The best way to plan your winter greenfeed plantings

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Oats is a popular crop planted for winter utilisation.

Know your farm and know your crops. This, says Dirk Coetzee, senior grazing expert at Limagrain Zaad South Africa, lies at the centre of what producers must know before tackling their winter greenfeed plantings.

Planting greenfeed for the winter requires meticulous planning. There are a number of decisions to make where crops and cultivars are concerned. Although each crop fulfils a specific role, it must be able to fit into your bigger picture and meet the requirements of the animals on the farm.

For producers who manage their farms judiciously, who have a long-term plan for the farming enterprise, and who know the ins and outs of their farm, greenfeed planning is straightforward.

Factors to consider

March marks the time when greenfeed needs to be planted for the winter. According to Dirk, there are several factors that can influence a producer’s decision on what to plant for the coming winter.

The following questions must be answered beforehand:

  • When will your animals’ feed requirements be greatest? When will natural grazing seize to provide what it is supposed to provide? Will animals only need to be fed for a short while in autumn, and is there enough winter and spring feed until it rains again the following summer and the veld begins to grow?
  • Which type of animal will graze the cultivated greenfeed? Is it the entire herd or only the production animals? What are the requirements of the animals that will utilise the greenfeed? Each animal has certain requirements in terms of roughage quality. For example, lactating animals have different needs than meat and wool producing animals do.
  • How long and how cold will the winter be? The answer to this question will affect the choice of crop as well as the cultivar, as each crop and cultivar has different traits that will uniquely fill the gaps in the fodder flow programme.
  • How early or late will planting commence? Each crop and cultivar has different requirements.
  • What does the expected rainfall look like for autumn, winter and spring?
  • Is irrigation available and how much water is available on the farm?

Greenfeed crops

Most livestock producers experience a need for quality roughage for their animals during the winter and spring months. The quality of natural grazing decreases as the winter months approach. Cultivated crops are then needed to bridge the gaps in the fodder flow programme.

Cultivated stooling rye.

It is therefore essential, says Dirk, to decide in advance which crops to use. Some of the popular annual crops planted for winter include oats, stooling rye and triticale – these crops are planted under dryland conditions. The planting date generally extends from February and March, and until as late as April in the warmer regions.

Where popular annual winter legumes are concerned, vetch does well in loamy soil and serradella in sandy soil. Arrowleaf clover is also popular, but not as well adapted to drought conditions. Japanese radishes and fodder turnips are excellent winter tuber crops. The ideal is to plant them late enough so that the weather is not too hot for greenfeed, but early enough so that plantings can receive ample rain.

Two is better than one

“Mixtures of two to four different greenfeed cultivars that complement each other yield the best results. By carefully combining cultivars into a mixture, they can complement each other and spread the risk.

“Different components peak at different times. The aim is to gradually optimise the utilisation of space and resources. When certain components in the mixture do not perform, the other components can take over,” Dirk explains.

“Every farm is unique, and every mixture is therefore specially adapted for that farm. There are no premixes available. The specific mixture is based on each producer’s individual requirements and challenges on the farm.

“Each cultivar plays a specific role in the fodder flow programme. Greenfeed combinations, or mixtures that are carefully combined, will always give a better result in terms of fodder flow than a single crop or cultivar.

Cattle grazing fields planted with Japanese radishes – it is an excellent winter tuber crop.

“However, the different components in the mixture must complement each other. Each mixture that is utilised must be managed correctly to reap the maximum benefits,” he says.

Cost-effective greenfeed

When planting winter greenfeed crops, cost is an important factor to consider. There are numerous aspects that demand scrutiny in order to determine whether it is worth the effort. These include:

  • Cost of seed.
  • Fertilisers and methods to keep the soil fertile.
  • Weeds and pesticides.
  • Labour costs.
  • Contract work for specific specialised actions that must be performed.
  • Interest on your production credit for the period of usage.

Dirk says these factors require consideration in order to determine if planting greenfeed will be cost-effective.

The rain-irrigated roughage planted on your own farm, and grazing systems in which the livestock do the ‘harvesting’, are always the cheapest options. Of course, it depends on whether enough rain will fall to achieve a good yield. Producers must therefore be familiar with the conditions on their farms, especially soil fertility and the expected area rainfall.

“Large parts of South Africa’s summer rainfall regions traditionally receive good autumn rains from February to March. Even if producers keep inputs such as seed, fertiliser and planting costs to the bare minimum, it will be better to plant than not planting at all. As many cultivars have already been adapted to perform under difficult agricultural conditions, planting the right crops and cultivars at the right time is crucial,” he advises.

Advantages of grazing crops

Prof Chris Dannhauser, emeritus professor in grazing science at the University of Limpopo, says that monoculture systems in which maize was planted on the same fields year after year used to be the norm. The incorporation of crop rotation systems, in which a variety of cover crops are used, developed with time.

Crop rotation offers several advantages as this system also promotes the conservation of agricultural land. He encourages producers who have the necessary on-farm infrastructure needed to plant winter crops, to do so.

He believes cover crops offer these advantages:

  • Incorporating organic matter and carbon into the soil improves its quality.
  • Legumes help to increase the nitrogen content of the soil.
  • The soil often harbours harmful organisms such as nematodes; however, some plants have the ability to reduce these organisms.
  • Plants help to circulate nutrients in the soil. It aerates the soil.
  • Cultivated grazing reduces soil erosion and compaction.
    Koos du Pisanie, Stockfarm

For more information, phone Dirk Coetzee on 078 228 8507 or 087 701 3037.