Comparing Various Grasses and Legumes for Dairy Cattle in a Rotational Grazing System

Final Report for FNC92-008

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1992: $3,950.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $15,620.00
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Our operation consists of 320 acres of grass, managed intensively and harvested by 60 dairy cows and replacement heifers along with 200 stocker calves. All grass is divided into 2-10 acre paddocks with water plumbed to each paddock. The stocker calves are brought in April through July to help utilize the spring flush of grass. If there is more grass than can be grazed it is harvested mechanically and stored for winter use.

The dairy operation is seasonal, so all cows are dried off in October and used to graze the stockpiled grass that has grown since the stockers left. The cows will start to freshen in February and begin their lactation on new growth of cool season grasses.

Fifteen years ago I stopped using anhydrous ammonia and started trying to reduce the use of pesticides. Being on sandy loam soil, I also tried to keep ground cover to reduce wind erosion. With these goals in mind, I moved slowly from wheat and row crops to alfalfa to grass.

Producers and Businessman Assisting With Project:
- Jerry Wise, Kauffman Seeds – cultivar selection
- Willy Kilmer, Willy Wire – fencing layout and design, encouragement, and proclaimer of results
- Jerry Jost, Kansas Rural Center – publication of field day and results of sustainable practices implemented
- Kevin Graber, Farmers State Bank, Yoder, KS – encouragement to me and pushing other clients to implement sustainable practices.

Public Agency:
- Don Kueck, Reno County Agriculture Agent – modest skepticism propelling me to try harder to make the program work

1. Barriers and Goals for project:

I have been exploring the options available to me for seeding perennial cool season grasses into existing alfalfa; and experimenting with mixtures of grasses and legumes to plant into open ground to be used on an intensively-managed grazing operation.

The options that I have been given by the University Extension, seed suppliers, forage consultants, and old-timers are all different and at odds with each other. Some say that “these” grasses will grow but only if they are planted in a certain way. The next person says that they can be planted any way you like but you don’t’ want “those” grasses, you should plant “these”. It goes on and on, either because they lack experience with management-intensive grazing, or because they haven’t experience with inter or over-planting.

There are only a few beef cattle options in Kansas utilizing management-intensive grazing ad most of those are in the flint hills. At present there are not any other dairymen trying to utilize these tools in our area. I am trying to promote these concepts, but I’m at a loss to know what to say when they ask what grasses and legumes to plant.

I will use the grant revenue to purchase 4-6 different grass and legume species that are adapted to my climate. These will be planted separately and in mixtures on the open ground and interseeded into the established alfalfa, spread over several soil types on 140 acres.

My goal is to determine stand establishment, cattle palatability, and grazing potential for both the dairy cattle and the 200-250 stocker animals this land should be able to carry.

2. Describe project and information learned and disseminated:

In the autumn of 1992 we interseeded annual and perennial cool season grasses in 14 different combinations to determine those best suited to our situation. These were seeded into established alfalfa stands; some of which were pure and some contained annual warm season grasses. The grasses planted were: Martin fescue, Mutua bromegrass, timothy, orchard grass, Marshall ryegrass, Bison ryegrass, cereal rye, and triticale.

During the winter, we frost-seeded Mutua, Martin, Marshall and Bison ryegrass, cereal rye, VNS alfalfa, and Alfagraze as a mix into triticale. I was planning to plant these perennial grasses and legumes directly into open ground in the fall. Because of a drought, I was concerned about not having an adequate cover crop and experiencing wind erosion on the sandy soil; so I planted triticale prior to frost-seeding the grass mixture.

Excellent stand establishments were being observed this spring of the various combinations of interseedings. We were ready to begin plant counts in the first part of July when the rain started coming. After an initial 8-inch rain, the majority of the paddocks were under water for the next 5 to 10 days. With 60 dairy cows and 250 stocker calves to feed and no other feed source, we continued the rotational grazing.

We discovered that the cattle would graze to water level but refused to graze the plant parts that were under water. As you may assume, many wetland plants started growing and the alfalfa and perennial grasses disappeared fast.

After the soil started drying out, annual warm season grasses started growing. It was observed that barnyard grass has very high palatability with crabgrass following close behind. Foxtail has very low palatability with prairie cup grass only slightly better.

This fall after the warm season grasses have died, the following observations have been made:
1. A resurgence of the cool season grasses and alfalfa where I thought that all was lost.
2. Martin fescue and Matua bromegrass are coming on strong both in those situations where they were planted individually and in combinations.
3. Timothy and orchard grass are not making a showing.
4. The annual ryegrasses that were allowed to set seed before the rain are also reseeding themselves.
5. The establishment of the mixture that was frost seeded into the triticale is very erratic due to soil conditions through the summer. Dryer areas show better growth than the lower wetter areas do. This area was again over seeded with a mixture of grasses and legumes in the fall of 93 to speed the establishment of desired species.

The results of the project were not what I had expected, but that was due to the weather. The only thing I would do differently next time is to exercise more patience. Perennial grasses and legume stands are not made in one year, nor is grazing management of flooded areas an easy task.

3. Discussion:

This grant enabled us to spread the word about sustainable agriculture through the field day and by showing what can be done with grass as compared to small grains and row crops. After a number of inquires about what grass and legumes to plant from people this summer, Jerry Wise (who assisted with the project) and I put together a mixture of 5 grasses and 3 legumes to sell for fall planting. This combination was a direct result of what plant characteristics were observed this summer made available by the grant.

We initially had orders for enough seed to plant 220 acres, so we mixed up enough for 250 acres. By the time the fall seeding period was over, we could have sold seed for another 100 acres. Next year, substantially more seed will be purchased and mixed, so we will have enough to meet the demand.

On the economics side of this small gain of perennial polyculture, if all 250 acres (which were planted to our grass/legume mixture) are grazed next summer instead of cropped, a net income gain of at least $50 per acre can be projected. So, because of this one small grant, $12,500 will be gained monetarily by producers next year, in addition to reduced soil erosion and the social impact it will make.

The organized outreach was through a field day that was held on our farm on May4, 1993. This event was advertised through flyers that were mailed and hand distributed; through announcements in The Hutchinson News, Kansas Rural Center Newsletter, Grass & Grain, High Plains Journal, Farm Talk, and Larry Steckline’s Agri News; and by word of mouth.

This meeting, with Jim Gerrish and R. L. Dalrymple providing input, brought out 75 people. Among those in attendance were several writers for local magazines who then wrote articles for their periodicals. The article which received the greatest circulation was the front page story in the June Dairy issue of the High Plains Journal.

By far, the most detailed information was disseminated on a person-to-person basis throughout the year. I spend an average of 10-15 hours per week in this kind of contact both on the farm and over the phone.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.