Growing forage or perennial pasture

by Liz Beavis
Our property is 258 acres in total, with about 60 acres of ‘cultivation land’, which means that its been cleared of trees, it has contour banks to prevent erosion and it has been regularly ploughed and planted with forage or crops. Forage is anything that can be made into hay or fed straight to the cattle, whereas crops are grown for grain or seeds to sell (and the remaining straw might be baled or fed to cattle). Some species are available as either a forage or a crop variety, such as oats or sorghum. The forage variety will grow thicker leaves and seed late, while the crop variety is short and produces copious seeds. Growing forage is one way to supplement pasture, especially through winter, and to make a high quality hay, which can also be used to feed during winter.

When we first bought the property, the previous owner had planted about 10 acres with forage sorghum and cut it once to make hay. When we put the offer on the property the hay had just been cut, and by the time we owned it 6 weeks later the sorghum was over our heads already! We paid our neighbour to cut and bale it for us. And then we ploughed up the area and planted forage oats. We were hoping to make more hay, but we had a wet winter and oats got ‘rust’ so we let the cattle into the paddock to eat the oats instead (they got red noses from the rust, but they seemed to like it).

In spring we planted forage sorghum again after the first rain event in November and it came up, but then we had virtually no rain until January. I was amazed that the sorghum kept growing even through the dry period, it got to about 50 cm high, but looked very water-stressed. The grass in the rest of our paddocks was dry and eaten right down and the cows were skinny and hungry, but we couldn’t feed them the sorghum, as it can contain dangerous levels of prussic acid when its short, and particularly if its stressed. There didn’t seem to be any way to test for prussic acid content either, and we didn’t want to risk killing our cattle, so we just had to buy hay to feed them. When it did rain in late January, we let the sorghum grow nice and tall and waited for a dry period to cut it for hay, but it just kept raining, so we let the cattle in to eat the sorghum.

In autumn we ploughed up the sorghum again and planted forage oats again. When we planted the sorghum into the oats we were able to plant directly into the oats without ploughing, as the cattle had eaten most of it and oats doesn’t produce much ‘trash’ (the stalky bits), however, planting directly into the sorghum was impossible, the cattle had left all the tall, thick stalks, and even after disc ploughing the paddock, the stalks got stuck in the cultivator (planter) tynes. Pete had to stop the tractor each time he went round the paddock, so we could pull all the trash from the under-carriage, otherwise it was just dragging too much trash and soil and likely to damage the cultivator.

When we looked at how much we had spent on diesel, seed, and fertiliser just to plant these forage crops, which never made it to hay bales, we started to question whether it was really worth doing. Forage crops do have more energy and protein compared to perennial grasses, but they cost more to grow and are unpredictable in dry-land farming. We certainly wouldn’t plant sorghum again after our experience over summer, millet would be a much better option, as we could have let the cattle eat it even when it was stressed, it would have been better than nothing.

We have a few beef cattle books that list the nutritional value of a range of forage and pasture varieties and the expected weight gain per day, and these are of course average figures, but they give you an idea of how the different options compare relative to each other. The problem is working out whether its really worth the extra expense to get the average predicted weight gain, given that in dry-land farming you are relying on the weather to cooperate, and whether its too wet or too dry, chances are you will not have an average year! If you don’t get the weight gain, then the extra expensive is not justified, but you don’t know that until the end of the season.

From a permaculture perspective, all this driving around in the tractor, ploughing and planting, when we could be just maintaining a perennial pasture, is not really optimising our yield. On a monetary basis, maybe when diesel and fertiliser were cheaper this was worth doing, but from what we have seen so far, and given that costs are only going to increase, we would be better to maintain a perennial pasture. And on a time and energy basis the arrangement is far from optimal.

A perennial pasture that is established and just needs to be maintained with both careful management of cattle and the occasional dose of fertility enhancers would be more optimal in terms of energy, time and money. While we do occasionally need some hay if we have a really bad season, it would also be better for us to let the cattle do the harvesting, by strip grazing the paddock, instead of driving around making and stacking bales.  And we can make hay from perennial pasture instead of planting forage.

I have read some information about establishing a perennial pasture and the advice is to “resow” the pasture every 5-7 years! That’s not perennial! Who is publishing this stuff? My guess is the seed companies, because they do much better from us constantly buying seed. And guess which seeds are the more expensive? The plants like cow pea that easily set seed and regrow the next year, because then you don’t have to pay for them again.

The other problem with planting forage is the lack of biodiversity. The first year we planted forage oats, we planted oats only. When we came to planting sorghum again, we added cow pea, and it was a really good combination. The cow pea is a low bush, in some areas is started to grow up the sorghum, they did really well together, and all the cow pea seeds that didn’t get eaten ended up back in the soil to come up next year. The cowpea being a legume would have added some nitrogen to the soil.

The second time we planted oats, we added medic, I wanted to add brassica as well. The guy at the feed store told me that brassica can really turn into a weed. A what? Its not a weed if the cattle eat it, its free food! It was really expensive, so we didn’t include it this time. I think the main reason that people don’t include lots of plants in their forage is that its harder to dry it evenly for hay (I'm just guessing here), and harder to set up the cultivator for different size seeds, but it does produce a better mix of feed for the cattle, healthier plants (think companion planting) and feeds the soil microbes that in turn feed the crop.

Anyway, with a perennial pasture we can establish lots of different species, that can provide feed right through winter, as well as plenty of legumes for nitrogen, and deep-rooted plants to bring up minerals from down deep. Being in a sub-tropical climate, we can grow pasture right through the seasons as we don't get any snow. Its still important for us to have hay as well, as we don’t have very reliable rainfall, but if the rainfall is there, a pasture will grow. This is a different situation to areas that have snow through winter and need to focus on only a spring/summer/autumn growing period.

Most pasture species in our area are summer active, that’s because we get the summer rainfall. In Australia, we typically have to match pasture to rainfall, rather than temperature, except for irrigated land. There are lots of native grasses that do well, but we seem to have mostly ‘African love grass’ (AGL), which is considered a weed due to low feed-value.

Our lovely Braford cows eat it if they have to, and have done a great job of controlling it, especially when they got really hungry, but we owe them better feed than that, so we will have to plant some imported species to prevent ALG establishment. Rhodes grass is one from Africa that does really well in our area, and as long as we keep up the soil fertility, we have seen it out-compete the ALG.

We want to also including some winter active species in our pasture. If that doesn’t produce enough feed, our other option is to use no-till seeding. We would need to either convert our cultivator or buy a different one that can sow directly into the pasture. We could then sow oats into our Rhodes grass pasture in autumn when the Rhodes grass is dormant. We can still use our cultivation areas to make hay from our pasture if the weather allows, as they are flat North-facing fields, clear of trees and rocks.

As for the need to resow the pasture, we are planning to manage our pasture using strip grazing, and use the time that was spent ploughing and planting to instead spray compost tea and other fertility enhancers such as fish meal and seaweed. If we work to improve the soil fertility, we shouldn’t need to re-establish the pasture regularly, that’s the theory anyway!

We will start with our 60 acres of cultivated areas, gradually establishing them as perennial pasture, then we will start on some of the existing pastured areas, which are mostly clear of trees, so can be lightly ploughed to introduce some new species other than the existing cooch grass and ALG, we can also spray fertility enhancers on these areas. At the same time we will be thinking about how to improve our treed areas with shade tolerant species.
What do you think?  Do you grow forage or pasture?

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