This is a seemingly basic topic, but is actually very involved and really requires more judgment and knowledge than putting down any annual field crop (like corn). I am by no means even “good” at it, though I have had some success, especially given the fact that I have always used much less than the latest and greatest machinery to get the job done.
One of the first priorities is to get some reading done. Wherever you are, find some authoritative manual about species for hayfields and pastures. Learn about the species that are recommended in your area. Some of the particulars about them are important to know since they will impact how you go about getting it all in order. Where I live (Southern Indiana) I have found Purdue’s forage guide and the Cisco and Welter Seed catalogs to be very helpful. Simply researching the USDA plant profiles can be very enlightening. You will find that opinions very widely here, and most knowledgeable folks will have their favorites. I will explain mine, but be assured that other plants may work better for you!
I will come out and state my favorites: White Clover, Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass for primary pastures and (medium) Red Clover and Timothy for primary hayfields. I fully recognize that other grasses may be better for certain situations and climates, but in the end my preferences are the only forages that seem to be eaten eagerly, and even Timothy can be iffy in that regard. I dislike any single species mix for pasture or hay. Diversity is a good thing, and if you can diversify in diverse ways that is better. For example, getting at least one legume (clovers, Alfalfa) is good and at least one grass is good. Try to get a good perennial forb (Plantain, Small Burnet, Chicory, Dandelions) in there, too. Try to diversify in the root department. Taprooted plants (Red Clover, Alfalfa, Sweetclover, forbs) compete less with the shallow fibrous rooted grasses. In the end all this diversity is very beneficial because it provides insurance against nutritional imbalances–one of the reasons why I think feeding animals (or people) a mostly single species diet is a bad idea.
I have a prejudice against Alfalfa, Tall Fescue, and Orchardgrass for reasons I will gradually explain, the primary one being that I am a quality over quantity guy, especially since I lack a baler and my tractor lacks a bucket. I move hay with my muscles, so I maximize its nutritional density. Another major reason: I am convinced that with high-performance dairy animals (and the Jersey is the Porsche of diary animals), that hay really can’t be good enough. Well made Red Clover-Timothy hay is better than Alfalfa-Orchardgrass or Alfalfa-Tall Fescue, which are the most popular hay combinations in my area. It is true that well managed Alfalfa-Orchardgrass will out produce well managed Red Clover-Timothy, by about a ton per acre per year, but the total TDN (total digestible nutrients) is over 80% with Red Clover-Timothy and about 65-70% with Alfalfa-Orchardgrass. So, if you think of things in terms of nutrients per acre (I hope you will), Alfalfa-Orchardgrass has little theoretical advantage. It offers, practically speaking, no advantage since I’ve neither witnessed nor experienced the ideal conditions where five or more cuts can be made in a season with proper re-growth intervals in between which these 7000 lbs. per acre annual yields require. This is something that occurs on the little test plots of land grant Universities and seed companies and nowhere else it seems.
My soils are classified in the Russell series as silt-clay loams (Fincastle and Xenia being their drainage profiles). I’ve found that old-fashioned Timothy copes with excessive clay and moisture reasonably well compared to Orchardgrass. My soils are high pH, too, which Timothy tolerates better than most grasses. It is unquestionably a nicer grass, with finer stems and leaves, than either Orchardgrass or Fescue. While Fescue is a very hardy and adaptable grass (a little too much if you ask me), it is not as palatable as Timothy, even the expensive endophyte free or novel endophyte types. Timothy also has a very upright growth habit which makes it cut and lay down nicely compared to Orchardgrass and Fescue, which is an important advantage if you are going to use sickle-bar type mowers. Timothy seeds are also tiny and roundish, so they spread well out of a spinning broadcast seeder (pictured above), which I use because I don’t have recourse to the no-till grass seed drills popular today. Orchardgrass spreads well, too. Even though my county rents two very nice no-till drills for a very reasonable fee, my tractor is half the size and weight needed to pull them and has no hydraulic remote to power them. I’d have to borrow my neighbor’s tractor, which as I pointed out before compacts the soil. In the wet late winter and early spring, which is when you seed hayfields usually, compaction risk is at its greatest because the soil is “plastic” at these times. All forage legumes (clovers, Alfalfa, Sainfoin, Trefoil) seed well out of broadcast spreaders because their seeds are round and dense. Clovers, however, seem to seed a little easier than Alfalfa. Red clover and Timothy are also cheaper to seed per acre than any other typical hayfield legume-grass mixture, which is probably why the combination endures more than anything.
