Forages: Species

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Pub 811: Agronomy Guide > Forages > Species


Order OMAFRA Publication 811: Agronomy Guide for Field Crops

 

Perennial Legumes

Most legumes grown for forages have taproots and broad, compound leaves (composed of a number of leaflets) that are arranged alternately on the stem. New shoots originate from the crown of the plant, and the growing point of each shoot is located at the top of the shoot. As a family, legumes produce higher quantities of protein than grasses.

If properly inoculated, legumes have the capacity to use atmospheric nitrogen, eliminating the need to apply nitrogen from commercial sources. Legumes also supply a considerable amount of nitrogen to the grass portion of the mixture.

Alfalfa

Alfalfa is the highest-yielding perennial forage crop grown in Ontario and the most frequently grown forage legume. It produces more protein per unit area than other forage legumes and can be grown alone or in combination with various grass species. For high yields and persistence, alfalfa requires well-drained soil, a pH above 6.1, adequate fertility and proper harvest management. Well-managed alfalfa normally persists for 3 or more years. The protein and energy levels of alfalfa-based forage are determined by stage of growth at the time of cutting. Alfalfa has a 6-week critical fall harvest period that should be observed to avoid winterkill.

Birdsfoot Trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil is a non-bloating legume best suited for permanent pasture situations. It will reseed itself, making it an excellent choice for steep or stony land not suited to cultivation. Although individual plants live for only a few years, stands of birdsfoot trefoil have remained productive for 10 or more years when allowed to go to seed. It is also well adapted to soils with marginal drainage. Birdsfoot trefoil has a lower yield potential and is more difficult to dry than alfalfa, so it is recommended for hay production only in areas where alfalfa will not grow well. Since birdsfoot trefoil seedlings are slow to establish, at least a year is required to get a satisfactory stand. Birdsfoot trefoil, similar to alfalfa, has a critical fall harvest period, beginning about 10 days earlier than alfalfa.

Red Clover

Red clover is a short-lived perennial. Yields are good the year after establishment but are often quite low the following year, especially in Southern Ontario. It can be grown in fields that are too wet or acidic for alfalfa. When seeded in mixtures, red clover can suppress the establishment of other legumes. As a feed crop, red clover is most often stored as silage since it is difficult to dry, and often results in "dusty" or "mouldy" hay.

There are two general types of red clover grown in Ontario: double-cut or "medium" red clover and single-cut or "mammoth" red clover. Double-cut will flower in the seeding year, with vigorous regrowth after cutting. Single-cut is slower growing and matures about 2 weeks later than double-cut. Single-cut does not flower in the seeding year or after the first cut in succeeding years.

Use of red clover as a plowdown has become an important practice on many farms. See Chapter 8, Soil Management, for information on the use of red clover as a cover crop.

White Clover

White clover is used mainly in pastures. It is a short-lived perennial that can reseed itself. There are three general types of white clover: ladino, white dutch and small wild white. All three are similar in appearance but differ in size, with wild white being the smallest and ladino the largest. All have stolons, which are stems that creep on the ground, with branches that are erect or upward slanting. Roots are shallow and fibrous and develop from nodes of the creeping stolons. White clover has low tolerance to drought but is relatively tolerant to frequent grazing and has good palatability. White clover can be frost seeded or no-tilled into existing grass pastures to improve forage quality and yield.

Sweet Clover

Sweet clover is a slow-growing biennial often used to alleviate compaction. Sweet clover does not flower in the year of establishment. In the spring of the second year, it grows quickly to become a tall, coarse-stemmed plant. The presence of coumarin in sweet clover makes it less palatable to livestock.

There are two types of sweet clover: white-flowered and yellow-flowered. White sweet clover is deeper rooted, taller and coarser, which makes it more suitable for plowdown than for forage. The yellow-flowered is more palatable to livestock and more attractive to bees. Mouldy sweet clover hay may contain dicoumarol, which can prevent normal blood clotting and result in the death of livestock from bleeding.

Alsike Clover

Alsike clover is a perennial although it is often treated as a biennial. It can grow on soils that are acidic and poorly drained. Alsike produces only one cut of hay per year and is not normally a preferred forage legume. Alsike clover can cause photosensitivity and liver damage in horses, so it should not be included in horse hay or pasture mixtures.

Kura Clover

Kura clover is a pasture legume relatively new to Ontario. Kura clover has poor seedling vigour and is difficult to establish. However, once established, kura clover is very persistent, winter-hardy and can tolerate less-than-ideal drainage, fertility, pH and grazing management. It spreads by underground stems called rhizomes, has an extensive root system and thickens with time. Proper seedbed preparation and seeding methods are important. Kura clover must be inoculated with the correct strain of Rhizobium bacteria.

