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

by Liz Beavis

Every year, no matter if it rains or not, we need decisions to manage our stock feed through the winter. We need to ensure that we have the right balance of stock for the feed available, whether that is hay or pasture, so that we can maintain healthy animals and healthy pasture.

In our area pasture is mainly tropical grasses

Tropical grasses do very well in summer, but die back in winter.  These are typically 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


Why grow forage?

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 (instead of planting perennial grasses), or making extra hay when the weather is better for drying it or just in case dry weather results in poor grass growth. Of course its all different if you have access to irrigation, I'm just talking about dry-land farming here.

Why don't we plant winter active species?

That's what I was thinking! That way we always have some pasture growin and don't need to plant. After watching Pete spend six 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


So, what's the plan now?

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 five zones. In the two zones furthest from the gate we would like to establish a self-sustaining pasture mix of Rhodes grass, 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.  his 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 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


And closer to the house?

Our upper cultivation area is close the hay shed, and so most suited to hay making.  Unfortunately its also closest to our house and during ploughing the soil was billows out from behind the tractor, blowing towards the house - not ideal.  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...


How is this going to work?

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.

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


Read more about our perennial pasture here

1 comment

  • Steve

    Have you considered silvopasturing/agroforestry practices? These involve growing shrub and tree fodder among pastures to diversify feed sources and nutrient profiles. The trees provide partial protection for pasture and animals (wind, sun, rain) and can provide alternate crops (firewood, milling timber, fruit, mulch). Europe has a rich history of using tree hay, coppicing and pollarding techniques to feed animals year round prior to the industrial animal feed complex. Another obvious benefit is the deeper roots provide more drought tolerance for your crops (most grasses are very shallow rooted). They may also be nitrogen fixing!

    Its is largely a lost art, although like many old sustainable practices this is experiencing a resurgence. Examples:
    In aus (fodder/forage): lucaena, tagasaste, mulga, kurrajong, saltbush, various acacia. (For other products) mostly milling timber agroforestry trials with redwoods, cedars, pines etc. or regenerative agriculture is also beginning to be integrated/trialed to regrow lost forest. (If you think about it this is basically the same as running sheep under vineyards).
    In NZ (erosion control + fodder/forage): poplar/willow
    In Asia/South america/africa: Lucaena, moringa species and other mimosids, much of the research is coming out of these areas to support subsistence farmers, mostly for fodder/forage but some also in fruit/timber production or regenerative agriculture.
    North America: similar to aus, but with very good orchard silvopasture examples (apples with pigs)
    Europe: VERY old uses especially coppicing/pollarding (when you realise those huge old gnarled trees look that way due to ancient coppicing). Rowans, beech, elm and oak were used extensively. Spain has a famous example of finishing pigs under oak (jamon iberico ham)

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