryegrass, but can be utilized to supplement when ryegrass is not at its peak of production.
The summer growing seasons of 2010 and 2011 were extremely dry. Cattle might not be entering the cool season in the most desirable body condition. Hay production was also less than normal due to the drought this summer. This makes it even more desirable to produce abundant cool season grasses this winter and spring. Two years ago the costs of inputs (seed, fertilizer, and fuel) for all crops increased dramatically. Since that time, some of these costs have decreased slightly, but they are still expensive. This fact has given many producers pause on investing in winter pasture. But, cattle need a high level of nutrition during the calving and lactation periods of the year. The time of calving for most herds coincides with the peak period of cool season grass growth. It is more important than ever to efficiently and economically manage your planting, fertilization and grazing practices.
The LSU AgCenter Experiment Station conducts variety testing on ryegrass at several locations. Based on these tests, a list of recommended varieties is released. This year’s recommended varieties include: TAMTBO, Prine, Marshall, Maximus, Jumbo, Jackson, Flying A, Rio, Passerel Plus, Diamond T, Nelson Tetraploid, Chuck Wagon, Gulf, and TAM 90.
All these varieties are recommended. Does that mean that they are all the same? Not really. The tests over time indicate which varieties have the genetic potential to be good forage producers. If you look at the dry matter yields for the recommended varieties, you will see that they are similar over a three year average. There are differences in maturity, disease resistance, and drought and flood tolerance. In a given year, depending on the weather conditions and site differences, performance might vary. If you know which variety or varieties have performed to your satisfaction under your conditions, you probably would be satisfied to stick with it. If you want to try a new one, try it on a limited acreage until you see how it performs under your management and environmental conditions.
Gulf is probably the oldest variety of ryegrass available. It is also the most widely grown variety in our area. With so many newer varieties, why is it still so popular? It can have problems with diseases such as blast and rust, if conditions favor their development. Gulf also has poor tolerance to cold weather. It matures earlier than many of the newer varieties. However, we don’t have disease problems in ryegrass every year. We haven’t had problems with cold damage in several years. Some producers prefer an earlier maturing variety to allow their summer pasture to get off to an early start. These producers continue to plant Gulf, because it works for them. But, like each of the other recommended varieties, in a given season there might be conditions that place it at a disadvantage.
Ryegrass is recommended to be planted at the rate of 30 pounds per acre. On prepared seedbeds the recommended dates for planting are late September-mid October. Overseeding is recommended for mid to late October. All this depends on the weather and soil moisture conditions. Planting on prepared beds earlier than this can cause problems from hot weather and blast disease; later planting can delay grazing. Overseeding prior to mid-October will often make for competition from warm season grasses that haven’t gone dormant.
Oats is an excellent cool season forage crop under certain conditions. Oats has a different growth pattern than ryegrass. Its advantage is that it produces high quality forage in the early season. Oats will emerge and grow fast, providing grazing before ryegrass is large enough to graze. It does not recover from grazing as readily as ryegrass, so it doesn’t provide as much season-long grazing. Recommended varieties of oats for grazing include: Plotspike LA 9339 and LA 99016. All oat varieties are susceptible to crown rust disease, but crown rust only develops in late season. It is not normally a factor in early season grazing. As I stated, early season grazing is the main advantage of oats. I have found that oats are utilized best when planted alone, on a prepared seed bed, at the rate of 90-100 pounds per acre, between mid-September and mid-October.
Wheat can have a place in a winter forage program. Its growth pattern provides abundant growth in the late-winter when the oats have passed their prime growth and before ryegrass has reached its full growth potential. It can bridge the time between maximum oat and maximum ryegrass production. No wheat varieties have been tested for forage production for several years. Any variety that has a history of good grain production should perform well. The recommended seeding rate for grazing wheat is 90 pounds per acre. Seeding dates are from late September to mid October.
Cereal rye is not commonly grown for winter forage in southern Louisiana. It has not shown a consistent advantage over wheat for grazing. Seed is also usually less easily available. If you would like to try cereal rye for grazing, the recommended varieties include: Maton, Maton II, Oklon, and Wintergrazer 70. Seeding rate and planting time are the same as for wheat.