Annual forages offer quick opportunities for extra pasture or replenishing hay supplies.

If you're like most cattle producers, you've found yourself occasionally in a pinch for extra hay or forages to graze.

Annual forages such as ryegrass, barley, oats or sorghum can come to the rescue. They grow rapidly and produce high-quality forage during spring and late summer - times when producers often fall short.

"Annual forages are a cheap source of protein and energy for producers whether they plan to graze, hay or ensile it," says Lee Manske, North Dakota State University (NDSU) range scientist. "In the future, the rancher who can capture the cheapest source of protein will be successful," he adds.

Annual forages average about 10% crude protein and 52% total digestible nutrients (TDN). In western North Dakota, Manske estimates annual forages produce 35-125 lbs. of calf per acre, whereas season-long native range produces about 20 lbs. of calf per acre. Those are numbers, Manske says, that give annual forages potential in beef production.

Watford City, ND, producer Paul Klamm liked those numbers, too. After being frustrated with unprofitable traditional grain crops and the unknowns of renting pasture from year to year, Klamm grew annual forages last summer.

Adapting To Annuals Using rye, oats, barley and sorghum, Klamm devised a plan to seed his 700 acres of cropland to annual forages that would be rotationally grazed by 550 yearling steers and heifers from May through September .

The acres were divided into 100-acre pastures using electric fence. Water was available from a creek and in some pastures from wells.

Klamm's forage program began in April with yearlings grazing crested wheatgrass. They were then split into two herds before being moved into rye pastures that had been seeded in the fall.

Klamm then planned to rotate the yearlings every two or three weeks to oats, barley and finally to sorghum pastures. But, a dry summer prevented the barley from being ready at the right time. Instead, Klamm had the yearlings graze rented rangeland and a clover pasture that would have been hayed, until he could put them on the barley and then finally the sorghum.

"Ideally, I wanted to have the cattle graze everything once and then hay the regrowth on the oats and barley," says Klamm. But, the dry summer forced him to rotate the cattle through fields a second time instead of haying them.

Klamm's yearlings gained 2.02 lbs./day and he sorted heavy ones off and sold them throughout August, September and October.

Klamm is looking at using the program again this summer. And, through a sustainable agriculture grant from the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, he'll have extra financing for fence, seed, fertilizer and water development. He also hopes to have the animals ready for market earlier in the year when production on crops is higher.

"To make the program a success you really need forages that are ready at different time periods," says Klamm. He planted rye in the fall and then planted oats at normal spring planting time. One planting of barley was made two weeks later, followed by another barley planting two weeks after that. Sorghum was planted in early June.

Annuals Have A Place While not many producers are willing to develop an entire grazing program using annual forages, most forage specialists agree there is a place for annual forages in almost every beef operation.

"Annual forages can help a ranch on its bottlenecks, especially in the spring and fall," says Manske.

In the southeast, Louisiana State University forage Extension specialist Ed Twidwell agrees. "Utilizing annual forages can take some of the pressure off perennials. In late summer when perennials really aren't producing, pearl millet or sorghum can fill a nice niche."

Twidwell says there's growing interest in putting crops like ryegrass, pearl millet and sorghum up for haylage. "In the Southeast we get a lot of rain in mid-to late-April. In the summer, there's so much heat and humidity that it's tough to make good hay," he says. Putting up haylage at 60-65% moisture makes some of these forages more palatable.

In the West, where rangeland is plentiful, Montana State University agronomist Dennis Cash sees annual forages as a supplement to hay supplies.

"For the Northern Great Plains it's ideal to have perennial forages. But after a long winter of feeding hay, like last year, using annuals for forage production can help producers get caught up on hay supplies," says Cash.

"In Montana, one of the best annual crops producers can grow is hay barley or oats with peas," says Cash.

Barley has a protein content of 8%. Adding peas to the mix boosts protein content to 13%. The crop is seeded the same time as small grain crops and harvested when oats or barley is in the early soft dough stage, typically July, for maximum production.

Manske and Cash also see ranchers using peas and barley in crop rotations to break weed and disease cycles as well as add nitrogen to the soil.

"Using annual legumes as a forage crop in a crop rotation is just another alternative," says Manske.

Cost Effective? But there can be high costs associated with annual establishment and fertility requirements to maximize production.

So are they economical? Montana State's Cash says, "They are if you have to have the forage."

Cattlemen feel it's an expensive proposition to till the land and fertilize it, but if it fills your forage needs it may be an option, says Twidwell.

And Klamm likes annuals because of the flexibility they offer. "If one year grain crops look good you can farm the land or rent it out, other years you can run cattle."

* Seeded alone for hay crops, Montana State's Dennis Cash says annual forages should be planted at 25-50% higher seeding rates than normally seeded for grain, with similar fertility inputs. For grazing, NDSU's Lee Manske says normal seeding rates apply. Small grains should not be planted deeper than 2 in.

* Delay grazing until seedlings are firmly anchored and about 6 in. in height. Timing is critical when it comes to using annual forages, says Manske. "Most annual forages should be grazed at the four- or five-leaf stage until the boot stage (when seed heads emerge)," says Manske. "The nutrition of the forage is in the leaves."

* Grazed annual forages are best used with a rotational stocking scheme that leaves sufficient stubble and allows adequate rest between grazing periods to support regrowth.

* Annual forages should not be harvested or grazed following prolonged periods of drought or cloudy weather, particularly when heavily fertilized with nitrogen without prior testing for nitrate content. Forage containing more than 111/42% nitrate should not be fed.

* Grazing should be delayed 10-14 days on sorghums following frost or drought to avoid prussic acid poisoning. Manske cautions that sorghums don't grow well in western North Dakota, where moisture is limiting in the fall. Prussic acid dissipates during hay curing or ensiling, so harvested forage should not present a problem.