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Field Notes: Grazing cover crops

Valerie Tate

Cover crops can provide benefits to crop fields by protecting the soil from wind and water erosion, keeping excessive fertilizer from leaving the field and improving the activity of soil microbiology. Cover crops can also provide forage for grazing livestock.

Small grain cereals including rye, wheat and triticale (a cross between rye and wheat) can provide grazing in both the fall and spring. Rye will provide the most forage, but the quality will decline more rapidly in the spring than wheat.

In general, these winter annuals should be planted early in the fall to maximize fall forage production. Some wheat varieties are susceptible to Hessian fly damage and should be planted after the Hessian fly-free date, which is around October 1 for north Missouri. If fall planting is delayed beyond October, rye is the best option.

When planting small cereal grains for forage, plant 75 to 100 pounds of seed per acre. Increasing the seeding rate compared to raising the crop for grain, will provide a thicker stand and reduce stem size. If the forage is going to be harvested in the spring, this will improve drying time for hay and will pack better when making silage. Fertilize with 50 to 75 pounds of nitrogen in the fall to promote growth. Additional nitrogen can be added in the spring if needed.

Grazing can begin when plants are well rooted and about eight inches tall. Do not graze below four inches to promote regrowth. Grazing too short increases the chance of winterkill. If the wheat crop is going to be harvested for grain, stop grazing when the plant reaches the joint stage to avoid removing the grain head.

For more information, contact Valerie Tate, field specialist in agronomy for University of Missouri Extension at tatev@missouri.edu or call 660-895-5123. MU Extension programs are open to all.