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Can I raise livestock on forage if I don't have a perennial pasture?


The National Organic Program states that ruminants must receive a significant portion of their daily nutrition (30%) from pasture. This means that they must harvest (eat) living plants that have roots in the soil. However, the rule does not state that the pasture must be perennial.

There are a few different reasons a farmer might not choose to establish perennial pasture. These include economic considerations, land tenure, or the desire to utilize livestock as part of a soil-building rotation with crops or between alfalfa establishments. Other farmers have perennial pastures, but wish to extend the grazing season in either spring or fall outside their perennial pasture fields. In these scenarios, it may make sense for a farmer to consider annual forage rotations.

Depending on the species you are raising, different species of forages may be a better fit. For example, there are some wonderful forage varieties of sorghum-sudangrass that provide high yields and good feed value. They can also be grazed multiple times if managed properly. However, they grow best in midsummer and should not be grazed below 18-20 inches due to concerns for prussic acid poisoning that is more likely to occur when younger plants are grazed. Sorghum-sudangrasses can also provide benefits within a crop rotation by suppressing weeds and offering a large amount of biomass to be grazed or trampled into the soil.

Annual forages can also be used to extend the grazing season for your livestock as your pastures slow down for the season. An example of this might be planting turnips in July or August to be grazed late into the fall and early winter. Some farmers will plant into standing oat or wheat stubble; some fly-over seed into standing corn; and, others prepare a rough bed with tillage.

Depending on your field, early weed control may be necessary to make certain that you have adequate yields for your livestock. Livestock will graze the greens and pull up the root masses late into the season, sometimes even digging into the snow to retrieve these high-protein treats.

You can also use annual forages for early spring grazing. Clovers or annual cold-hardy grains like winter rye, triticale, or spring oats can be used for early spring forages. Depending on your location, soil, and forage needs, some spring forages can be planted in the fall to emerge in spring. Others may be best frost-seeded early in the season and grazed from mid-spring to early summer.

With some research and experience, many farmers are learning how to leverage the nutritional support of these annual forage crops to extend their grazing season, build soil, and manage field rotations for their livestock. If this appeals to you, reach out to other graziers in your area and see what has worked on their farms.

Posted: Mar 2016
Answer By: Lauren Langworthy