Triple Creek Journal: Our worst year for winter annuals ever!

In 2013 we killed about 25 acres of our Kentucky 31-based pastures and started using annuals to upgrade our forage program, with future conversion to Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue in mind.  We really liked the winter and summer annuals for our young growing stock, and for the pasture-based beef program that was developing at that time.

 It was really amazing to me to see cattle that remained on non-toxic forage for several years as their body condition and hair coats were very impressive compared to the mature cow herd that remained on toxic pasture.  Looking at cattle on both systems in May convinced me once and for all that we had to do something about our toxic pastures if we were going to be successful in the pasture-based, local beef business.  We continued to spray out additional acreage, but were slow about the conversion back to perennials because we enjoyed planting the annuals and having that really high quality forage, despite challenges getting a drill lined up and getting planting done on time with all the other daily challenges on the farm.

Establishing those annuals requires several activities including ordering and storing the seed, spraying glyphosate to kill the previous crop, getting the drill lined up and working, and dodging wet and dry weather to get the forage crops established.  In summer we experimented with pure stands of millet and sorghum-sudan, sorghum-sudan and cow peas, and a complex mix called “Ray’s Crazy Mix” .  Crabgrass was planted on heavy use areas that had high levels of nutrients and a need for quick ground cover. In the fall we plant a mix of spring oats and ryegrass in September, which gives us good grazing by Thanksgiving and then a lot of grazing from March to mid-June.  Later we move to a mix of winter oats and ryegrass or just pure ryegrass.  We also regularly plant the winter version of “Ray’s Crazy Mix”.   We have found that the Ray’s Crazy Mix (both the winter and summer version) is optimal for us, and it provides very high quality grazing, but also helps provide nitrogen and build soil health.

Along the way we had many challenges, especially with getting stuff done on time.  We also have problems  with excessively wet conditions in the autumn that have prevented grazing in several winters despite the presence of plenty of available forage.  This occurs because annuals don’t create the stable sod that is so important to holding cattle up and keeping the soil in place in those wet conditions.  Also, sugarcane aphids wiped out our sorghum sudan stands two years in a row.

We also have had frequent problems with very dry weather that limited autumn production in many years.  We always get some growth on the perennial pastures when the weather in autumn is dry, but the annuals just don’t have enough root system down to make much growth in a dry autumn possible. 

Despite all these challenges, the results with cattle performance were good enough to keep us on the annual program.  For example our yearling heifers and steers regularly gain 2.5 lbs/day from March through May on annual ryegrass or Ray’s Crazy Mix.  The same cattle continue to gain at about 1.75 lbs/day through the summer.  More of the toxic acreage was sprayed out, up to the point that 25% of our land base was put into annuals.  The more area we devoted to annuals, the more high quality production we had from the cattle, so we have been slow to move on to the final goal of planting perennials.

As a farmer with a significant cattle production system and a full-time off the farm job I struggle to get all this done.  Sometimes I have good help, but most of the time I am trying to do it by myself, with the motivator being the condition I see in the growing cattle and the dream of eventually having those good results in the main cow herd.

This past year proved to be the most challenging ever for the winter annuals.  We had a dry summer, and then in the fall it essentially didn’t rain in October or November.  We planted our first oats and ryegrass in late September into adequate moisture, but as the seeds were germinating it turned very dry.  Most of the oats came up well, but the ryegrass was slow to germinate and by mid-October it was all drying out and plants were wilting.  As I walked the stands I could see that wherever there was significant crabgrass there was very little ryegrass present.  Crabgrass has compounds that limit the germination of winter annuals and if you have a lot of residue it can dramatically hurt stands.  We had very little residue, but with the very dry weather there was no deterioration of the residue, extending the time that the crabgrass hurt the developing winter annual stands.

At that time we quit drilling, waiting on some wet weather to germinate seeds and to rot down the crabgrass residue.  Rain finally came in late November, so we went back to drilling the annuals despite that very late date.  Remarkably, the oats and ryegrass came up, and a record warm December saw the seedlings grow rapidly up to about 4 inches with that very green “easter grass” look.  By Christmas I was feeling better about things, with stands of the late-planted oats and ryegrass looking really good.  The fields planted early, on the other hand, were very spotty and you could clearly see large failed areas where there was significant crabgrass biomass.

January led to a whole new set of challenging conditions.  We started out very warm, but by the second week of the New Year we had three days of low temperatures in the teens.  There was very significant cold damage on all the new stands, and the spring oats were especially heavily damaged.  In areas with really good oat stands, the frozen biomass matted down, severely impacting the small ryegrass plants in the mix. 

The weather warmed back up and everything greened back up.  There was a lot of damage to all the lush stands of young plants that had looked so good by the end of our record warm December, but I was relieved that most of the ryegrass plants were still alive.  Unfortunately, the cold spells continued, with two more times that the weather was in the teens for several nights.  Finally, after the third freeze down and then green up some of the ryegrass fields were completely killed with very white looking drill rows with little if any green left.

I have been watching these fields carefully, hoping and praying for sufficient stands to get us through the spring and early summer grazing season.  At this point, some fields have a fair stand, while others are very poor.  My assessment as of today is that about ½ of the 50 acres we seeded is a complete loss.  I thought about reseeding those with spring oats or some other cool season annual you can plant in the spring, but I realized that would not be very successful, and would delay us getting the summer annuals planted.

In the end I put 30-40 lbs of nitrogen to the acre on the better stands to stimulate forage production.  I plan on getting summer annuals planted early in the season on the fields with poor stands. By sticking to our adaptive management principles we can make this situation work.  However, there is a lot of hassle and worry like this each season when you establish annuals, and you constantly need to be thinking about the next critical date you need to be working toward.

As a farmer with a lot to do and not enough time to do it, the importance of perennials in the system becomes clear.  For us I think the sweet spot will be 10% of the acreage in annuals, and we intend to do that as part of our pasture renovation activities.  Late in the summer of 2022 we plan on planting Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue on some fields, and a complex mix of perennials containing Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue on others.  After all these years in annuals there is no worry about residual tall fescue plants or seeds, so this establishment should be relatively easy, and the benefits of a deep rooted perennial will help us overcome some of these environmental challenges that have caused problems over the years, and which have made this our worst year ever for winter annuals. ~ Matt Poore, NC state and chair of the Alliance for Grassland Renewal


The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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