Perennial Grasses

Grasses have many long, slender leaves that are borne on a stem. They have very fibrous roots that help bind the soil together, thereby reducing erosion. Some grasses have rhizomes or underground stems that produce new shoots at each node. Grasses with rhizomes are capable of thickening up a stand. Grasses without rhizomes are known as bunch grasses.

Grass species differ in their competitiveness with legumes. This will influence the grass-to-legume ratio of an established stand. Grasses such as orchardgrass and the ryegrasses tend to be more competitive with alfalfa than timothy or bromegrass. Grasses are lower in protein than legumes when cut at a similar stage of development.

Timothy

Timothy is the most widely sown forage grass in Ontario and is commonly grown in mixtures with alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil. It is a bunchgrass with limited tillering ability, which makes it non-aggressive when sown with other species. It is easy to establish in early spring or late summer and is adapted to heavier soils and variable drainage. Timothy is palatable and high yielding in first cut. Although some varieties have been developed for improved regrowth, regrowth after first-cut and mid-season production is not as high as that from either bromegrass or orchardgrass.

Smooth Bromegrass

Smooth bromegrass is an earlier, more aggressive grass than timothy. Better drought tolerance results in more regrowth in second cut. It spreads by rhizomes, and the stand can thicken over time. Smooth bromegrass is palatable and tends to retain its nutritional value with increasing maturity better than most grasses. Its major drawback tends to be its large fluffy seed, which makes it difficult to seed through the small seed box of drills. It does not establish well if it is either surface seeded or seeded deeper than 5 cm (2 in.).

Meadow Bromegrass

Meadow bromegrass is useful as a pasture species because of its early spring growth and faster recovery rate after grazing. It is best used in rotational grazing.

Orchardgrass

Orchardgrass develops earlier and is much more aggressive than timothy or bromegrass. It is palatable when young but loses palatability and digestibility more quickly than other grasses. Plant breeders have developed newer varieties that are later maturing, do not decline in palatability and digestibility as early and match more closely the maturity of other species in a mixture. Orchardgrass will grow much more vigorously in the warm, dry conditions of midsummer than timothy or bromegrass, resulting in a greater proportion of grass in the second and third cutting of alfalfa-grass mixtures. Orchardgrass is not as winter-hardy as either timothy or bromegrass and will not persist in wet soils. Its aggressive seedlings make orchardgrass easy to establish. It is recommended for intensively managed pastures or as very early-cut haylage.

Reed Canarygrass

Reed canarygrass is best known for its ability to tolerate poorly drained soils. It can, however, provide high yields on well-drained soils and will produce higher yields than other grass species during dry conditions. Reed canarygrass spreads by rhizomes. It develops coarse stems and leaves, and quickly loses palatability and digestibility after heading. Regrowth is vegetative and does not form a seed head, so second- and third-cuts can be high quality. Reed canarygrass is slow to establish and is not competitive in the year of seeding.

In the past, livestock have performed poorly on reed canarygrass because of certain alkaloids it contained. Current recommended reed canarygrass varieties are free of tryptomine and carboline alkaloids, which cause poor performance. Some varieties are lower in the gramine alkaloids that reduce palatability, intake and animal performance.

Tall Fescue

Tall fescue is a coarse, leafy grass that is useful in long-term pastures and erosion control. It is adapted to most soil types, tolerates imperfect drainage and withstands animal traffic well. Its ability to maintain good feed quality into late fall makes it useful in "stockpile grazing" or fall-saved pasture for deferred grazing. A seed-borne systemic fungus (an endophyte) has been linked to poor animal performance on tall fescue pasture. Once introduced by infected seed, the fungus cannot be controlled in an established stand of tall fescue. All recommended varieties are endophyte-free.

Meadow Foxtail


Meadow foxtail is a long-lived perennial grass that resembles timothy in appearance and is suitable for intensive pasture management. It performs well on poorly drained soils, has very early spring growth and matures early. Midsummer production during periods of high temperature and drought may be low. Its seed is light, fluffy and hairy; coated seed should be used.

Creeping Red Fescue

Creeping red fescue is a dense, sod-forming grass that establishes and spreads vigorously on most soil types, including well-fertilized subsoils. Its solid root system and thick, fine top growth make creeping red fescue an excellent grass for streambank or grass waterway protection. It can also serve as a bottom grass in long-term pastures and is noted for its extended growth period and retained nutritional value in the fall. Its low-growing habit makes it difficult to cut and unsuitable for hay.

Meadow Fescue

Meadow fescue is a hardy grass used in hay and pasture mixtures. It grows best on deep, fertile soils, but will tolerate variable drainage and low fertility. Meadow fescue yields well during the summer and fall and maintains its feed quality later into the season than most grass species. Meadow fescue is shorter, has finer leaves and a shallower root system than tall fescue and is not as persistent.

