Winter annuals, such as cereal rye and annual ryegrass, can provide a high-quality forage alternative to traditional winter feeding programs that rely heavily on stored forages. These forages can provide valuable grazing time in late fall and early winter, and again in early spring.

Cereal rye has been a traditional winter cover crop grown in rotation with corn and soybeans. Rye is the most winter hardy of all small grains. It can be sown in late August to provide fall grazing, excellent winter cover, and spring grazing. Rye’s rapid growth makes it the most productive small grain for pasture and it can be grazed as quickly as 4 to 6 weeks after planting. Rye can be established by drilling into conventionally tilled fields, with minimum tillage following corn and soybeans, and also by no-tilling into thinning grass stands, if adequate moisture is available.

Site selection is extremely important when seeding rye. Good drainage is essential to minimize mud and soil compaction from grazing livestock. In a wet fall, rye seeded on poorly drained soils can result in crown damage, stand loss, and reduced spring growth. Managed or rotational grazing is important for maintaining a healthy stand into late winter and early spring. Strip grazing can also be used to manage grazing livestock and improve grazing efficiency.

Annual ryegrass is a fast-growing bunchgrass that is a great companion forage when seeded with small grains, such as rye, and is one of the highest quality cool-season grasses. Some annual ryegrass varieties are not as winter hardy as rye, but new varieties have been produced that dependably survive Kentucky winters. This grass is best adapted to fertile, well-drained soils, but it can survive and produce good growth on wetter soils. Annual ryegrass will grow over a wide range of soil pH levels but grows best between 6.0 to 7.0. Soil test and apply fertilizer and lime as recommended to produce a high yielding crop. Annual ryegrass is highly responsive to nitrogen, and recommendations are to apply 40 to 60 lbs. per acre in the fall, and an additional 50 to 60 lbs. in late winter/early spring.

Annual ryegrass seeded in mid-August can provide late fall and early winter grazing possibilities because it grows extremely fast. Later seeding dates correspond to reduced fall growth and less grazing in the fall/winter. For best results, annual ryegrass needs to be seeded into a prepared seedbed or no-tilled into killed sod, crop fields, dormant bermudagrass, or pastures with a lot of crabgrass. Note: annual ryegrass should not be seeded into fields that may be seeded to wheat in the future, as there are no effective herbicides to control volunteer annual ryegrass plants in wheat.

Grazing can begin in the fall once plants reach 8 to 10 inches tall and can be grazed to a height of 2 to 3 inches. Annual ryegrass grows so rapidly in the spring some paddocks may need to be grazed beginning at 4 to 6 inches. This will allow a producer to get animals into the rotation and utilize as much of the crop as possible at the highest quality. Using rotational grazing with annual ryegrass is ideal but strip grazing can also be applied.

Annual RyegrassCereal Rye
Seeding Rate20-30 lbs/acre90-120 lbs/acre
Seeding Deptd1/4 - 1/2"1-2 inches
Seeding DateMid-August to Oct 1Mid-Aug to Oct 15
Begin Grazing8-10 inches tall6-12 inches tall
End Grazing2-3 inches3-4 inches
Yield (on a dry matter basis)2-5 tons/acre2-5 tons/acre

Following proper management practices will increase the success of establishing a good stand and improving the utilization of these forages. For more information on other options for fall and winter grazing see the article on the Master Grazer website, Fall and Winter Grazing