Forage crops, pasture, hay - isn't it just grass?

Aug 13 2012 0 Comments Tags: cattle, forage, grass, hay, pasture

Once again we are learning on the job and its time to make some decisions to manage our stock feed through the winter.

The typical system in our area is to have pasture with mainly tropical grasses that do very well in summer, but die back in winter.  These are rhodes grass, bluegrass and gatton or green panic.  When the grasses die back the protein content decreases and stock don't put on weight.  They have to eat a lot of the dry grass just to maintain weight and we have to feed them hay.  Some farmers we know only keep steers from spring to autumn and don't even try to keep them over winter.  This means they are buying when the price is high and selling when its low.

forage oats

To help the stock gain weight farmers will grow a forage crop in a cultivated area.  Over winter this can be oats or rye grass, and over summer sorghum or millet.  The cattle can be let into the cultivated area to eat the forage or it can be baled into hay.  I think the summer forage is less necessary, as the tropical grasses usually grow well over summer, but it is possibly a way of utilising the cultivated area for a second season of the year, or making extra hay when the weather is better for drying it or just in case dry weather results in poor grass growth.

When I got to this stage of understanding the system, I wondered why we don't plant our pasture with some species that do well in winter, so that we always have some pasture.  After watching Farmer Pete spend 6 weekends ploughing and seeding a small portion of our cultivated area, it seemed like an awful lot of work, I would rather have feed that maintained itself (permaculture technique - plant perennials, its less work!).  We have since found out that we can plant legumes like clover, medic and lucerne into our tropical grasses.  These will do well in winter and produce seed that will sprout the following year.  We are hoping to oversow our good pasture areas with these seeds next autumn.

African Love Grass in our pasture is currently dried off and dormant

Now that we have had a good look at our cultivated areas, we have decided that the lower area is just not suited to hay making, as it would be too far to bring the hay up to the shed (unless we get a hay trailer).  We would like to plant these areas with crops that the cattle can come in and eat, using electric fences to manage their grazing.  The area is divided by contour banks into 5 zones.  In the 2 zones farthest from the gate we would like to establish a self-sustaining pasture mix of rhodes, medic, clover and lucerne.  As this can't be grazed in the first year to allow the grasses to establish, we will also plant a forage crop in the closest 3 zones.  The forage crop can be grazed a few months after planting.  This time we are going to make sure that our forage crop contain legumes for nitrogen fixation.  It seems that cow pea is good for summer and medics and clover are good for winter.  

We would like to eventually phase out the forage crops in the lower cultivation area and return the entire area to a managed pasture that can still be cut for hay if necessary.  This means less work as we don't need to regularly plough the area.  The other alternative is to invest in a no-till seeding implement so that we can plant without ploughing (thinking about the "One Straw Revolution" technique of sowing the next crop under the previous one, but without the clay balls).  If we manage the time spent cattle by the cattle in each zone we should be able to avoid compacting the soil and never have to plough again.  They will also contribute valuable fertiliser to the area :)

The forage oats is green and succulent
Our upper cultivation area is close the hay shed, and so most suited to hay making.  Unfortunately its also closest to our proposed house site and during ploughing this year the soil was billowing out from behind the tractor and would have covered the house area.  We will continue to experiment with different crops in this area too, and decide whether to return it all to pasture or maintain some areas for planting forage.  Again, a no-till implement would solve the dust problem.

Finally, we also have some treed areas which are quite open and have some grass underfoot.  This shady environment is very suited to the gatton/green panic grasses, so we will be broadcasting them in summer.  We have seen how they can establish very strongly under trees at our previous property, so are hoping they will do well here too.  There may also be some winter active plants that would be suitable in these areas.

more pasture - we do have some Rhodes Grass somewhere!
Will  look better in spring...
This leaves us with two unresolved issues - how to oversow, will our existing cultivator drill set above the soil be sufficient or do we need to invest in a no-till conversion?  And, do we sow both the summer and winter seeds together, or run back over with the winter seeds in autumn?  More research required, but I think we're nearly there!  We are also very interested in experimenting with tagasaste, luceana and pigeon pea as alternative protein sources.  I am going to start planting some around the place to see where they grow best.

We have also left some sorghum in the ground to see what it looks like after a second season.  Anything that reduces ploughing time and soil disturbance will be an advantage - so far it is still growing!

How do you manage your pasture and forage crops so that you have feed to fatten animals year round?

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