No one will argue that the drought of 2011 was anything less than crippling to Texas agriculture. From cotton farmers in the plains to cattle producers from Texarkana to El Paso, crops were decimated, herds were culled and pastures and fields were parched and dried up.

As the summer of 2012 turned the corner into the fall season, global climate conditions began to change from prevailing La Niña conditions, widely blamed as a major contributor to the drought of North America, to El Niño conditions, a global climate condition most often associated with periods of greater rainfall for much of North America. In Texas alone, rainfall accumulations ranging from one inch to as much as 12 inches have helped bring relief from the drought and hope that the winter and spring season may bring better soil moisture and improved growing conditions.

In south and coastal Texas particularly, the possibility for cooler season forage is greater than it has been since the winter of 2010, perhaps earlier, and according to Nueces County Extension Agent Jeffrey Stapper, now is the time for ranchers to plan and even plant for late winter and early spring forage growth.

Stapper writes a weekly column, “Coastal Bend Agriculture Briefs,” and in this week’s issue he talked about winter forage for South Texas pastures, an optimistic look at the return of winter forage to an area parched from the drought over the last two years. 

In the article, Stapper says although cool-season annual forages can be expensive to plant and grow, they can be a less costly substitute for supplements “found in a bale, sack, or tub.” In a recent report, Stapper says several options are available for cool season forage, and all have pros and cons.

Best forage choices for winter

“Oat is the least winter-hardy cool season annual grass, but for South Texas, this would be a good choice, since hard freezes are not common,” Stapper says. “Oats can be planted in early fall and will more than likely produce the most early dry matter of the cool season forages in South Texas. Keep in mind that forage production can be variable with oats, and oats do not grow well on sandy soils, but tolerate wet, poorly drained soils better than other small grains,” Stapper advises.

In addition, he says oats are the least winter-hardy cool season annual grass but could work well for South Texas since hard freezes are not common. Oats also can be planted in early fall and will more than likely produce the most early dry matter of the cool season forages in the region.

Other forage choices might include rye, which Stapper says is the most winter hardy of the annual winter pasture grasses. He says compared to other annual winter grasses, rye produces more fall and winter forage. It matures earlier in the spring than most wheat varieties, he says, and usually peaks in early spring. Rye also grows well on well-drained soils that are sandy in texture.

Stapper says wheat provides the most flexibility and can serve as a forage crop and grain crop simultaneously, if managed properly. He says wheat produces well on a wide range of soils, with very sandy soils being the exception. One negative aspect of wheat is that most of the production occurs in the spring.

While Barley and Triticale are cool season annual grasses, Stapper says they are not as widely used in South Texas. Barley is most noted for being tolerant of saline and alkaline soils. It does not grow well on sandy soils, but is drought tolerant. Triticale is a "cross" between wheat and rye and forage production generally exceeds wheat. Triticale has characteristics of both parental lines that may make it the most widely adapted of the small grains.

Stapper says ryegrass is adaptable to a wide range of soil types, growing better on wet soils than most other cool season annual grasses and is another good choice for South Texas. It can be easily established by simply broadcasting seed on the soil surface or on grass sod, but establishes better if a light disking operation on a short sod is performed prior to broadcasting the seed.

Production of dry matter from ryegrass will be late in the cool season; therefore, most ryegrass will generally occur later than the small grains. One advantage of ryegrass is that it matures later than other small grains, extending the grazing season. Mixtures of small grains with ryegrass can extend the grazing season.

Finally, Stapper says legumes such as bur medics and clovers are good for the soil and provide good nutrition for livestock; however, dry matter production will be late in the cool season, most in early spring. Cool season legumes are an attractive option to decrease production cost associated with nitrogen fertilization because legumes have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Annual clovers can contribute about 75 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre for the subsequent grass crop. Legumes are only able to fix nitrogen from the air if host-specific strains of Rhizobia bacteria are present in nodules on their roots.

In South Texas, the general recommendation is to overseed cool-season annual forages from 6 to 8 weeks before the average first killing frost. Correct timing for cool-season annual forage establishment is crucial. If planted too early, warm temperatures and the competitive nature of the warm season perennial grass sod can result in stand failure.

You can read Jeff Stapper’s weekly column at http://cbagbriefs.blogspot.com/