Winter Forage Production With Marshall Ryegrass

Objective:  To address the Pros and Cons of switching from a wheat grazing and grain production system to a forage production system only, using Marshall Ryegrass and why we made the change.

General Info:  Marshall Ryegrass is not a cereal grain.  It is not rye (i.e. Maton, Elbon, Oklon, etc.  It is an annual grass that must come back from seed each year but does not make a seed head similar to small grains, i.e. wheat, rye, barley, etc.

Marshall Ryegrass matures approximately 40 days later than wheat.  It is like having two Aprils when grazing wheat.  This extra 40 days of grazing allows us 160+ pounds of gain from our forage. (This assumes 2 head/acre gain 2 pounds per day.)  On contract grazing, where this all began, we realized an additional income of $48.00/acre.  When we owned the cattle and could control the weights, sex, quality, etc., we expected to realize more income.
Why did we mix it with wheat?

Being traditional wheat farmers, we knew what to expect from our wheat grazing.  The addition of ryegrass was only an effort to stretch our grazing.  We were using new forage we knew little about and having a crop failure was not an option.

We also had a wheat base and received annual payments.  
Making the switch from wheat to Marshall Ryegrass             

We heard that you could drop the wheat from your fall forage program and do just as good as or better than mixing it with wheat.

We also had heard from other producers that they had never had to spray Marshall Ryegrass for green bugs and that they had little or no bloat on pure stands of Marshall.

That was good, but our experience had not shown us the fall grazing (with ryegrass) we had with wheat.
Making Adjustments

Wheat has 15,000 seed per pound and planted at an optimum depth of 1.5 inches.  Marshall Ryegrass has 230,000 seed per pound and has an optimum planting depth of ¼ inch or less.  On top of the ground was fine.

We plant wheat on 7 inch rows with a drill; we plant Marshall solidly over the ground with a broadcast spreader.

When replacing wheat with Marshall, we use 30% of the normal wheat planting rate.  I.e. if you plant 100 pounds of wheat, you would replace it with 30 pounds of Marshall.

If you decide to go with a mixture, plant half of the recommended amount for each.  (I.e. 50 pounds of wheat with 15 pounds of Marshall.)

Since the planting depths are very different, we broadcast the ryegrass and then drill the wheat.  You cannot run a disc in front of the drill for best results.

Also, when planting wheat, we are hopefully putting the seed in moisture and expect a stand in 4-5 days.  With ryegrass, we are putting the seed on top of the ground and will not get a stand until it rains
 Experiences along the Way 

Forage growth is dependent on moisture; rainfall or irrigation.  No moisture, no forage.

Planting seed on top of the ground results in little, if any crusting.  A good thing.

Planting seed on top of the ground delays germination and sprouting until it rains. This can be bad or good depending on the temperatures, moisture, etc.

Ryegrass is not a cereal grain crop that can be harvested and sold.  Bad if wheat gets $8.00/ bushel.   Good if cattle prices remain good.

Ryegrass is considered a noxious plant in wheat stands.  That is why cattlemen like it and farmers hate it.  It is still green when the combines roll.  This is where the extra grazing comes in.

We can run lighter weigh calves longer than heavier calves.

Little calves should make more money than big calves per acre.

Planting 30 pounds of Marshall is like planting 7.5 bushels of wheat.

Wheat seeding rates are based on ultimately harvesting for grain.

Ryegrass seeding rates are based on maximum forage production.

Leaf rust does not cause us any great (if any) concerns on ryegrass.

Ryegrass produces 30-40 % more forage than wheat.

Seed cost per acre for Marshall is approximately $12.00.

If you receive enough moisture to grow wheat, you receive enough moisture to grow ryegrass.

Planting Correctly Makes the Difference

Planting pure stands of Marshall requires a different mind set.

Plowing does not have to be as rigorous. While we want a good seed bed, a few weeds here and there are not that big of a problem.  Since we are planting a solid stand and not on 7 inch rows, we will shade out lots of weeds in the fall and spring.

Early Grazing:  For several years we would chisel, disc, broadcast our seed and fertilizer and then run a packer over the ground.  All this time we noticed that where the fertilizer truck ran, we had our best, quickest stands.

Now, we chisel, disc, run a packer and then broadcast our seed and fertilizer.  We expect to be on our ryegrass as soon as you would expect to be on wheat; about 6 weeks after it comes up and we have the moisture to grow forages.

Packing:  If you do not run a packer, you may prefer to plant with wheat for earlier grazing.  Packing is that important for early grazing.

Air seeders:  We have used air seeders.  We blow the seed behind the packer by tying the tubes to the frame.  Obviously, this is done in one trip.

In our business, we must put gains on our cattle as cheaply as possible.  With Marshall we have 210+ grazing days compared to 175 days for wheat. 

If your cattle are making you 50 cents per pound on the gain, it takes you 110 days to break even on your wheat establishment cost leaving you 65 days to make a profit.

On Marshall, it takes 80 days to break even leaving you 130 days to make a profit.  That is 100% more days!  Like two years in one.  Doubling your earnings.

(The above is based on one calf per acre gaining 2 pounds per day.)
Nelson and Marshall Ryegrass
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There are lots of ryegrass varieties; we went with Marshall because of its total forage production and fewest surprises. Forage trial results at the Noble Foundation have Marshall the top producing and most winter hardy ryegrass variety for the past several years.