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Path to greener pastures this summer

Pasture looking patchy? Boost drought-stricken forage fields by planting these three grasses or a popular summer legume.

Mindy Ward, Editor, Missouri Ruralist

April 16, 2024

2 Min Read
Cow grazing in grass
LUSH LOOK: It will take a little reseeding this spring to bring back some green to drought-stricken pastures this summer. Clara Bastian/Getty Images

After another year of drought, grass stands for cattle grazing are sketchy, but planting summer annuals can be a stopgap measure for farmers.

There are benefits to seeding summer annual grasses, such as improving thin pastures stands and adding forage diversity to improve cattle productivity, says Patrick Davis, University of Missouri Extension livestock field specialist.

His go-to grasses are:

  • crabgrass

  • pearl millet

  • sudangrass

Farmers should seed these now to strengthen the summer grazing rotation, Davis says. However, proper grazing is important for forage growth and cattle performance.

Management of summer annuals

Davis offers the following advice for grazing summer annuals:

Crabgrass. Cattle should graze when crabgrass reaches heights of 3 to 10 inches, or roughly 30 to 45 days after planting.

Sudangrass. Turn cattle out when this annual grass reaches 24 inches or taller, typically 45 to 60 days after planting. This will prevent the likelihood of prussic acid poisoning in cattle. Do not graze below 10 inches.

Pearl millet. This is a good alternative for many cattle farmers as it does not cause prussic acid poisoning. Cattle can begin grazing pearl millet at a height of 18 to 30 inches, or 45 days after planting. Again, this is one summer annual that you should not graze below 10 inches.

Level of caution

“Nitrate toxicity can be an issue with sudangrass and pearl millet if there is a summer drought,” Davis warns.

Here are the most likely signs of nitrate poisoning, according to University of Arkansas Extension:

  • difficult and painful breathing

  • incoordination

  • cyanotic membranes

  • diarrhea

  • rapid breathing

  • frequent urination

  • muscle tremors

  • dark to chocolate-colored blood

  • weakness

  • collapse

  • low tolerance to exercise

  • reduced milk production

Nitrate poisoning can cause death within a half-hour to four hours after symptoms appear.

Davis suggests farmers consult their MU Extension livestock field specialist for cattle and forage management strategies to reduce potential nitrate toxicity issues.

A look at legumes

In addition to summer annual grasses, legumes such as lespedeza will boost forage production.

If seeded in April, Davis says lespedeza can thicken thin cool-season pasture stands and strengthen the pasture grazing rotation during the summer months.

Bonuses of this legume include:

  • non-bloating

  • drought tolerance

  • dilutes fescue toxicosis

This legume helps cattle perform better and be more profitable on fescue pastures, Davis notes. Even though lespedeza is an annual, it will come back each year — if allowed to reseed itself.

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About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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