UGA Forage Extension Team

Make the most of winter annuals

By Carole Knight

Bulloch County CEA

In Georgia, one of our advantages in the cattle industry is the ability to grow and graze forage during the winter months, drastically cutting the need for stored forages and cutting supplemental feed costs. However, to get the most potential out of winter annuals it takes the right management skills.

Fertilize appropriately.

It is amazing at how many producers will spend money on overseeding large acreages, but will not pay for a pound of nitrogen. They are then inevitably discouraged by the lack of grass production. Why spend money on seed and planting costs if you are not going manage this investment for optimum production? Putting down N at planting (or soon after) is critical, as that initial 40 – 50 lbs of N per acre increases tillering (thickening of the stand) and provides earlier grazing. A second application of N per acre should be applied in mid‐January to early‐February to increase winter and spring forage production. If there is a great need for forage at that time and the coming weeks, 40 – 50 lbs of N per acre should be applied. If the need is less, decrease the N rate accordingly. If winter annual legumes were used and they contribute 30‐40% or more of the stand, then no more than 25 lbs of N per acre will be necessary. Because ryegrass is longer‐lived, a third application of 40 – 50 lbs of N per acre may be needed in early spring when ryegrass is grown alone or used in a mix for late spring grazing, hay, or silage. Remember that late ryegrass production can decrease bermudagrass yields by 30‐50%. So, if the extra forage is not needed or the slowed bermudagrass or bahiagrass is a concern, decrease the N rate accordingly or cut it out altogether. Make sure soil pH is in the right range so that the plants roots can utilize that N. In addition, low P or K in the soil will limit the growth of the winter annuals even if plenty of N is available.

Allow plants to establish before grazing.

This is one of the most frequent errors made when cool season annuals are utilized. In fact, many farms overseed bermudagrass with rye or ryegrass and never remove the cattle. Allowing plants to develop a root system will improve drought tolerance and improve forage production over the long term. Delay grazing cool season annuals until they reach 6-8” in height and try not to graze plants shorter than 2-3”. The plants will survive if they are grazed too early, but they will never fully recover.

Graze appropriately to maximize production.

Winter annual forages are most appropriate for growing cattle like stockers or replacement heifers; however, cows can effectively utilize these forages with appropriate grazing management. Limit grazing is the best way to stretch winter annual forages with mature beef cows. Allowing access to the winter pasture for two hours each day will allow cows to fill up on high quality forage and will minimize trampling and wasteful consumption. If labor is unavailable for removing cattle from pasture each day, simply graze the winter annuals every other day. Supply fair quality hay when cattle are not on winter annual pasture.

With proper management, cool season annual forages can reduce the stress of winter feeding – both on the cattle and on your finances. For more information on managing winter annual forages visit with your local county extension agent or visit www.georgiaforages.com.