Perennial Ryegrass

Perennial ryegrass is a short-lived perennial that comes in turf, pasture and hay-adapted varieties. The pasture-adapted varieties tend to have finer leaves, smaller and more numerous tillers, and are later maturing than the hay varieties. Turf-type perennial ryegrasses contain endophytes, so they should not be used for forage. Perennial ryegrass is early and vigorous in the spring, and grows well into the fall, but is unproductive during the hot, dry summer months. Excessive top growth of perennial ryegrass can result in winterkill, in alfalfa mixtures that are left to over-winter. Perennial ryegrass is not well suited to areas with prolonged ice cover and extreme cold without adequate snow cover.

Bluegrass

In Ontario, two common bluegrasses, Canada and Kentucky, grow on approximately 400,000 ha (1 million acres) of permanent pastureland. In Southern Ontario, the shallow-rooted bluegrasses produce lush, palatable growth during the spring but are unproductive during the dry, hot summer. When properly fertilized and managed, bluegrass production can be markedly improved, especially under the cooler climate of northern Ontario. In pastures, they serve as a bottom grass that controls weed invasion, withstands close grazing and tramping, and fills in when other species thin out.

 

Table 3-1 Characteristics of Perennial Forage Species Grown in Ontario
Species Suitability Persistence
(years)
Stengths Cautions
Legumes
Alfalfa Stored Feed
3-4 S. Ont.
1-4 N. Ont.
Excellent quality
Excellent yield
May cause bloat
Poor persistence under grazing
Low tolerance to acidic or variably drained soil
Needs fall rest period
Birdsfoot trefoil Pasture
Stored feed
5+
(may reseed itself)
High quality
No bloat hazard
Good tolerance to acidic & variably drained soil
Slow to establish
Slow spring growth and regrowth
Needs fall rest period
Unpalatable to horses
Red clover Pasture
Stored feed
Plowdown
1-3
Excellent first-year yield
Easy to establish
High quality
Good tolerance to acidic or variably drained soil
Difficult to dry for hay
May cause bloat
Stand thins rapidly
May cause temporary infertility in grazing sheep
Very competitive, especially with other legumes
White clover Pasture
5+
Excellent quality and palatability
Good tolerance to close grazing
May cause bloat
Low drought tolerance
Kura clover Pasture
5+
Persistent
High quality
Difficult to establish
May cause bloat
Alsike clover Pasture
Stored feed
1-2
(may reseed
Very good tolerance to wet, acidic soils
Good quality
Lower yield than red clover
Regrowth yields low
Stand thins rapidly
May cause bloat
Sweet clover Plowdown
Stored feed
2
Excellent soil builder
Opens up subsoil
Excellent bee pasture
Low palatability unless harvested early
Coumarin content in older varieties causes feeding difficulties
Only 1 harvest-year
Grasses
Timothy Stored feed
5+
Easy to establish
Good tolerance to variable drainage
Seed is inexpensive
Poor summer production
Poor persistence of late-heading varieties under three-cut harvest system
Smooth bromegrass Pasture
Stored feed
5+
Excellent spring/fall yield
Good regrowth
Better quality retention with maturity
Large seed size may cause seeding challenges
Meadow bromegrass Pasture
Stored feed
5+
Early spring growth
Fast recovery after cutting or grazing
Good winter-hardiness
Good palatability
Large seed size may cause seeding challenges
Sensitive to flooding
Spreads less by rhizomes than smooth bromegrass
Orchardgrass Pasture
Stored feed
5
Very early pasture
Excellent regrowth
Good drought tolerance
Good tolerance to close grazing
Very responsive to nitrogen
Rapidly loses quality and palatability with maturity
Very competitive with other species
Poor tolerance to variable drainage and icing
Reed canarygrass Pasture
Stored feed
5+
Excellent yield on both variably drained and dry soils
Good regrowth
Very responsive to nitrogen
Slow to establish
First-cut rapidly loses quality and palatability with maturity
Poor tolerance to close grazing or frequent cutting
Creeping red fescue Pasture
Grass
Waterways
5+
Good feed quality in fall
Easy to establish
Good tolerance to close grazing and to acidic soils
Good regrowth
Low seasonal yield
Low palatability
Meadow fescue Pasture Stored feed
5+
More suitable for managed gazing than as stored feed
Grows in early spring and late fall
Tolerant to variably drained soil
More palatable than tall fescue
Prevents erosion in waterways
Coated seed required
Very competitive with other species
Low drought tolerance
Low quality with maturity
Less persistent and lower yielding than tall fescue
Tall fescue Pasture
Stored feed
Grass
Waterways
5+
High yield
Good summer growth
Good feed quality in fall for stockpile grazing
Good tolerance to acidic soil
Coarse leaves and low palatability
Need endophyte-free seed
Perennial ryegrass Pasture
Stored feed
2-3 S. Ont.
Excellent quality and palatability
Establishes very quickly
Good tolerance to close grazing
Poor drought and heat tolerance
Poor tolerance to variably drained soils
Variable persistence
Kentucky bluegrass Pasture
Grass
Waterways
5+
Good quality and palatability
Good tolerance to close grazing
Poor summer production
Very slow to establish
Low seasonal yield

 

Annual Forages

The main annual crop used to provie forage is corn, which is harvested as corn silage. See Selecting Hybrids for Sillage.

