Gary Wilson

Overcoming Ohio’s forage fiasco

By Matt Reese

Like most every sector of Ohio agriculture, those feeding livestock are faced with serious challenges after persistent wet weather swamped pastures, killed alfalfa stands, and severely limited and delayed quality hay making opportunities.

Most of Ohio suffered from too much rain this spring, but the northwestern part of the state has been hardest hit. Gary Wilson from Hancock County is an Ohio Forage and Grasslands Council board member and past president of the American Forage and Grassland Council. Like many others in northwest Ohio, he is scrambling to keep his livestock eating.

“Forages are really short. Last winter a lot of the alfalfa was winter killed. I think it was a combination of a wet fall, cold winter, lack of snow, and there was heaving. People could see their tile lines sticking out like a sore thumb in the spring once everything greened up and there was no alfalfa there between the tile lines — that is not a good sign. Finally, at the end of June people were able to get their first cutting hay about a month later than normal. There are a lot of weeds and it is not the best quality,” Wilson said. “To repair those fields, several people — including myself — are inter-seeding Italian ryegrass after first cutting, about 10 pounds per acre. That is going to come up pretty quickly. What is interesting is that right now we are in a dry spell and we wouldn’t mind having a rain. If we can get a shower on that — you want to plant it pretty shallow — it will come right up. It will be very leafy. It won’t even stem out until the second year. In a month when you are out there for second cutting you should have a nice growth of this Italian ryegrass.”

The incredible challenge of the record setting number of prevented planting corn acres in northwest Ohio could also offer forage opportunities, especially since USDA’s Risk Management Agency adjusted the 2019 final haying and grazing date from Nov. 1 to Sept. 1.

“When they changed that restriction from Nov. 1 to Sept. 1, sorghum/sudangrass become a really popular item to plant in those prevent plant corn acres. That is an excellent forage,” he said. “They can wrap it or they can graze it, but it has to be after Sept. 1. Since there is not a lot of supply there, though, that seed has been grabbed up pretty quickly.”

Another good option on those unplanted acres could be oats, Wilson said.

“Oats is certainly a great forage, but they are very photo sensitive and if we plant oats in June they will emerge but they won’t get very tall before they put a head on them. We have found that waiting towards the first of August to when the day lengths are getting shorter will help the plants get a little bit taller. We have seen that seed head in the fall is many times barren because it is all mixed up by the shorter days, but that means all the more forage,” Wilson said. “I have grazed oats, baled oats, wrapped oats and it seems like you get a lot more production if you wait to plant until after Aug. 1. Oats also does not kill with that first frost like sorghum/sudangrass and with oats you don’t have to worry about that prussic acid. You can take oats down to 25 degrees. I have seen grazing oats in December and January and it is still very good feed. There are different kinds of oats. There are feed oats from Canada that are a pretty good forage. The normal grain oats are made to produce grain and not as good of a forage, but they can still be used.”

Along with the many aboveground challenges, grazing consultant with Green Pasture Services Bob Hendershot is just as concerned with the problems that occurred below the ground in pastures and hay fields with the extended wet conditions.

“This wet weather we’ve had since last fall has hidden some of the problems in pasture fields. Especially where we have had animals on them, soil compaction is a big issue. We’ve had ample rain so we’ve had grass that has hidden it. If you really look, there are not many plants down in there, but they are growing well so we have not really seen the full effect. I’m afraid if we do turn off dry, growth the rest of the year will be short. It will take some time to get these soils to recover,” Hendershot said. “It is not so much that the soils are too wet, it is more that there is no oxygen. All living things need oxygen to grow and we have reduced the amount of oxygen in the soils so they have really struggled to get enough life in there.“

The damage to soil structure from animals grazing in wet pastures could have long-term implications.

“I have been talking to producers about inter-seeding some brassicas or turnips this fall to break the compaction up and help our soils get some new life back into them. I use a lot of summer annual grasses on a typical basis where we inter-seed some as a way to get some deeper-rooted plants in the summer. There are lots of opportunities to do something but I am worried about how the fall will come this year. The law of averages tells me we are going to be dry. That is one reason I have warm season annuals out there to give me some growth if it turns hot and dry. You have to plan ahead. You can’t wait until need it and try to grow it,” Hendershot said. “I am worried about forage quality again this year. Last year we had delayed hay harvest and forage quality was poor. We have seen some problems this spring with cows and calves not performing well because they wintered over on poor quality forage. We used to talk about the first cutting patriotic hay made on the Fourth of July — that is not good quality stuff. That slows the plants down. Most of the grass plants have already gone to seed and the potential for regrowth is already stunted. We have another window here in the fall to inter-seed in pastures that are thin, improve the soils and stockpile some for grazing through the winter to ration out some of this low quality hay.”

Hendershot encourages pasture managers to use caution and discretion moving forward to avoid making a challenging situation below the soil surface worse.

“I’m not always so concerned about how long the animal stays in the pasture, but how much rest we are giving those plants. Manage the rotation in rest lengths. Don’t go into fields too soon. It is better to rest the pastures a little longer before grazing them,” he said. “If we are going to clip pastures we need to make sure the soil is firm enough. Our tractors cause more compaction that the cattle. I wait to haul my bales out of the field in the winter when it is frozen or when the ground is dry. I have cut ruts baling hay in the past and those ruts left an impact for several years afterwards.”

Careful management can enhance the significant soil health benefits of forages and pastures and provide additional much-needed forage options.

“It really helps having living roots in the soil year round. It is not like a cash grain crop where the roots are only there for a short period of time. In terms of forages we have those live roots in the soil all the time and soil biology depends on live roots,” he said. “I think the wet periods are more devastating long term for forages than a drought. In a drought, the plants go dormant and they will survive. In a wet period they are still growing and don’t know they are being hurt. The lack of air in the soil is harder on soil health. My pastures still feel like I am walking in a March field. It is squishy and the soil is oozing up between the hooves of the cattle. Managing this is about having the eye of the master. You have to look at what is going on and react to that.”

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