Late March or early April is the time to plant spring forage cocktails for beef cattle grazing. Spring forage cocktails can be planted as a way of shortening fallow time between crop rotations or these forages could be planted as part of a series of annual forage crops to be used through the grazing season. Typically forage cocktails will contain at least one legume, at least one annual grass and a deep rooted crop such as turnips or radishes. While these are often planted for their benefit to the soil, they can also be a source of grazing for beef cattle when perennial pastures are limited or cattle need to be removed to prevent overgrazing.
Research was conducted in western Nebraska at the High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney, Nebraska. Forages planted included peas, oats and turnips planted at 40, 40 and 2 lb/ac, respectively. Crop ground should be fertilized based on soil test results prior to planting. In each of the three years at the High Plains Ag Lab, forage cocktails growth was limited until June. This was most likely due to the fact that at an altitude of over 4,000 ft. the soil temperature just does not warm up enough to stimulate significant growth much sooner than June. At lower elevations with adequate rainfall or irrigation, growth, more than likely, could be enough to initiate grazing in May.
In 2011 and 2012, forage cocktails in the research trial were grazed for the month of June. The forage was then chemically killed to preserve moisture for the fall planted wheat crop. Producers might also consider grazing spring forage cocktails through June and then planting another forage crop for fall or winter grazing. In 2011, the crop ground was not fertilized prior to planting the forage cocktail. Rainfall for April, May and June 2011 was 12.1 inches. In 2012, 30 lb. N/ac was applied prior to planting but the rainfall for April, May and June was only 3.6 inches. Total dry matter tons/acre was 0.55 and 0.74 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The additional forage accumulation in 2012 was likely due to improved soil fertility because of the applied fertilizer. The animal unit months/acre were 0.40 and 0.53 in 2011 and 2012, respectively. More than likely, proper fertilization, adequate moisture and growing degree days would result in additional forage production.
In the research, trial samples were taken to determine forage quality for beef cattle. In vitro dry matter digestibility (similar to total digestible nutrients or TDN) was between 62 and 70% and crude protein was about 9 percent. The quality of forage cocktails makes them suitable forage for stocker or newly weaned calves and could provide much needed deferment for perennial pastures. A more in depth report of these research findings can be accessed from the 2014 NE Beef Report at http://beef.unl.edu/a75cc51e-22d6-4767-b09d-5e025cf8f3ca.pdf.