Conditions were not ideal last fall and early winter in many parts of the South for establishing cool-season annuals such as ryegrass, oats, wheat, and rye.

According to Mike Mauldin, University of Florida agriculture and natural resources agent in Washington County, the ideal planting season of October 1 to November 15 was abnormally dry. Located in Florida’s Panhandle, Mauldin notes in a recent Panhandle Ag e-News that the dry weather pattern was followed by rain and cold weather.

Overall, conditions for planting and early forage growth were far less than ideal, though Mauldin has recently noticed that timely planted stands have started to show their merit.

With many livestock producers in a holding pattern waiting for adequate grazeable forage growth, Mauldin offers these considerations.

• Be patient; don’t graze forages too soon. Let forages accumulate adequate leaf area and height before grazing. Ryegrass and small grains need to have 8 to 12 inches of growth before grazing.

• Don’t graze forages too close. Removing all or nearly all leaf area greatly reduces the plants’ ability to regrow after grazing. The more leaf area left, the faster the plants will regrow. The concept of “take half, leave half” is good to keep in mind when determining grazing height. Never graze ryegrass or small grains shorter than 3 inches, if regrowth is desired.

• Maximize forage utilization by implementing some form of controlled grazing. When cattle are allowed continuous access, they will graze preferentially and trample more forage. When space, time, or both restrict access, cattle will graze more efficiently and improve forage utilization.

• Allocate forages strategically. Cool-season annuals have a very high nutritional value. When they are in short supply, reserve them for animals that have the highest nutritional demands such as lactating females and/or growing animals. This practice can maximize the value of cool-season annuals, but it requires the ability and willingness to sort and manage cattle in different groups.

• Don’t forget about soil fertility. Maintaining adequate soil fertility will bolster plant performance. In many cases, the performance of underfertilized forages will not be sufficient to warrant the initial establishment cost. Additionally, stressors, like nutrient deficiencies, can prompt annuals to their vegetative growth period and set seed earlier.

• Maximize the growing season of annual forages. When annual plants make seed, they stop vegetative growth. If conditions remain favorable and forages get ahead of the cows, be prepared to adjust stocking rates. Also, allow cattle to keep forages “topped off.”

• In later spring, consider stockpiling forages planted on prepared ground and graze the cool-season annuals that have been planted into perennial forage fields. This will help eliminate competition with the underlying perennial forages as they break dormancy.

“There is still time to produce a substantial amount of nutrition, Mauldin says. But he cautions, “Years with poor growing conditions call for better management than years when conditions are optimal. The financial investment associated with establishing forages is the same regardless of the production. Do what you can to maximize your return on investment.”