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PRODUCING FORAGE CROPS ORGANICALLY


2014/11/04

Gary Bates, Professor
David Butler, Assistant Professor
Department of Plant Sciences
The University of Tennessee
 
The interest in organic forage production has increased significantly over the last several years.  When trying to develop a plan for organic forage production, fertilization and weed control are the main issues that offer challenges slightly more difficult than in traditional forage production programs.  
 
Steps to developing an organic forage program
 
1.   Determine which seasons of the year grazing is required.  There are many different forage species that are adapted to Tennessee growing conditions.  When considering the various plant species to utilize, the first question is when will grazing be needed by the livestock in the operation.  Financial analysis has repeatedly shown that grazing is the cheapest method for forage harvest, since there is no machinery directly involved.  The first step is developing a forage plan is to determine which months of the year grazing will be needed, and then select species which provide forage growth during those periods.  Most likely grazing will be desired for the entire year.  However, there may be situations where animals will only be on the farm for portions of the year.  If this is the case, forage species can be selected to target those portions of the year.
 
2.   Determine which fertilizer sources will be used.  Nitrogen is often the most limiting factor in a forage production operation.  Because of the limitations for approved nutrient sources in an organic operation, the cost of an approved nitrogen source emphasizes the need to incorporate legumes into all species mixtures.  These legumes can replace some or possibly all of the nitrogen needed to support adequate forage growth.
 
3.   Determine the weed pressure in your fields.  Often weed pressure is the greatest challenge in an organic forage program.  Traditional forage programs have the opportunity to selectively kill many of the broadleaf weeds that are detrimental to the yield and quality of a forage pasture or hayfield and to eliminate weed competition during the forage establishment period.  Organic producers need to find alternative methods to deal with weed pressure.  If perennial weeds are present, it may be best to first establish an annual system following tillage to destroy perennial weeds. If annual weeds are more problematic, or if some of the fields have very limited weed pressure, there may be the opportunity to utilize some perennial mixtures for 3-4 years before having to mechanically eliminate the weed pressure, as well as the stand of forage prior to re-establishment.  Research has also shown that organic forages and cover crops are best established when sown at slightly higher seeding rates than recommended for conventional forages in order for stands to outcompete weeds at establishment.  There is also some evidence that more diverse mixtures (i.e. more forage species in a mixture) are more productive and stable over time and resist weed encroachment.
 
 
Species selection is the key to success
 
In order to effectively select forage species for a farm, it is critical to understand several key characteristics used to classify forage species.
 
Grasses vs Legumes – The practical aspect in this difference is the need for nitrogen fertilization.  Legumes have bacteria attached to their roots that are able to take nitrogen from the air and make it available for use by the plant (called nitrogen fixation).  If a pure grass stand is utilized, some type of nitrogen fertilizer will be required for adequate growth.  If a pure legume stand is used, no nitrogen fertilizer is required.  Fortunately, if a legume is included with the grass, the nitrogen fixed by the legume plant can also be used by the grass.
 
Warm-season vs Cool-season - As the names imply, the growth seasons of a species will depend on which of these two categories in which it is classified.  Warm-season plants generally should be planted and begin to grow in May, grow all summer, then either die or become dormant with frost.  Cool-season plants should usually be planted in September, grow during the fall, winter and spring, then either die or go dormant in May/June, as weather become hot and dry.
 
Annual vs Perennial – This classification is based on how long the plants live.  Annuals will live for one growing season.  The only way a species in the class will be available the next year is if it is allowed to reseed, or if it is sown from new seed again.  Perennials will usually live for more than one year before they die, generally due to some type of environmental stress.  There are differences between the number of seasons that a perennial species will survive.
 
Recommended Grasses for Tennessee conditions
  comments
Cool-season annuals
wheat, rye, oats, barley, triticale, annual ryegrass
These can be seeded in mid to late fall.  Rye produces the most early forage production.  Annual ryegrass will produce the most forage into late spring.  These mix well with annual legumes like crimson or arrowleaf clover.
Cool-season perennials
tall fescue, orchardgrass, timothy, Kentucky bluegrass
perennial ryegrass
Tall fescue and orchardgrass can be used for 3-4 years.  Timothy and perennial ryegrass will suffer significant stand loss during the first summer of production.  Should be considered more of an annual species in TN conditions.
Warm-season annuals
crabgrass, pearl millet, sorghum x sudangrass hybrids, sudangrass, teffgrass
These are usually seeded in mid to late May through mid June.  Sorghum x sudangrass hybrids and crabgrass are more tolerant of cool soils during seeding.  Do not graze SS hybrids or sudangrass in early fall after a frost due to prussic acid.
Warm-season perennials
bermudagrass, johnsongrass, eastern gamagrass
These species can be overseeded with a cool-season annual to extend the growing season.  Eastern gamagrass is more challenging to establish in an organic system.
 
 
Recommended Legumes for Tennessee conditions
  comments
Cool-season annuals
crimson clover, arrowleaf clover
These can be seeded in mid to late fall.  Adequate forage production is usually provided only when mixed with a grass.  Crimson clover is earlier producing, while arrowleaf clover grows later in spring.
Cool-season perennials
alfalfa, white clover, red clover
These can be added to perennial grass mixtures.  White and red clover are the easiest to establish.  Red clover and alfalfa are the best species to use as pure legume stands.
Warm-season annuals
cowpea, forage soybean, kobe lespedeza, korean lespedeza
Limited growth season for annual lespedezas.  Crabgrass may be the only warm-season annual grass these may suitable grow with in a mixture. Cowpea and forage soybean work well mixed with sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, sudangrass, and millets.
Warm-season perennials
sericea lespedeza
Limited use as a forage crop.  Slow to establish.  Tannins in leaves limit palatability to cattle.  Often used as anthelmintic for goats
 

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