This summer's drought has left most ranches in Southern Oklahoma with a shortage of hay for the winter. There was a lot of nitrogen fertilizer applied this spring to bermudagrass pasture that resulted in little or no forage production due to the excessively dry May and June.
This means that there may be some nitrogen left in the soil for fall use. One way to use this residual nitrogen is to sod-seed small grains into bermudagrass for fall and winter pasture. There are several advantages in sod-seeding small grains into bermudagrass. Small grain pasture will provide a source of high quality forage, which will supplement (by limit grazing) or even substitute for hay to carry your herd to next spring. In addition, the bermudagrass sod furnishes solid footing for cattle through wet periods of the season. Sod-seeding permits small grains to be grown in areas where seedbed preparation would not be feasible.
Traditionally, wheat is the small grain of choice for winter pasture in this region, but rye and ryegrass can also be used. Rye will be a little more costly per acre to establish due to the price of seed. However, rye has more fall growth potential and usually provides better fall grazing. Rye will end its growing season early in the spring allowing bermudagrass to begin its growing season with little or no competition. Ryegrass is less expensive to establish, but in this region does not provide much fall grazing when sod-seeded.
The ryegrass growing season will not end until June, which is well into the bermudagrass growing season. This competition will limit bermudagrass forage production during its most productive time of year. Wheat provides moderate fall grazing and lasts longer than rye, but not as far into the spring as ryegrass. Utilizing small grain forage by the beginning of May will reduce competition with bermudagrass as it breaks dormancy.
Bermudagrass pasture is grown in Southern Oklahoma from May to September with a small amount of production in early October. However, due to the drought the recovery of bermudagrass for late summer or early fall forage is unlikely unless there is an adequate amount of rainfall in late August through September. In an average year the date to plant small grains into bermudagrass sod is the first week of October. This year, due to low bermudagrass vigor, the planting date can be moved up to as early as September 15 to possibly allow more fall grazing.
Sod-seeded small grain pasture produces from 46% to 82% of the forage compared to that of a prepared seedbed. The difference is related to the amount of moisture available and nitrogen rates. It is important to use good management practices when establishing sod-seeded small grains to increase production and improve efficiency.
A bermudagrass stubble height of two inches or less before planting is recommended. If soil test values are historically low in phosphorus, 23 to 46 lbs. of phosphorus should be banded with the seed at planting for seedling vigor and early plant growth. A fall topdress of 50 to 60 lbs. of nitrogen may be required to increase fall forage production. Nitrogen rates should be increased if little or no nitrogen was applied to the bermudagrass pasture this last spring. Studies at The Noble Research Institute show an eight-year average of 900 lbs. of fall forage produced at a 100 pound nitrogen rate from 1984 to 1992. The high was 1353 lbs. of fall forage in 1985 and the low was in 1987 with only 135 lbs. of fall forage produced.
An additional topdress is recommended in late January or early February to promote spring forage production. Nitrogen rates of 60 to 80 lbs. an acre will be needed to produce a ton of forage. Early spring usually provides optimum small grain forage production. Stocking rates should generally be increased to take advantage of the abundant forage produced by late April. Having winter pasture grazed-out by late April allows preparation for bermudagrass fertilization and growth.
Assuming adequate growing conditions and that 3,000 lbs. of small grain forage is produced from October 1 through May 1, the cost per ton of forage is approximately $40. Expect hay costs to range from $80 to $100 + per ton delivered. Also, the protein content of small grain pasture is usually higher than hay.
Small grain forage can have protein levels ranging from 20 to 30%, and hay protein levels typically range from 6% to 10%. Beware of the increased risk associated with sodseeded small grain due to its dependence on favorable growing conditions (note the fall yield in the fall of 1987). Since input costs are high and tend to vary, it is important to build a budget before establishment to predict how this practice will work in your operation.