Got bermudagrass pastures? Do you need spring feed?

Got bermudagrass pastures?  Do you need spring feed?

Bermudagrass pasture is overseeded by rye in December.  Photo courtesy of Anthony Grow

Bermudagrass pasture is overseeded by rye in December. Photo courtesy of Anthony Grow

As of last week, most of North Carolina has seen weather cold enough for our warm season pastures to go into dormancy. This means that pastures with perennial grasses such as Bermudagrass or Bahiagrass will produce little or no forage until late April or May, so now is the time to pull out the hay rings, haystacks and corner feeders! Ranchers who have the luxury of stacking hay to the rafters in their barns likely have enough to get through the winter, but those who can't store large amounts may be hard-pressed to find a suitable supply come February. Some hay producers have cut back on their fertility due to the high cost of fertilizer and diesel fuel. Lower fertilizer means lower overall hay production, so there is the potential for limited supplies. The best way to reduce our dependence on hay is to monitor our pastures with winter annuals. These are forage species that are planted in the fall (ideally September through October) to help make up for the winter doldrums seen in Bermuda and Bahiagrass pastures. Winter annuals are a one-time deal, meaning they mature and die in May and June. When planning your annual winterization, there are a few things to consider before pulling the trigger.

Selection of types:

There are several types of feed grades on the market, so it is a good idea to choose the types that best suit the needs of the livestock and the owner. Make sure the species you choose is frost/cold tolerant. Grasses such as ryegrass, rye, and winter oats are some of the most common winter annual grasses used in pastures. We can also incorporate some annual legumes such as crimson clover.

Site preparation:

Ideally, we always recommend taking soil samples in your pastures before planting any type of forage. Soil analysis reports give us a recommendation on fertilizer and lime to bring essential nutrients and soil pH to acceptable levels. Keeping in mind that we are at the end of the winter annual planting period and soil testing takes 2-3 weeks, I recommend using a previous report if there is one taken within the last 3 years and working with your county extension agent to come up with a “prescription” fertility plan. Overwintering plants will need some form of starter fertilizer in the fall and then more in the early spring as growth increases as temperatures rise. Splitting fertilizer applications allows forage nutrients to be used more efficiently resulting in thick, lush stands for your horse to graze on. Alternative fertilizer sources such as poultry litter and manure are inexpensive compared to commercial fertilizers but are difficult to handle and apply without the proper equipment.


To establish any winter annual forage in warm season pastures, we need to eliminate any excess growth of Bermuda grass or Bahia grass. The best way to do this is to mow or graze the grass to within 2 inches. Again, since time is of the essence, a mower will be faster than a grazing animal. After mowing/grazing your pasture, it's time to plant your seeds.

There are generally two methods of cultivation. The first is to use a no-till grain drill. Although this is the best way to manage your pasture, no-till drills require some horsepower and should be

It is pulled by a tractor. Many soil and water district offices rent no-till drills for a reasonable fee. If you don't have access to a large tractor or no-till digger, the next option is to broadcast with a spreader followed by pulling with a chain rake or a piece of chain link fencing with weights. This will help bring the seed closer to the soil and increase its germination.

For rye, oats or triticale, the recommended seeding rate is 100-120 pounds per acre, and for annual ryegrass, you should plant 20-30 pounds per acre. To minimize any bloat issues, clover should only be planted as a companion to our grasses at 10-15 pounds per acre. If you are streaming, we recommend farming the high rate to increase your chances of creating a good stance. If mixing two or more varieties, reduce the seeding rate of each by 50 percent. For example, if you want to plant oats and rye together, plant 50-60 pounds of each.

Grazing management:

Depending on weather conditions, establishment of overwintering pastures may be slow. In general, rye, oats and triticale are not ready for grazing until February. Ryegrass develops much slower and is usually not ready for grazing until mid-March. Start grazing when plants reach 6 to 8 inches tall and stop grazing before plants reach 3 inches to protect against damaging stands! Winter annuals benefit from rotational grazing systems. Dividing pastures into smaller pastures and rotational grazing allows for foraging rest and recovery before the animal returns. This increases forage use and reduces the chances of overgrazing.

Overcropping bermudagrass pastures with winter annuals can help make up for the winter slump in forage production and provide your animal with nutritious forage in the spring.

If you plan to supervise your pastures for spring grazing, the window is closing fast!

If you have any questions about rangeland management, please contact the Richmond County Extension Office at 910-997-8255. Visit our website at and follow us on Facebook.

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