My first job with Mississippi State was that of working with forage crops on the Experiment Station. I studied forage crops with interest under Dr. Coleman Ward and the subject seemed natural for me having grown up on a dairy farm here in Attala County. He encouraged me to do graduate work in Florida but I chose to stay in Mississippi and study seed technology rather than get that far from home. I look back on that decision today with mixed feelings, but it was one of those life crossroads we all come to.
My interest in forage crops has remained strong through the years even though I have concentrated on field crops. Today I find myself working with many row crop producers who also have livestock operations and even a few of the dairies that still remain in business.
When I visit a farm to work with corn, soybeans, or even cotton I often end up dealing with questions connected with forage crops as well.
The drought we are experiencing is one of the most dramatic events of weather I have experienced. It has not attracted as much attention as one might expect since it did not affect the main crop growing season. In a very important way the dry period was beneficial to producers of cotton and soybeans since it allowed them one of the most ideal harvest seasons on record.
However, livestock producers, who are a vital part of the agriculture of this region, are experiencing conditions which promise to cause them exceptional problems in the feeding and care of their herds this winter.
As I am writing this in mid-November there have been very few fields of ryegrass planted in Central Mississippi as a result of drought and these have not emerged. Even if rains began today the initiation of this vital feed source for cattle would be at least a month late. Grazing these fields would likely not be possible even if they came up today.
This source of grazing and hay is one of the highest quality feeds for cattle and without it livestock producers face major difficulties in keeping their animals fed through the winter especially if long range predictions for colder weather become a reality.
Our most common cool season grazing crop is annual ryegrass. Much of the early research with the crop was done here in Mississippi, along with the development of well adapted varieties that are still in use. Other species, including wheat, oats, rye, and triticale have been utilized successfully as well.
Wheat is especially good for this use since it may also be harvested for grain after supporting the grazing of livestock through the winter months. Wheat is also a great cover crop for use in rotation with warm season crops and can be grazed during the winter months prior to planting the summer crop.
There is another group of plants which may fit into this scenario as an alternative winter forage. These are the brassicas, including turnips, kale, and rape. While this idea may seem strange to some these plants perform very well in the role of forage crop, emerging and developing rapidly and actually surviving the traffic and grazing pressure of cattle as well as the grass species.
A mix of one of the grasses like wheat and one of the brassicas might be an alternative for our present situation since both crops emerge quickly and can be utilized during harsh weather.
Every day that passes without getting cool season forages established is a day wasted toward solving the dilemma we face. I certainly don’t know when rains will arrive, but a few acres of these crops might go a long way toward preserving the hay supply for the really cold period that has been predicted.
No one has a crystal ball, but sometimes we just have to have faith that we will be provided with the essentials for survival. There is no future in not planting something. Fertilize when you get a stand. Plant and pray.
Thanks for your time.