There are several options for annual forage crops. They can be part of a planned cropping program or an emergency remedy to provide feed when perennial forage crops are winterkilled or in short supply. Annual forages are a valuable source of hay, pasture, silage or green feed.


Winter Cereals (Rye, Triticale, Wheat)

Fall rye, winter triticale and winter wheat can provide fall and early-spring grazing. Adequate nitrogen fertility in the spring will provide good stored feed yields by late May. Feed quality decreases as the crop matures. If seeded between August 15 and 31, fall rye can be available for grazing 7 weeks later. Fall rye will produce a larger volume of spring forage than winter triticale or wheat. Fertilize rye to be spring grazed with 50-80 kg/ha (45-70 lb/acre) of nitrogen just before the rye turns green in the spring. Rye will begin to head out after mid-May if not grazed closely.

Winter triticale seed can be difficult to source. Seed 100-125 kg/ha (90-110 lb/acre) at a similar time to fall wheat. Fertilize early in the spring with 80 kg/ha (70 lb/acre) of nitrogen for spring grazing or stored feed. Winter triticale provides early spring grazing similar to fall rye.

Spring Cereals (Oat, Barley, Triticale)

Spring cereals are very adaptable for forage production as hay, silage or pasture. Oat and barley are used extensively as companion crops for perennial forage seedings and are usually harvested as silage to improve the establishment of the perennial forage seeding.

Seed cereals at any time in the season. Early spring planting promotes maximum yields and production. Nitrogen fertilizer enhances vegetative growth, and therefore 30-50 kg/ha (27-45 lb/acre) of nitrogen are recommended. Cutting or grazing can usually begin 6-8 weeks after seeding. Forage quality drops quickly after heading, so harvesting at the late-boot to early-heading stage will maximize feed value. Yield will increase as plants mature, but feed quality drops dramatically. Silage should be wilted to 50%-65% moisture.

Cereal silages are higher in protein than corn silage but usually lower than good-quality alfalfa haylage. Energy values are lower than corn silage and often comparable to alfalfa haylage.

Oat is preferred over barley for pasturing and hay due to their higher palatability. Mixed grain and spring wheat can also be used for forage.

For more information on spring cereal mixtures, see the OMAFRA Factsheet, Forage Production From Spring Cereals and Cereal-Pea Mixtures, Order No. 98-041, or visit the website at www.ontario.ca/crops.

Cereal-Pea Mixtures

Field peas seeded in mixtures with cereals will enhance feed quality. Pea mixtures can increase protein levels and improve forage digestibility if the peas make up at least 50% (by weight) of the seed mixture. Adding peas will increase seed costs. Forage pea varieties are preferred. Avoid using a semi-leafless pea variety in order to maximize leaf yield. Oat with peas may be used as a companion crop for seeding alfalfa but should be harvested for silage. Cut as the oat is heading out - the peas will be just starting to pod. This growth stage will typically occur around the last week of June.

Mixtures of spring triticale and peas can be grown as a forage crop. Seeding rates and crop management are similar to that for oat and peas. Mixtures of triticale and peas usually have more peas in the harvested forage than mixtures of oat and peas. This tends to increase quality but makes wilting slower and increases the length of time the crop must cure before ensiling.

Forage Soybeans

Soybeans are primarily grown in Ontario for oilseed production. However, soybeans can provide a source of high-quality forage as an annual crop. Whole plant soybeans with good pod formation will have similar protein levels and digestibility to alfalfa. Soybeans can be harvested for silage but are difficult to cure for hay.

Take plant height and branching ability into consideration when selecting the variety. Forage soybean varieties have been developed. A solid-seeded planting with a grain drill at a seeding rate of 80-100 kg/ha (70-90 lb/acre) will provide a productive canopy for forage production. Check herbicide labels for registered use restrictions. Harvest soybean forage just as the lower leaves on the plant are beginning to yellow. In Ontario, this usually coincides with the first week in September. Only one cut per season is harvested.

Warm-Season Annual Grasses


Members of the sorghum, sudangrass and millet families are semi-arid, tropical, warm-season annual grasses. Warm-season annual grasses are often considered in emergency forage situations where alfalfa has winterkilled or when planting has been delayed. They offer advantages over corn silage in that they can be produced with conventional forage seeding and harvesting equipment. They can be used in Ontario for silage (chopped or wrapped large bale), green chop or pasture. Sorghums and sudangrass are not recommended as dry hay because they are difficult to cure. Millet is frequently used as haylage or possibly hay, with good drying conditions.

