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Planting annuals in between cash cropping systems can be a great way to produce extra forage and extend the grazing season. And one of the simplest techniques to do this across the Midwest is to plant cereal rye after a corn crop ahead of next year’s soybeans. Cereal rye is very winter hardy and can be a source of forage for a 2- to 3-week jumpstart on your spring pasture, or to save the grass for later grazing. And when grazed at the right stages, cereal rye can be an excellent forage.

Different techniques can be used to graze the field. Temporary fence or permanent fencing can be used for strip grazing, mob grazing or simple continuous grazing (also known as set stock).  Over the years we have tried many different ways to manage the grazing on our farm, but have recently gone back to a simple set stock situation allowing the cows to roam the field and enjoy what they want.

Unfortunately, the weather in the springtime can be particularly unpredictable. Wet and cold conditions can limit growth and the ability to get cows out on the cereal rye. And those years when the rye won’t start growing, will, for sure, be those same years when your hay supply is running short. This can create a tremendous urge to get the cows out on something green.  However, keep in mind this is not a long-term sod formed under permanent grass, this is a crop field that you want to plant a soybean crop on later. Cattle hooves, particularly in wet conditions, can be a source of significant compaction. And of course, it never fails that a few dry, warm, sunny days in a row will give you the encouragement to turn the cows loose, just to see the forecast turn on you, and go back to wet conditions.

We took advantage of a few sunny days a few weeks ago to get some of the herd out on cereal rye. Fortunately, we held off turning out the entire herd. We were grateful for that when we received over five inches of rain the following week, and while the cows seem to be doing fine, every wet day increases the compaction and damage done to the soil. It’s a personal judgment call as to when you need to pull them off, but the cows sure don’t want to go back to the lot – and I don’t want them there, either.

So, for now, I just watch them out the back window of my house, and hope they sit still, cringing every time they walk to the far end of the field and back.

I’m ready for these May flowers everyone always talks about…

Jim Isermann
Jim Isermann
Jim Isermann is a Field Manager for Soil Health Partnership, covering northern Illinois and Wisconsin.