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Stretch grazing season with summer annuals

portable water tank
CRITICAL WATER SUPPLY: To make summer grazing work, you must have access to water, Suzannah Hinds says. Doug Abney, Bargersville, Ind., constructed this portable water tank to fulfill this need.
Commentary: Livestock producers can add summer annuals to extend their forage supply.

By Susannah Hinds

I work with livestock producers across northwest Indiana, and I’ve noticed a trend. Most folks who manage livestock do so on unique acres that aren’t suitable for farming. They keep each enterprise separate rather than using a systems approach to their farm. 

Growing up in Montgomery County, I witnessed the transition on our family farm from smaller fields with lanes and fencerows where hogs grazed corn stubble to the removal of all fences and livestock and the conversion to large fields. We’re now coming full circle to understanding the value of having livestock on the land.

One method of bringing livestock back is to incorporate summer annuals for grazing. It may only be a small percentage of acres planted and used for summer grazing when cool-season pastures start to go dormant in the late summer heat. 

While there are challenges to this approach, there are also many advantages. While adding needed forage during the summer slump would be a direct benefit, you also have the chance to control weeds, reduce the number of days feeding hay, and add organic matter and soil microbiology into your row crop acres. 

Prime example
I’ve worked with one farmer who is trying this approach. Josh Cox of Wildcat Valley Farms in Tippecanoe County has incorporated wheat into his rotation and planted a seven-way mix of warm-season annuals after it’s harvested. In July, he planted about 20 acres and used it to graze 30 cows in September and October. Cox customizes his species mix of annuals; each one is selected for a specific reason, such as dense roots, deep roots, nitrogen production, massive forage growth, parasite impacts or to create mycorrhizal fungi complexes. 

Cox says, “I look at the long-term gains from this system, which includes increased productivity from the subsequent crop and soil health. The value is harder to determine, but is provable and cannot be duplicated to its fullest without the incorporation of livestock. We will continue to graze covers in the future, no doubt.”

This alternative is best implemented on acres with a water source for the livestock. Ideally animals would be rotated to new forage daily, and only half of the forage would be consumed. Half would remain to trample and support the weight of the animals. Selected acres should also be located where it will be easy to remove animals once forage is consumed or if soils get too wet.

Incorporating livestock on cropland acres has benefits for both the land and livestock. Consider how you can take a step in that direction. Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist to find out more about incorporating summer annuals into your farming system. Be sure to check with your crop insurance agent and the Farm Service Agency to make sure converting to such a system will not violate USDA program rules.

Hinds is a grazing lands specialist with the NRCS in Indiana. She is one of several specialists within the Indiana Conservation Partnership who contribute information.

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