I’ve read that it is claimed that Orchardgrass, Fescue, Brome, and Canarygrass are more drought tolerant than Timothy, which makes sense since they have deeper root structures, but don’t expect some vast difference. I’ve also read that Alfalfa is more drought tolerant than Red Clover, but I haven’t observed that either. I have observed that the little hairs (pubescence) on Red Clover seem to shade the plant form desiccating sunlight and gather moisture in dewy mornings. No other common forage legume seems to have this adaptation. In my clay soils, which limit the depth of fibrous rooted plants (grasses) and reduce the depth of tap rooted plants (clovers, forbs); it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. They are all small, moisture needy plants with relatively shallow roots, and need regular rainfall or irrigation to be productive. Trees or other large plants are the only thoroughly drought resistant plants, and I recommend planting ones that make edible, nutritious foliage for these emergencies (Willows, Hedgeapples, Mullberries, Apples, Pears, and most Oaks). All grasses and clovers seem to have means to survive moderate droughts once they are established, mostly by going dormant, but the plants aren’t very productive when dormant. What I have observed is that all the other tall grasses are not quite as palatable as Timothy, that Canarygrass is very expensive, and Brome (which is almost as palatable as Timothy) has little hairs on its seeds that catch wind and hardly disperse out of a broadcast seeder. It would be nice if seed companies found some way to either knock these hairs off or breed a hairless variety, because Brome could be an excellent hay grass (I’ve found it very hard to establish). I have observed that Alfalfa costs twice as much as Red Clover, doesn’t like wet clay soil, and doesn’t have anywhere near the seedling vigor and competitiveness of Red Clover in the seeding year. The one salient advantage of Alfalfa is that it can live 5-7 years or so, whereas ordinary Red Clover declines in its second or third year, but I use short rotations (and you should too), so this doesn’t matter.
White clover-Ryegrass hay is superb (over 90% digestible and sometimes smells so good I consider making a salad of it) but somewhat difficult to make by large-scale methods because the plants are very short and delicate. It doesn’t bale, lay down, dry down, or cut well (thought it can certainly be done). White clover and either Perennial Ryegrass and/or Bluegrass are the premier pasture combination, however. The mix I use is Kopu II White Clover, which is an improved New Zealand style White Clover that is very vigorous, nutritious, and taller growing, yet still quite stoloniferous (it sends out lateral roots at ground level that sprout new plants and so doesn’t need to be re-seeded and survives aggressive grazing). White Clover (and this would include Ladino), like other legumes, fixes its own nitrogen and contributes to the overall available nitrogen reserve in the soil, which the grass needs. If the nitrogen levels get low, the clover has a competitive advantage against the non-fixing plants (grasses and forbs) and sort of over-populates, but once the nitrogen reserve level has been increased, the more light-greedy and vigorous grasses begin to outcompete the clover. This balance becomes quite apparent if you pay attention. The way to adjust it, if needed, is phosphorous. In time, grass seems to win the battle, because in the end light is more important to a plant than nitrogen, so periodically add a little phosphate or possibly lime (if you soils are low pH). Clovers need phosphate and a near-neutral pH a whole lot more than grasses do, so you give clover a little shot in the arm whenever you add phosphate or raise the pH a bit, yet benefit the grass very little by comparison. If for some reason you want to advantage the grass, give it nitrogen.
