Annual Forages and Cover Crops for Supplemental Forage Production in 2021

It was already known earlier this spring that we were probably going to see around a 25 percent reduction in forage production this year due to the dry conditions that occurred last fall and if spring moisture remained below normal that there could be significant reductions in forage production for 2021.

While recent rains were very welcome and have improved the outlook for the time being, lack of moisture during April and much of May has likely already caused further impacts on the forage production potential for the year.

While recent rains may be too later to mitigate any reduction in perennial forage production, it has improved the prospect for annual forages or cover crops that could be used for supplement hay or grazing.

Annual forage options for hay that are “more” drought tolerant and cost effective would include forage barley or spring triticale, which can be planted from early May to early June and Siberian millet that can be seeded from late May to early July.

Forage oats would be another option although it is not as drought tolerant as forage barley and will tend to show higher nitrate levels sooner with stress than forage barley. That’s not saying that nitrate toxicity can’t be a problem in other forage crops such as barley or triticale as they certainly can accumulate nitrates as well under extended stress conditions.

In terms of warm season grasses, the sorghum-sudan hybrids would be another option but they are not as drought tolerant as Siberian millet. Plus, they can be more difficult to cure for hay than the millets. Another of the foxtail millets, German millet, tends to be intermediate – not as drought tolerant as Siberian millet but more drought tolerant than the sorghum-sudans.

While any of the above could be grazed as well as being put up for hay, a cover crop may be the best option if you are looking for something strictly to graze. Planting a mixture of cool- and warm-season grasses, broadleaf crops and legume species will create diversity, help minimize risk due to weather conditions, extend the grazing period due to different growth stages and increase soil health benefits.

The diversity created by the cover crop mix can help minimize risk due to weather as the different species included in the mix have different rooting structures and different times of peak moisture and nutrient uptake as compared to single species which are all competing for the same resources at the same time. Because of this multi-species often out-produce single species.

In a demonstration conducted in Burleigh County under dry condition back in 2006, six different cover crop species were seeded individually and then in a diverse mix containing all 6 of the species. In July with only 1.8” of growing season precipitation, many of the individual species were showing obvious moisture stress while the diverse mix remained green and produced over twice as much biomass as any of the single species.

With these thoughts in mind, staff with the Williams County Soil Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service have been collaborating since earlier this spring to see if we could come up with a cost effective cover crop mix for drier conditions.

One of the mixes we came up with includes forage barely and Siberian millet based on the above information. For a legume, we included field peas. Field pea may not be the best in terms of drought tolerance but they tend to be one of the more cost effective legumes. Cowpeas would be another option for a legume that is more drought tolerant than field peas but they also are generally more expensive and add to the cost.

Also included in the mix were collards and turnips. These Brassica species aren’t necessarily considered drought tolerant but are very desirable in a cover crop mix due to their remarkable forage quality, even after a killing frost. Plus, if we would get some moisture later in the season, the thought was these Brassicas may come on to provide some later season grazing, While designed primarily for grazing, we did try to keep inclusion rate for the Brassicas on the lower side so the cover crop could be potentially hayed as the Brassicas tend to be high in moisture and can be difficult to cure for a baled forage.

Last, we included a small amount of sunflower as sunflower is a deep-rooted crop that tends to be fairly drought tolerant and is readily utilized by cattle.

The Soil Conservation District in conjunction with the Williston Research Extension Center does plan to seed a cover crop demonstration just south of the District’s Tree Building on the Extension Center grounds. In addition to seeding the cover crop mix outlined above and a couple other variants of the mix, we also plan to seed individual species of some of the primary components in the mixes as a comparison. Watch for more information on the trial as the growing season progresses.

Water Quality Programs

Ranchers should start planning for what could be a difficult year if drought conditions persist through the growing season. There is likely going to be some reduction in forage production this year even if it does start raining due to the dry conditions last fall. If spring moisture remains below normal there could be significant reductions in forage production for 2021.

Another factor that will be of concern in many livestock operations for the coming year will be the availability and quality of water, especially in pastures and rangeland with primarily surface water for the water source.

Water is an important but often overlooked nutrient. Good water quality and cleanliness can increase water intake and improve livestock production while livestock that only have access to low-quality water will have reduced water and feed intake, resulting in reduced production. As the availability and quality of water declines further, reduced water consumption can result in dehydration, which can be fatal in livestock.

In addition, water always contains some dissolved minerals, which normally may not be of concern. However, as water levels dropped due to evaporation, such as they did last summer, the concentration of these minerals and other impurities in water increases and can become potentially toxic when they reach certain levels. Without any runoff to re-fill surface water sources this spring such as stock ponds, reservoirs and sloughs, water quality should be monitored closely.

Of potential concern are issues such as high levels of total dissolved solids or salinity and sulfates in the water. Other factors may include pH levels, nitrates and microbiological contaminants such as cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae.

For more specific information, the NDSU Extension Service has a number of good resources available covering livestock water requirements, livestock water quality, cyanobacteria poisoning and a fact sheet on livestock water testing guidelines that outlines the steps to collect a water sample to conduct a livestock water screening and information on the testing labs in North Dakota that can analyze the samples. Copies of these resources are available at the Williams County Extension office, Williams County Soil Conservation District or can be found online at .

