It is February and many of us are anxiously waiting for spring, especially if we've been feeding hay for awhile. Most pastures have a straw-colored look about them. Green fields are short and far between. In numerous instances, the winter pasture that was planned for last fall may not have developed to expectations or was not planted due to poor moisture conditions. What can be planted now to bring about earlier spring pasture? Following are the two most common recommendations.

If you have cropland that does not currently have winter pasture on it, spring oats are a good alternative. Oats are probably the most palatable of cereal crops and grow rapidly once soil temperatures begin to warm. Oats will germinate with soil temperatures at 40 degrees or above. Soil temperature and moisture conditions will determine the rate of development in the spring.

The recommended planting date is between mid-February and mid-March. The recommended seeding rate is 2 to 3 bushels per acre (bushel weight for oats is 32 pounds) or 65 to 100 pounds per acre. If planted conventionally, the lower seeding rate would be acceptable, but use a higher rate for a "broadcast-disc" planting. For spring plantings, apply about 50 to 100 pounds per acre of actual nitrogen, and control weeds as needed. With good growing conditions, oats can produce 4,000 to 5,000 pounds per acre; although 2,000 to 3,000 pounds would be more typical. Oats can be grazed or hayed.

Dallas, Harrison and Horizon 314 varieties have performed well in fall-planted Noble Foundation tests at the Ardmore campus. In a spring-planted variety test conducted by Dr. Brent Bean and Dr. Calvin Trostle of the Texas Cooperative Extension in the Texas Panhandle in the winter of 2001-2002, Walken, Troy and Monida oat varieties were recommended for grazing and hay, with Charisma and Magnum oats also recommended for hay.

If you have some bermudagrass pasture that is grazed short at this time, broadcasting ryegrass is still the best option for early spring grazing. Broadcast 15 to 20 pounds of seed per acre by early March. Apply 50 to 100 pounds per acre of actual nitrogen when broadcasting seed. If the ryegrass is already present, either add seed at a reduced rate or only apply nitrogen. Production ranges from about 2,000 to 4,000 pounds for a spring planting, depending on the year.

Ryegrass varieties that have performed well in the Noble Foundation variety tests from 2000 through 2003 include Marshall, King, Brigadier and Passerel Plus just to mention a few. General planting recommendations would be to plant no more than 1 acre of ryegrass per mature cow that will be grazing. Ryegrass typically remains productive into early June and can retard spring growth of the bermudagrass. If bermudagrass production is essential from an overseeded area, graze or hay off the ryegrass by early May.

One major benefit of planting ryegrass is its ability to reseed itself. With a good seed crop, little or no seeding will be necessary the following year, thus reducing the establishment cost. Ryegrass will establish more rapidly on a clean field, but consideration should be given when planting on cropland. Because of its reseeding capability, ryegrass can become a difficult to control, grassy weed species if other cool-season crops are planted in future years.

Whenever you are establishing a crop or pasture, attention needs to be given to pH, phosphorus, potassium and soil type. Sample soils and test to determine nutrient levels so deficiencies can be identified prior to planting. If anything other than nitrogen is needed, it probably will not be cost- effective to establish an annual crop such as oats or ryegrass this spring.

On a final note, extremely sandy soils are generally not considered suitable for either oats or ryegrass; neither crop will perform very well on soils prone to remaining saturated during the spring. However, ryegrass tolerates standing water better than oats.