Do not feed sorghums and sudangrass to horses, as they can cause cystitis, an inflammation of the bladder.

Millets

The name "millet" has been given to numerous grasses with small edible seeds. Most millet types, including Japanese, proso, foxtail, barnyard, Koda, finger and Teff, have short (0.3-1.2 m or 1-4 ft), slim stalks. Pearl millet is the exception, with thicker stalks that are over twice as long (1.5-3 m or 5-10 ft). The millets commonly used for forage in Ontario are pearl millet and Japanese millet. With proper management, millets can produce forage with very good quality.

Millets have a smaller stem than sorghums and slightly higher total digestible nutrients (TDN) and protein levels. Millets may be preferred over some sorghums for pasturing or green chop because they do not contain prussic acid. Millets and sorghums can be easily damaged by grazing and therefore should be strip grazed.

Pearl Millet

Pearl millet grows with a mass of very fine fibrous secondary roots and tillers. It exhibits drought tolerance and prefers a lighter sand or sandy loam. Pearl millet can be planted when there is no risk of frost and when soil temperatures are 12°C or warmer. While the last week of May or early June is typically the best time to seed, planting can be delayed until the first of July. The recommended seeding rate is 8—10 kg/ha (7—9 lb/acre) at a 0.5—1 cm (¼—½ in.) planting depth. Growth habits and yields of forage pearl millets are similar to those of sorghum-sudan hybrids.

Quality and quantity of forage produced will be determined by the stage of maturity when harvested. For high feed quality, first-cut is usually ready about 55-60 days after planting, when it is still vegetative. Second-cut is ready about 30—35 days later. Leaving at least 10 cm (4 in.) of stubble results in faster regrowth. When grazing, about 15-20 cm (6—8 in.) of stubble should be left for faster regrowth.

To achieve high yields and protein levels, forage pearl millet will require more nitrogen than the older millet types, but optimum rates have not been determined. The general nitrogen recommendation is likely similar to sorghum-sudan hybrids, split half at planting and half following first cut if a second cut is to be harvested. This split application of nitrogen will optimize yield and quality. There are limited weed control options for pearl millet. Using a stale seedbed practice will improve establishment. For more information on weed control, see OMAFRA Publication 75, Guide to Weed Control.

Sorghum Family

Members of the sorghum family used for forage include forage sorghums, sudangrass and various hybrids. There is considerable variability in agronomic and nutritional quality traits among species, hybrids and varieties.

Sorghum and Sorghum-Sudangrass

Forage sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass grow tall and have the potential for high yields. Older forage sorghum varieties were adapted to a high-yield, lower forage-quality, single-cut harvest. Grain sorghums, also called milo, are not recommended for forage production due to low dry-matter yields.

Newer forage sorghum hybrids have been developed to be grown as a short season, two-cut, high-quality forage. Hybrid forage sorghums have fine fibrous secondary roots and tillers, giving them better drought tolerance. Forage sorghums will tolerate heavier soils better than pearl millet. Optimum growth of these plants occurs under hot, moist conditions.

Planting forage sorghums should occur after the risk of frost has past and soil temperatures are above 12°C, typically the last week of May or early June. Seeding rates range from 10-30 kg/ha (9-27 lb/acre). Lower rates can be used under ideal planting conditions and in wider row widths. Generally, higher seeding rates should be used in narrow row widths and under poorer seeding conditions Seed dealers can recommend the seeding rate for the specific variety. Planting depth should be 0.5-1 cm (¼-½ in.). Fertilize with phosphorus and potash according to soil test. The nitrogen recommendation is 50-100 kg/ha (45-90 lb/acre). A split application of nitrogen, half at seeding and half after the first cut, will optimize yield and quality. For weed control, see OMAFRA Publication 75, Guide to Weed Control.

The stage of maturity is the most important factor influencing the quality and quantity of forage produced. Typically, forage sorghums are ready for harvesting 60-65 days after planting (late July or early August) and a second cut will be ready 30-35 days later. For faster regrowth, leave at least 10 cm (4 in.) of stubble when cutting, or 15-20 cm (6-8 in.) when grazing. A one-cut silage system will greatly improve yields but at the expense of feed quality. Feed quality drops dramatically after heading. The crop should be wilted and ensiled at about 65% moisture content.

Forage sorghum and sorghum-sudan varieties with brown midrib (BMR) characteristics have been developed with significantly increased fibre digestibility (NDFd). BMR is a genetic mutation that reduces the amount of lignin in the stalk but can also increase the potential for lodging.


