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What’s your advice for managing the current forage crisis?


As a full-forage Grassfed dairy and beef grazier, I find it paramount to grow as much quality forage as our farm can every year. Conditions in Wisconsin this year have made that especially challenging.

The winter and spring here and in many parts of the country set up conditions for winter-kill in alfalfa hayfields; even stands of typically winter-hardy grasses and pastures suffered losses. We experienced significant ice sheeting and cold for an extended time followed by record February and March snowfall. This led to an extended feeding season with high forage demands because of cold, wet weather. The incredibly wet spring left many acres unplanted in our region and acres planted early suffered flooding.

We also faced a slow start to the growth of pasture. We had to calculate which paddocks to sacrifice to avoid making a mud mess in feeding and outwintering paddocks. This meant selecting certain resilient paddocks that would require some reseeding. Once we had pasture growth it was important to monitor field conditions and avoid putting livestock on the wettest paddocks to avoid soil compaction and damage.

The major problems with livestock on pasture are leaving them too long in one place and grazing too early in the season before the pasture species can handle livestock pressure. An entire seasons’ production is typically restricted by starting too early and stressing the plants and soil. Feeding hay an extra week in the spring can allow pastures to produce enough forage all season to more than offset the extra spring feeding. The trainwreck happens when farmers run out of feed and go out to pasture too early.

On our farm, we utilized an array of methods to reseed in late May when conditions allowed. In a field where winter wheat cover crop failed to overwinter properly, we disced in the cover crop and did a full replant with a grain drill and followed with a crop roller to terminate the winter wheat and promote seed to soil contact. This worked very well and the diverse new seeding looks great now in mid-August.

The seed mix was a diverse mix from one of the major organic seed suppliers; we mixed bags containing several varieties together and added in a higher legume component to achieve at least a 50% stand of legumes. We used an oats-and-peas cover to nurse the seeding and then harvested it as baleage.

On outwintering and feeding areas where cattle plowed fields with hoof action, we disced and dragged the field to prepare the seedbed and did shallow incorporation of residue. We’ve found that light surface tillage works far better to spread residue on the surface and breaks down rapidly rather than trying to plow under residue. We used the same seed mix. Cattle grazed the oats prior to seed maturity and the initial growth was weed-free. The cattle are now grazing the second regrowth in mid-August.

We utilized a no-till drill to reseed into existing hayfields after second crop where legumes disappeared over winter. The no-till drill is heavy enough to slice into the sod and has a tight 5-1/2 inch spacing. The seed mix was a diverse mix with 5 pounds of red clover.

Native Forages

On the majority of our grazing acres, we have utilized a graze-what-grows concept with some variety of surface seeding where needed. Without these hardy old volunteer species in our mix, we would be in major trouble this year. Kentucky bluegrass, quackgrass, bromegrasses, Timothy, canarygrass, white clover, plantain, and dandelions may be considered weeds to some, but they are workhorses for us. They survived the winter and were our first spring feed.

Each year we manage one long grazing interval (40-60 days) on most paddocks to allow a seedbank deposit. In many places that were bare the amount of new volunteer seeding was tremendous. In the no-till pastures, we graze very tightly prior to seeding to give the new seedlings a chance to compete with the existing sod.

In all cases, we manage to keep a high legume component for free nitrogen contribution as well as a high-quality protein component in the feed. Where we have clover we see far less of any grass diseases like rust or molds. The legumes also seem to make the whole mix palatable even when we graze at a taller height of more mature forage. Root health is very critical to stand resilience all around.

Forage Supply, Demand

Make sure you track, measure, and estimate forage production throughout the growing season. Planning and monitoring will help you manage better and will give a realistic assessment of the need to purchase forage. Matching livestock numbers to forage inventory is critical. A grazing plan can help determine the farm’s carrying capacity and prevent overstocking.

If you are running short of feed or have acres that can be planted late season consider forage oats, millets, brassicas, or even full renovations in August. As the season gets later, the winter wheat, rye, and triticale options are worth considering.


To grow anything we need fertility, so fall soil testing is a great tool to assess those needs. Manure and legumes can provide good fertility. Harvest by grazing animal or machine is a symphony of timing to optimize quality. Invest in good storage—feed losses are unacceptable. Maximize your plant leaf area solar panel and control weeds. Buy any needed forage early and search out neighbors who might have acres to rent. We have found some insurance fields from neighbors who want to see hay and forages grown on their land and are happy to see the farms managed organically!

Posted: Jul 2020
Answer By: Kevin Mahalko