Challenging harvest conditions in the fall of 2019 in combination with excess moisture and cool temperatures this spring have inhibited spring planting, resulting in above normal acres of prevented planting.
In addition, many livestock producers in the region are short on forage due to harvest challenges in 2019 and delayed pasture readiness this spring. Also, a lower yielding hay crop is projected for 2020 due to a late freeze and dry conditions. Drought conditions in much of North Dakota this spring are expected to reduce forage production.
"The increase in preventive-plant acres provides an opportunity for the production of supplementary forage for livestock to offset the shortage of forage supplies," says Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow producers to graze, hay or cut cover crops on prevented-planting acres beginning Nov. 1. This late release date creates some options when choosing a cover crop mixture for grazing, haying or silage/ haylage.
"Cover crops for late-season grazing can provide significant cost savings to producers by minimizing the need for baled forages," says Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist. "Brassica varieties will dominate this season due to their remarkable forage quality and ability to tolerate killing frosts. The seed mixture options could include cool-season cereals (oats, barley, triticale), foxtail millet, brassicas (turnips, radishes, kale), broadleaf plants (sunflowers, buckwheat) and legume (forage peas, clovers, vetch)."
The specialists recommend that these mixes include a source of fiber such as a cereal or warm-season grass. Producers should introduce livestock to these mixes slowly and allow them to adjust to a fall cover crop mixture that may be nutrient-rich in comparison with late-summer range.
If using brassicas in a mix for grazing, the general recommendation is to limit them to less than 50% of the seed mixture to avoid digestive disorders in cattle.
Provide livestock with dry hay or other forage prior to turnout and gradually introduce them to cover crops during a period of several days if possible.
Cover crops for late-season grazing should be seeded no later than Aug. 15 to be cost-effective in the northern Plains; however, planting earlier will increase overall tonnage and enhance deeper root growth to increase organic carbon and feed for the soil microbial population. Warm-season crops will have limited value if seeded after Aug. 1 due to the short growing season that remains.
If haying is the goal
The selection of plant species to be hayed after Nov. 1 becomes limited due to lack of drying conditions and the plants’ ability to dry down sufficiently to make high-quality hay. Forage plants need to be high-fiber producers, with small stems for greater potential to cure, and not have a high water-holding capacity.
Recommended species for late-season haying include cool-season cereals (oats, barley, triticale), warm-season grasses (foxtail millet, sudangrass) and legumes (forage peas, clovers and vetch). The cereal grains and warm-season grasses can be seeded in monocultures or mixtures with or without the legume. However, mixtures are preferred to increase diversity that benefit the soil microbial population.
If silage/haylage is the goal
This option is not recommended because harvesting before a freeze is important to achieve silage of the desired moisture conditions. Moisture needs to be 65% to 70% for a bunker and 60% to 68% for silo bags. A hard freeze will reduce the moisture content dramatically within 24 to 48 hours. Haylage can be put up at a lower moisture level (40% to 60%).
"While excess moisture has created planting challenges, it is important that adequate topsoil moisture is available to support the growth of cover crops," Meehan says. "In addition to available soil moisture, recommended planting dates, seed availability and the Nov. 1 release date will limit producers’ options."
Crop producers intending on planting cover crops on prevented-planting acres to suppress weeds and enhance soil health have an opportunity to market this forage to livestock producers. The NDSU Feedlist (https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/feedlist) can connect crop producers with livestock producers in search of additional forage.
"Planting a cover crop can enhance your soil health while creating feed for late-season grazing or hay and haylage production," Sedivec says.