Tuesday, May 28, 2024
HomeGrazing ManagementTime to Start Prepping Your Pastures for Fall

Time to Start Prepping Your Pastures for Fall

My dear Mother always said that the older you get, the faster time goes, she was right. I really don’t know what happened to the summer. But here it is, August already. This is the prep month for the beginnings of fall activities starting with the seeding of permanent vegetation, early planting of annuals for grazing/haying and getting ready for any cover crop/annuals being planted for grazing on cropland after row crops are harvested.

Early August to mid-September is an excellent time to plant cool-season grasses to get enough good growth to guarantee they survive the coming winter months. One of the advantages of seeding at this time of the year is lower competition from weeds as compared to a spring seeding. If you happen to be in one of the drier areas then you still have time for weather conditions to improve and the seed in the fall generally waits on the rain. If you are in areas blessed with more rain, then plant when you have good soil conditions which is not too difficult this time of year. Soil should be friable (easily crumbled) and not saturated to get good seed to soil contact without compacting the soil or the seeding slot.

Later plantings, generally after September 15th, can work some years but are little more unpredictable in results. If you are waiting for a row crop to be harvested prior to seeding, then time is not always on your side. It will depend on the harvest date, especially where crops were planted late this year. Tall fescues and Timothy probably handle being seeded the latest, but may require a nurse crop, such as wheat or oats to survive over winter.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, shop and choose a high quality seed: named varieties and from reputable companies. Do the math and seed at pure live seed (PLS) rates. Just take the amount of seed needed (4 lbs. per Acre PLS for example) and divide it by (percent purity x percent germination).

In our example that means: 4 lbs. divided by (.95 x .80) = 5.26 pounds of seed needed per acre.

You can do the same calculation and compare prices by dividing the price of the seed per pound by the PLS percent and see what the true cost is of the seed. In our example, $1.20 per pound seed at the previous PLS rate is actually about $1.58 per pound:  ($1.20/(.95 x .80)). Compare that price to some of that “bargain” seed, always checking the seed tag and testing date. A bargain is not always a bargain. I actually like seed grown the previous year, not the same year; it normally has less dormant seed. It should be stored though in a cool, dry location.

I really love the late maturing orchardgrass varieties which do a pretty good job of delaying seed head development as compared to earlier “hay type” varieties such as Potomac. If you are adding to an existing and thinning alfalfa field, a late maturing orchardgrass works quite well for this purpose and is best seeded at about 6-8 pounds per acre with a no-till drill.

The improved varieties of tall fescues should also be considered. They are not like Kentucky 31, with its associated negative endophyte problems, but rather either very low endophyte or ideally endophyte-friendly. The novel “endophyte-friendly” tall fescue is just as vigorous and high yielding, if not higher, than old Kentucky 31, but does not have the problems caused by the alkaloids associated with the endophyte fungus in Kentucky 31. Tall fescue, either way, should not be managed as a monoculture. Legumes such as white and or red clover and a compatible orchardgrass (only with improved varieties of tall fescue) work well.

The forages you choose to plant should match the field conditions, including soils they will be grown in, plant hardiness zone, to what degree they will be managed, the requirements of the livestock that will be consuming it, and the use: grazing, haying, stockpiling, etc. Some livestock are more sensitive to certain forages than others; brood mares and endophyte-infected tall fescue or alpacas and perennial ryegrass are a couple of examples. If you are not sure what to plant, consult your local forage expert (NRCS, Purdue Extension, etc.).

At this time of year, I start to think about which fields I might want to stockpile for late fall and winter grazing. Tall fescue, for better or worse, is the most suitable for long-term stockpiling because it maintains its quality the longest. Start with planning which paddocks will make good winter stockpile and have accessible water during the winter months. Paddocks that are being utilized right now should have livestock removed in a timely manner to leave adequate live plant growth behind. The longer the rest period you have in the fall, the more potential growth and stockpile. With opportunities of annuals to graze, and later corn stalks and/or corn stalks with winter annuals planted into them, you will get the chance to rest more pastures, for longer periods, and with increasing potential to graze even longer later on. It is usually better to clip fields that will be stockpiled if there are abundant weeds or seed heads present to make sure that as much green solar panel is working as possible to improve fall growth and quality.

There will be several people that will think that that fall regrowth might look better rolled up as a bale of hay, but really, is it going to go anywhere if you don’t bale it? It is almost always more economical to graze rather than to bale it. Yes, you need to have some hay on hand, but there is room to cut back, especially when baling it causes you to have to start feeding it earlier. There is plenty to do without adding more work.

I listened this past Sunday to a former teacher who has been influential in my life. He mentioned thinking outside the box, which he certainly has done, and it got me thinking, utilizing annuals often requires thinking outside of the box. August and early September are a great time to plant annuals for fall and winter grazing. These are generally sown into crop fields after harvest. There is a wide array of annuals that can be utilized and the type is dictated somewhat by what will be grazing it, when it will be grazed, and also what you want left growing there afterwards. My favorite fall grazing mix is spring oats, a brassica such as turnips, and cereal rye. The oats and turnips provide some really good high yielding fall forage for grazing and the cereal rye sticks around to keep something green growing and providing some winter cover and spring residue. In dry areas, where cool season forages have gone dormant, with a little moisture, annuals such as turnips and winter peas can provide some extra diversity and forage for later. Now that is thinking outside the box!

Keep on grazing!

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.


  1. Just getting into fall grazing and getting away from feeding lots of hay throughout fall and winter.

    I don’t have a no till drill yet will not be able to afford one until next year. So for this year I have lots of rage weed and black berry bushes out in fields. Should i bush hog them down and then just go out and hand seed with a broad caster and hope it germinates? I do this with Turnips and it normally works. Although wanting to try some other forages. What do you suggest for my situation. I have about 15 acres i’m going to try this on this fall.

  2. About late-maturing orchard grass. Do you mean to use the no-till drill and seed right into a living, existing, declining alfalfa sod? If so, must the alfalfa be clipped or grazed right to the ground or what? Thanks for any help on this question. Curt Gesch

    • Yes, you can no-till drill orchardgrass into failing alfalfa fields. It is best to do so after the last mowing/baling.

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