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Growing Warm Season Annuals for Lambs

To keep your lambs “grazing high” through the summer, give Cowpeas a chance!

Cowpeas and Sorghum-Sudan Grass planted in a prepared seedbed.
Cowpeas and Sorghum-Sudan Grass planted in a prepared seedbed.

In my previous On Pasture article, I recommend that you keep grassfed lambs “grazing high,” especially in late summer and early fall. When I say “high,” I’m referring to both the nutritional quality and the height of the forage. You want those lambs to continue gaining weight in the heat of the summer with minimal exposure to parasites, particularly the nasty barber-pole worm (Haemonchus contortus).

Here in Louisiana and other areas of the Gulf South, our pastures consist of Bermuda and Bahia grasses, both of which continue to persist in the heat of the summer but often lose quality in late summer and early fall. Keeping those perennial swards nutritious means keeping them short, and this could expose your lambs to high numbers of parasite larvae. We have experimented with a few warm season annuals to keep lambs and ewes “grazing high.” This article shares what we have learned about planting these forages. My next article outlines how we graze them.

Which warm season annuals have we planted?

Grasses: Hybrid Pearl Millet and Sorghum-Sudan grass
Legumes: Iron Clay Cowpeas and Alyce Clover
Prospective Forages: Sunn hemp and other Hybrid Grasses

When do we plant them?

May through June

How do we plant them?

Seeding rates and Nitrogen Fertilizer:
You should follow your seed supplier’s recommendations for seeding rates; however, we often increase the seeding rates to make sure we get good germination. Seed cost is less than preparation and labor cost, so putting out more seed is some good insurance. We do fertilize grass-only stands with a nitrogen fertilizer, but there is no need to apply nitrogen to legumes or a legume/grass mix.

We’ve planted warm season annuals the following ways:

1.) Prepared seedbed

Disking the perennial pasture to create a prepared seedbed has given us the best stands. You (and I) might cringe at the word “till,” but remember that you are not plowing up your whole place, just enough area to finish or carry high-need stock through the heat of the summer and early fall. These forages yield high tonnage dry matter, so you get a lot of bang for your buck and for your tillage. Plowing helps you knock back the warm season perennials and gives you good seed-to-soil contact for germination. It also breaks up the parasite life cycle by burying some un-hatched eggs and by disrupting the larvae’s attempts at climbing blades of grass to be ingested by your lamb crop.

My husband Donald in Sorghum-Sudan Grass June 21.
My husband Donald in Sorghum-Sudan Grass June 21.

We’ve planted both “monocultures” of grass or legumes and have seeded them together. They do re-grow a little differently, and sometimes one species is ready to graze before the other. If you are very strict on the grassfed animal’s intake of seed heads, consider planting the grasses separate from the legumes. The grasses might start bolting sooner.

 2.) Over-seeded into sod

We have also grazed the perennial warm-season plants low and used cattle and sheep to stomp in the seeds. This stand of annuals has a hard time competing with the perennial pasture, but this could be an option if you are till-o-phobic or lack the heavy equipment needed to plow. Germination is also lower, so seed cost is higher. If/when you fertilize this stand, you will also give those perennials a boost too.

Cowpeas Fighting Sod (prepared seedbed in background) June 21
Cowpeas Fighting Sod (prepared seedbed in background) June 21

You might be wondering why we haven’t tried planting with a no-till drill. We haven’t had access to one; however, unless you use herbicides to kill your perennial pasture before drilling, you would still run into the problem of competition with the existing pasture. And those parasites could still be hanging out in the perennial sward when you run your lambs through their paddocks. If you have had success drilling warm-season annuals into warm-season perennial pasture, please let us know! Maybe we can get a drill over here one day.

This is how we’ve planted warm season annuals for our sheep. In my next article, I share how we’ve managed (and mis-managed) the grazing of these forages.

natglc-logo-1Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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Sarah Bailly
Sarah Bailly
Sarah Bailly and her husband, Donald Keller, own and operate Bayou Farm on the Cajun Prairie in South Central Louisiana. They raise hair sheep and cattle with management intensive grazing techniques to optimize microbial, plant, and animal performance. Sarah completed the Louisiana Master Cattle Producer program in 2013 and is a member of the Louisiana Forage and Grasslands Council (LFGC), the Pineywoods Cattle Registry and Breeders Association (PCRBA), and the Livestock Conservancy. Between tracking lambs, moving fences, and watching the grass grow, she is attempting to put her M.A. in English to use by writing about and sharing her farming experiences.


  1. When I grazed sorghum/Sudan grass with my lambs, I had a hard time keeping up with the explosive growth. It was part of a cover crop mix, I had to graze before other varieties were really ready just do keep ahead of the s/s. Any similar experience or tips?

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