Sudangrass

Sudangrass is used for pasturing. It has pencil-size stems and is palatable even after it heads out. Grazing should be delayed until the crop reaches 45 cm (18 in.). Under rotational grazing, the crop will remain productive and succulent throughout the season. Sudangrass can tolerate slightly wetter soils than the other sorghums but does best on medium- to well-drained soils.

Prussic Acid Poisoning

Prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) poisoning of livestock is a possible concern if feeding sorghums and sudan grass. Young or immature plants, plants suffering from drought stress or plants that have been exposed to frost can contain a higher level of prussic acid. High-nitrogen fertilizer also increases the potential toxicity. Some newer hybrid forage sorghums may have lower levels of prussic acid. Prussic acid poisoning is not a concern with millets. To reduce the risk of prussic acid poisoning:

  • Do not graze pastures or green chop stands less than 45-60 cm (18-24 in.) tall.
  • Do not green chop or ensile sorghum over 76 cm (30 in.) tall for 3 days after a killing frost.
  • Do not green chop plants under 45 cm (18 in.) tall for 3 weeks after a killing frost.
  • After a drought, do not graze animals on new growth following a rain.
  • Use varieties with reduced prussic acid content.

 

Nitrate Poisoning

Abnormally high nitrate levels in forages can lead to nitrate poisoning and even death in livestock, and formation of silo gas if the crop is ensiled. Of the various forages, sudan-sorghum and cereals can accumulate the highest levels, forage grasses accumulate intermediate levels, while legumes accumulate levels low enough to rarely be considered a problem. Nitrate poisoning can also be a concern with green chop corn and corn silage.

Nitrate levels are only a problem under abnormal growing conditions, such as:

  • very high soil levels of nitrogen (i.e., excessive rates of nitrogen fertilizer or manure or combinations of these along with legume plowdown)
  • a long drought, followed by rain. In this situation, delay harvest for 10 days after rainfall, to allow conversion of nitrates to protein.
  • any condition that kills the leaves, while roots and stems remain active and accumulate nitrates (such as frost, hail and sometimes drought)

Suspect feeds can be tested for nitrate levels. Ensiling will reduce the nitrate level in the forage. Note that when high nitrate forage is ensiled, deadly nitrogen dioxide gas can be produced see Silo Gas

Forage Brassicas

Forage Rape, Kale and Stubble Turnips

Forage rape, kale and stubble turnips are excellent crops for providing high-quality pasture from September to December. See Table 8-10, Characteristics of Cover Crops Grown in Ontario, or OMAFRA Publication 19, Pasture Production, for more information.


Annual Ryegrass

Annual ryegrass is a rapidly growing bunchgrass that is adapted to a wide range of soil conditions. It regrows continuously throughout the season and has the potential to be highly productive, with enough rain and nitrogen. It is a useful species for mid- to late-season production but does poorly under high-temperature conditions. During periods of little or no rainfall, the plants stop growing and may die.


Two types of ryegrass (with differing growth habits) are available.


Italian Ryegrasses

The Italian ryegrasses are short-lived perennials or biennials, but under Ontario winter conditions behave like an annual. The Italian ryegrasses remain vegetative without a seed-head, producing a lush, leafy growth with high forage quality. They do not usually grow taller than 40 cm (16 in.) and are difficult to harvest as dry hay.

Westerwold Ryegrasses

The Westerwold type is a true annual and grows to 40-80 cm (16-32 in.) high, making it suitable for pastures or hay crops. The Westerwold varieties grow taller, produce stems and are therefore easier to harvest for hay. They should be cut before or just at the heading stage since feed quality decreases rapidly after heading.

Seeding should occur in early spring at a rate of 20-25 kg/ha (18-22 lb/acre) using a drill or cultipacker-type seeder. The seed should be placed 1 cm (½ in.) deep and the seedbed rolled to enhance seed-soil contact to promote good emergence from the light, fluffy seed.


Table 3-2, Characteristics of Annual Forage Crops in Ontario, summarizes the characteristics of annual forage crops grown in Ontario.

Figure 3-1. Soil Drainage Requirements of Forage Species

Illustration showing forage species and the drainage requirements ranging from excellent to good to fair poor to very poor.

 

Species Selection

Soil conditions often determine which species are suitable in a mixture. Select the legumes first, followed by the grasses, because legumes are often more sensitive to drainage and pH. Soil conditions such as slope or stoniness may make it desirable to seed a legume that has long-term persistence. See Perennial Legumes, and Figure 3-1, Soil Drainage Requirements of Forage Species, for more information on legume tolerance to various soil conditions.