Many county Extension offices across the state are also participating in a Livestock Water Quality Monitoring Program being conducted by the NDSU Extension Service in which extension agents will help monitor TDS and sulfate levels in livestock water sources during the growing season along with completing a visual assessment for cyanobacteria. Contact your local Extension office for more information and details.

If you do have water sources that would provide livestock with better quality water that may currently be available in a pasture or fresh water but currently don’t have any means of distributing the water, several of the Soil Conservation Districts in this area do have shallow pipeline plows available to rent. These plows can install poly pipe up to two feet in depth and can be used to develop livestock watering systems to provide better quality water and/or improve grazing distribution. Soil Conservation Districts in the area with pipeline plows include Williams, Divide, and Burke Counties.

Natural Resources Conservation Service staff are also available to help design pipelines to ensure the water system meets your objectives and functions properly. For more information, contact your respective NRCS office.

Site Prep – Machine Tree Plantings

Tree Season is Upon Us!

Please get your sites prepped as we will be doing site visits in the next week or 2!

  • If there is grass or alfalfa in the area where the trees are to be planted, it would be beneficial to spray and kill any vegetation before we plant. Ensure chemical is approved for new tree plantings.
  • If the ground is in existing cropland stubble, cultivate or harrow if the stubble is high.
  • 10ft wide tilled area for fabric laying only
  • No rocks
  • No large clumps of soil
  • Make sure there is NOTHING in the way of where we will be planting unless previously discussed

Mycorrhizal Fungi and Plants

As we near the start to our seminar on Soil Health & Drought Management we thought it would be a great idea to give some background on one of the topics that will be presented at the seminar, mycorrhizal fungi.

While research has yet to unlock all the secrets of the soil, one of the important hidden partners in the soil are a group known as mycorrhizal fungi. Approximately 90% of all plants form some association with mychorrhizal fungi. In fact, it was the partnership with mycorrhizal fungi that allowed plants to begin to colonize dry land and create life on Earth as we know it.

Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. Plants allow mycorrhizal fungi to colonize their roots and use root exudates formed from photosynthesis to supply the fungus with carbohydrates and sugars that the fungi use as a food source and energy. In return, the fungi provide nutrients, especially immobile nutrients like phosphorus, and water to the plants through their extensive network of mycelial hyphae produced by the fungus. The hyphae are fine filaments that extend into the soil and act as extensions of root systems. They are actually more effective in nutrient and water absorption than the roots themselves.

In addition to helping provide nutrients and moisture to the plants, some mycorrhizal fungi such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi also play a key role in creating water stable soil aggregates, which is important for soil structure and water infiltration into the soil.

They do this by producing glomalin, a very stable carbon based glue. The primary purpose of glomalin is to coat the fungal hyphae to keep water and nutrients from getting lost on the way to the plant. In doing so, the hyphae act as a frame upon which soil particles begin to collect with glomalin gluing them together to eventually form soil aggregates.

In short, mycorrhizal fungi are a key component to soil health and also plant health.

If you’d like to learn more about mycorrhizal fungi and management practices that are favorable to maintaining higher levels of this beneficial fungi in the soil, make plans to participate in the March 23 Soil Health & Drought Management seminar being conduct by the Williams County Soil Conservation District. Caley Gasch, NDSU Assistant Professor of Soil Health, will talk about mycorrhizal fungi and the symbiotic relationship they form with plants in healthy soil. More information on the workshop can be found on this website.

Adding Diversity with Intercropping

One of the five basic principles that are the foundation of improving soil health and functionality is plant diversity. Plant diversity leads to more biodiversity in the soil, benefiting the soil food web; which in turn can help improves moisture infiltration and nutrient cycling, while reducing disease and pests.

By in large, producers are growing more crops and have implemented more diverse crop rotations these days, but to add more diversity some producers are starting to look at intercropping. Intercropping is basically growing two or more crops together.

There are a couple of potential advantages to intercropping. One is that an intercrop of two or more crops growing together may use the resources of light, water, and nutrients more efficiently than a single crop, which can improve yields and income. Another is that crop mixtures frequently have less pest problems. For example, flax and chickpeas have been a common intercrop as there is typically less disease pressure on the chickpeas when grown as an intercrop with flax as compared a monocrop chickpeas

Although there are advantages to intercropping there are also challenges. Intercropping systems are going to require more planning and additional management. These may range from selecting varieties of the crops to be intercropped that complement each other to weed control with a mix of crops. Plus, the intercrop will require more labor, needing to be separated either at or following harvest.

Like anything, if you want to try intercropping, test it first on a relatively small area and start with something easy. For example, canola and peas or peaola has been a very popular intercrop. This will allow you to evaluate whether it fits into the overall management your system and whether benefits outweigh the extra planning, management and labor.

If you’d like to learn more about intercropping, there is a very good opportunity coming up which is MonDak Pulse Day that will be held on February 11th, 2021 at the Williston Area Recreation Center (ARC) on the campus of WSC from 9:00 am to 12:45 pm. As part of this year’s program, staff from the Williston Research Extension Center while provide an update on research being conducted with intercropping follow by a panel of local producer who will share their experiences with various intercrops and try to answer any questions you may have.

This year’s Pulse Day will have a hybrid format with options to participate either in person or virtually via Zoom but either way, pre-registration is request. More information on the complete Pulse Day program along with information on pre-registering can be found at