Many of us will be faced with two forage problems this year: not enough hay and the hay made may be of very poor quality.

Even if our livestock gets plenty of hay this winter, the quality may be so low the hay cannot meet their nutritional needs and there will need to be supplementation.

Depending on your situation, there are options: purchase supplements or grow crops for fall and winter supplementation. Depending on your situation, protein tubs may be an option.

If energy is the most pressing need, corn, other grains or byproducts with similar energy content supplemented with hay can help balance nutritional needs and stretch hay supplies.

What crops can we plant?

The most common crops to grow in our region to provide additional quality and quantity for grazing are cereal rye, oats and brassicas (turnips, rape, kale, etc.). All of these crops can have good protein and energy levels.


Cereal rye
According to Stan Smith of Ohio State University Extension, if your primary need for forage is next spring, then your best option is cereal rye.

It will grow much like wheat but reach about 6 to perhaps 10 inches in height by this fall, but after going dormant this winter will give most of its abundant growth in the spring.

It’s better than wheat because it is a little more cold-tolerant, growing a little longer into fall and breaking dormancy a little earlier in the spring. Also, there are Hessian fly issues that must be dealt with if wheat is planted before the fly-free date.

Although producing less tonnage than oats yet this calendar year, the cereal rye growth grazed this fall would be very high-quality feed – much higher in protein than oats likely would be.

If your primary need for forage is yet this year, then oats are a better option. They do not need to go dormant in order to elongate and provide abundant growth.

Instead, when planted in mid-summer to late summer, they will reach maximum height and growth in about 75 days after planting. By planting them after the summer solstice, they will generally remain vegetative and not make seed.

Sometimes oats will push out what appears to be seedheads, but the hulls are typically hollow. In addition, oats don’t need to be chemically killed in order to plant a row crop next spring, as rye would be.

Both rye and oats can provide additional protein, energy and yield to help balance your livestock needs. They have also been successfully broadcast by airplane to corn and soybean fields prior to harvest, allowing the grazing of crop residue with the oats and rye.

cattle in oats and brassicas field

Another option is forage brassica crops, such as turnip, swede, rape and kale. These crops are highly productive and digestible and can be grazed 70 to 150 days after seeding, depending on the species.

Brassicas can be seeded July or August for fall/winter grazing. All members of the brassica family – turnips, rape, kale and swedes – produce forage of exceptionally high digestibility (often 85 to 95 percent).

The leaves can be grazed from mid-September until January depending upon critical low temperatures and snow cover. Top growth generally will survive temperatures between 15ºF and 20ºF, while bulbs will be about 5ºF hardier. If temperatures fall below this level, it is best to try to graze prior to temperatures going above freezing.

The common purple-top garden-type turnip, as well as other cultivars, can yield more than 10,000 pounds per acre of dry matter.

The tops average 12 to 20 percent crude protein, while bulbs contain 8 to 12 percent protein. Maximum quality of the plants occurs around 75 days (purple-top turnips tend to mature earlier than other cultivars), and maximum quality is around 90 days as the bulbs mature (but the tops start to decline).

Brassicas are very high in crude protein and energy but extremely low in fiber. Their low fiber content results in rumen action similar as when concentrates are fed – thus the need for proper roughage supplementation.

Brassicas, therefore, should never comprise more than two-thirds of the forage portion of livestock diets, with the remainder provided by grass hay or stockpiled pasture, which is why this is a good option if you have some poor-quality hay to feed, especially in the fall.

Mix and match

A final twist to these options would be to mix or match these crops. Planting oats and rye together will provide additional yield in the fall from the oats and high-quality feed late winter/early spring from the rye.

Planting oats and brassicas will provide high yields in the fall, and the oats may provide some protection for the turnips to tolerate colder weather.

Planting turnips and rye will provide fall and late winter/early spring feed. Even mixing oats, rye and brassicas together can be successful with many opportunities for feed.

Stockpiling an inexpensive option

If you have hay and pasture fields that could be set aside for grazing later in the fall or even winter, you have the ability to stockpile forages.

This will be the cheapest way to provide extra feed. You can stockpile pastures or hayfields after grazing or harvesting by simply letting the fields grow for grazing later in the season.

If the fields are predominately cool-season grass, you can apply 50 pounds of nitrogen (N) per acre to improve quality and quantity of the stand.

I recommend applying N prior to a rain and/or mixing an N stabilizer to reduce potential N losses. Generally speaking, 50 pounds of N per acre can increase yields by a ton and crude protein by two points.

Fescue works best to stockpile as many other cool-season grasses may not be able to withstand cold weather as well; they may need to be grazed earlier if stockpiled.

When you stockpile, you have some ability to meet your needs determined by when you start stockpiling and when you start grazing. For example, if you start stockpiling in July versus September, you can expect higher yields but lower quality.

On the other end, the earlier you start to graze the fields later on in the fall, the higher the quality will be but the lower the yield. The later you graze (up to a point), the lower the quality will be, but you could expect higher yields.


In conclusion, if feed supplies are short, there is still time to produce additional quality and quantity of feed. Oats, rye and brassicas offer a means for livestock producers to produce high-quality forages to extend grazing into the fall, early winter and even late winter, and balance nutrition needs if there is poor-quality hay or limited amounts to feed.

The rapid growth and yield potential make these crops excellent low-cost options. In addition, stockpiling grass is a low-cost option to help reduce the need for hay this winter.  end mark


PHOTO 1: Planting oats and rye together will provide additional yield in the fall from the oats, and high-quality feed late winter/early spring from the rye.

PHOTO 2: Planting oats and brassicas will provide high yields in the fall, and the oats may provide some protection for the turnips to tolerate colder weather. Photos provided by Chris Penrose.

Chris Penrose

Chris Penrose

Associate Professor and Extension Educator
Ohio State University