Legumes are usually grown in a mixture with one or more grasses. The major advantages of a pure legume stand are that the protein and energy levels of the feed will likely be greater, quality will decline more slowly with advancing maturity, and quality will vary little from cut to cut. Unless well managed, pure legume stands can have these disadvantages:

  • weedier stands
  • complete loss of feed supply if winterkill is severe
  • slower drying in the windrow
  • more lodging
  • under some conditions, less palatable feed


Table 3-2. Characteristics of Annual Forage Crops in Ontario
Annual Crop Use Seeding Date Seeding Rate
(Kg/ha)
N Rate
(kg/ha
Avg. Yield
TDM/ha
Harvest Maturity
Oat Pasture
Green chop
Hay
Silage
April-August
80-100
30-50
2.5-4.5
5.5-8.5
Late boot to early head
Heads emerged to soft dough
Barley Green chop silage
April-June
100-125
40-70
2.5-5.5
5.5-9.5
Late boot to early head
heads emerged to soft dough
Oat + peas or
Triticale + peas
Silage
April-June
Oat or triticale: 80-100
peas: 50-75
20-30
2.5-5.0
6.0-9.0
Late boot to early head
Heads emerged to soft dough
Fall rye Pasture
August 15-31
150
50-80
in spring
1.0-1.5
Graze 7 weeks after seeding or early spring
Winter triticale Pasture
August 25-
September 10
100-125
80
in spring
1.0-1.25
Graze 7 weeks after seeding or early spring
Soybeans Silage
May 20-June 10
80-100
None
6.0-9.0
Lower leaf turns yellow
Annual alfalfa Hay
Silage
Late April
13
None
6.0-12.0
Late bud stage, 5-6 weeks after a cut
Sudan grass Pasture
June 1-15
15-20
30-50
5.0-7.0
45 cm in height
Sorgum-sudan
hybrids
Pasture
Green chop
Silage
June 1-15
15-20
50-100
8.0-12.0
Boot or early heading
Forage sorghums Silage
Pasture
Green chop
June 1-15
14-15 (single-cut, wide-row system
10-30 (multiple-cut, narrow-row system)
100
7.0-9.0
Boot or early heading
Millet Silage
Pasture
Green chop
Hay
June 1-15
14-20
35-55
4.0-6.0
Boot or early heading
Pearl millet Silage
Pasture
Green chop
Hay
June 1-15
9-20
 
4.0-12.0
Boot or early heading
Forage rape Pasture
Green chop
July 1-15
2-6
45-70
7.0-9.0
10-12 weeks after seeding
Kale Pasture
Green chop
June-July
2-6
45-70
9.0-12.0
10-15 weeks after seeding
Stubble turnips Pasture
July 1-15
2-6
80-100
6.0-9.0
10-12 weeks after seeding
Annual ryegrass Pasture
Green chop
Hay
Silage
April-May
20-30

Use rates from

Table 3-6

8.0-12.0
Graze or cut 6-8 weeks after seeding


100 kg/ha = 90 lb/acre
1 t/ha = 0.45 ton/acre

Choosing Species Mixtures

Grass Maturity at Harvest

When selecting the grass, a major consideration should be the maturity of the grass. When using early heading species such as orchardgrass and reed canarygrass, harvesting must be early, or quality and palatability suffer. If harvesting will be later, a later-maturing grass such as timothy is more suitable. Since there is a range in maturity among different varieties within many species, consider variety maturity as well.

Desired Grass-to-Legume Ratio

Consider the ratio of grass to legume desired in the mixture. When a lower protein level is acceptable, such as for beef cow or calf forage, use a higher grass seeding rate for more grass. Higher grass rates tend to reduce weed invasions, particularly by dandelions. If conditions for legume survival are marginal, use higher grass rates for stand insurance. More aggressive grasses, such as orchardgrass, will give more grass in the mixture than less aggressive species, even when similar seeding rates are used.

How Many Cuts Are Planned

Timothy does not crowd alfalfa and under a three-cut system often declines in the stand and provides very little forage in second or third cuts. Orchardgrass provides more midsummer grass in alfalfa mixtures than timothy. If a strong grass component is desired in the harvested forage, particularly in second and third cuts, then use orchardgrass, an aggressive grass that will crowd alfalfa as the stand gets older. Bromegrass and reed canarygrass are intermediate in aggressiveness between timothy and orchardgrass.

Early or Later Harvest

Management can affect the competitiveness of grasses with legumes. Late harvest, when grasses are in bloom, favours the grasses relative to the legumes. This is particularly true with reed canarygrass. Cut at the boot-stage, reed canarygrass does not crowd legumes. If reed canarygrass is allowed to fully head, it rapidly takes over the stand. This is particularly important in birdsfoot trefoil and bromegrass or reed canarygrass mixtures, so harvest promptly at the grasses' boot-stage. If this is not possible or practical, then timothy is a more suitable grass.

Pure Grass Stand

Grasses are not usually grown in pure stands because they are low yielding without heavy applications of nitrogen see Fertility Management. Even with adequate fertility, some grass species produce low yields under hot, dry midsummer conditions. However, if soil conditions such as poor drainage make mixtures with legumes impractical, pure grass stands can be very productive with proper fertility programs and species selection. Pure grass stands may be more productive than grass-legume mixtures in some areas of Northern Ontario.

For stored feed, usually only one grass species is recommended. When two or three different species are used together, cutting at the proper stage of maturity for all grasses may be impossible. Timothy is often included with slow-establishing grasses such as bromegrass and reed canarygrass.

Variety Selection

Forage varieties are evaluated each year in tests conducted at a number of locations across Ontario. The results are published in the brochure, Ontario Forage Crop Variety Performance, available at OMAFRA Resource Centres or on the Ontario Forage Crops Committee website at www.uoguelph.ca/plant/performance_recommendations/ofcc/ofcc.htm. This brochure provides information on the yield performance of recommended varieties relative to reference varieties. Information is also provided on other factors, including persistence, disease and insect resistance, maturity and regrowth rate.

Table 3-3, Recommended Forage Mixtures for Stored Feed and Pasture, summarizes the characteristics of the perennial forage species and mixtures grown in Ontario.

All forage seed sold under a variety name must be labelled "certified seed" and have a blue tag verifying it, which ensures that it is the named variety. Certified seed must meet specific requirements for germination and weed seed content.

Forage seed may also be sold as common seed or as a brand. Common seed and brands may be blends of different seed lots. They must also meet requirements for germination and weed seed content, although the standards are less rigorous than for certified seed. No assurance of characteristics such as disease resistance or hardiness is possible for common seed. Therefore, the performance of stands established using common seed or brands is unpredictable and will often vary from year to year. The use of certified seed, rather than brands or common seed, is strongly recommended. Only by planting certified varieties is it possible to know in advance whether the seed you plant will provide yield, persistence, disease resistance and maturity.

 

Table 3-3. Recommended Forage Mixtures for Stored Feed and Pasture
Components Seeding Rate1
Kg/ha
Recommended for
Specific Recommendations
Stored Feed Managed Pasture Intensively Pastured
1. Alfalfa
13
x
  
  

Only on well-drained fields. Easier to cure as silage than as hay. Harvest at bud stage for high nutrient-quality feed.

2. Alfalfa Timothy

13

1

x
  
  

Increase timothy up to 4 kg/ha for higher grass content and easier curing. Timothy gives stand insurance in areas prone to alfalfa winterkill. For high nutrient quality feed, harvest timothy at boot stage. On severely dry soils or in areas with over 3,100 CHUs, bromegrass is preferable to timothy.

3. Alfalfa
Bromegrass
11
9
x
 
 

Will give somewhat better midsummer production than timothy mixture. Retains quality with increasing maturity better than orchardgrass or timothy mixtures. Bromegrass can thicken stand over time because of its rhizomes.

4. Alfalfa
Orchardgrass
11
2
x
 
x

Select late orchardgrass and early alfalfa varieties. Graze or cut early to maintain quality and palatability. Percentage grass will be higher in all cuts than with timothy or bromegrass mixtures.

5. Alfalfa
Orchardgrass
White clover
9
2
2
x
 
x

Same as 4. High fertility and good grazing management needed for top production. Alfalfa included as insurance against severe dry conditions but requires longer regrowth intervals to persist.

6. Alfalfa
Timothy
Bromegrass
White clover
9
4
9
2
x
 
x
Suitable for hay/pasture combinations.
7. Birdsfoot trefoil
Timothy
9
2
x
x
 
Use later-maturing timothy varieties.
8. Birdsfoot trefoil
Bromegrass
9
4
x
x
 

For long-term stands and early production. Graze early to reduce competition from bromegrass. Good brome growth in fall.

9. Birdsfoot trefoil
Orchardgrass
8
4
 
 
x

Good early and mid-season production. Graze down orchardgrass to reduce competition with birdsfoot trefoil. Later-maturing orchardgrass varieties are preferred.

10. Birdsfoot trefoil
Tall fescue2
8
10
x
x
x

Good production throughout the season. Good tall fescue growth and quality in the fall.

11. Birdsfoot trefoil
Creeping red fescue
8
6
 
x
  Good summer and fall production. Excellent quality in fall.
12. Red clover
11
x
    Short-term haylage production or plowdown crop.
13. Red clover
Timothy
7
6
x
   

Short-term haylage production. When clover disappears, plow or fertilize with nitrogen to maintain production.

14. White clover
Orchardgrass
2
9
   
x

For pasture use where white clover is adapted. High fertility, adequate moisture and good grazing management required for top production. In dry areas, add alfalfa (see 5 above).

1 kg/ha=0.9 lb/acre

1 For early seeding on a fine, firm seedbed, these rates may be reduced by 25% except where coated seed is being used.

2 Use endophyte-free seed.

 


For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca
Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 30 April 2009
Last Reviewed: 30 April 2009