A note about bloat. All the legumes except for Sainfoin and Birdsfoot Trefoil can cause bloat which is an acute and fatal disease of ruminants. The reasons for it are complicated. There are basically two ways to manage it. One is to avoid planting high concentrations of bloat-risk legumes (all clovers, Alfalfa, Sweetclover [which isn’t a true clover]). Generally speaking, if your pastures are 50 percent grass or other non-bloat risk plants, you wont have a problem, unless of course the clover growing out there is so much tastier that the animals basically nose through it all and eat a diet that is approaching 100 percent clover. This happens to me all the time, and it is why I plant the best tasting grasses. I have never had an animal develop true bloat, but I have seen their rumen swell up so big it was above their spine! This dangerous condition is just steps away from true bloat (where they can’t burp, their rumen compresses their lungs, and they suffocate). Even though the rumen was huge and swollen, she was still burping; I guess she is one of the more bloat resistant cows (and some are, owing to esophagus or rumen physiology, I suppose). Hay, even if 100% legume, doesn’t cause bloat. The other method for dealing with this is the prophylactic Poloxalene. It is a detergent easily added to salt blocks or pressed molasses blocks that prevent froth in the rumen, which is what stops burping and does them in. The problem is that I have never found one of these blocks approved for lactating dairy cattle. They also cost 3x as much compared to a regular molasses block. And, boo hoo, your cow isn’t “organic” anymore if you use it. Poloxalene can also be force fed into the animal in an emergency, I’ve read beer bottles work well for this. I keep one on hand with a dose of Poloxalene at all times, but I’ve never used it, because every time I have come upon a bloating cow she was still burping, which means she isn’t truly in trouble despite how alarming she may look. The non-bloating legumes, Sainfoin and Birdsfoot trefoil, contain “condensed tannins” which somehow act like Poloxalene (a detergent, remember) so bloat doesn’t happen when animals are eating these. Supposedly, they have a protective effect, where if a little of it is growing out there with a bloating legume it provides safety, but of course this is only if the animals actually eat it. I’ve tried in vain to get both to grow to satisfaction. Sainfoin is very palatable and a lot like Alfalfa, only wimpier. It grows slower, is harder to establish, costs much more, and is generally less impressive. Birdsfoot Trefoil is a little wimpy plant compared to improved White Clover with almost none of White clover’s vigor or tenacity. I see a few Trefoil plants growing in my fields every year as they have distinct flowers that look like scrambled eggs, but so few that I doubt the animals are even eating them. They seem to avoid Trefoil in fact, so I doubt it does any good. It smells bitter and probably tastes bitter (perhaps the condensed tannins?).
I’ve come to love perennial ryegrass. Even though there are bigger grasses, tougher grasses, and better yielding grasses, there aren’t any better tasting grasses. It’s the only grass Lizzy will eat before she has consumed every available bit of clover or preferred weed species. She even ignores bluegrass until the clover is well eaten. I think she would have to be quite hungry before she would take a bit of Orchardgrass or Fescue. Oddly, she loves Johnsongrass (a weed grass that most farmers hate) and many weeds (lambsquarters, plantain, dandelions, and apple and pear trees). Perennial ryegrass has another big advantage. It is about the easiest to establish of the grasses. It has very good seedling vigor sprouting in only a few days (other grasses except Fescue take much longer), and has large, heavy seeds that disperse reasonably well from a broadcast seeder (bluegrass seeds are more difficult), though not as well as Orchardgrass or Timothy. Despite being a bunchgrass, it isn’t very “bunchy” in its growth habit (Orchardgrass is anoyingly bunchy, you can trip over it!). Ryegrass makes a nice sod if you spread out the seeds well, and it is one of the major turf-grass species. It also doesn’t dominate white clover the way that taller grasses do. The variety I use is called Albion, which claims to be nearly as drought tolerant as Tall Fescue, and I believe it. It has an unusually waxy leaf and stayed greener in dry spells compared to other grasses. Because Ryegrass is a bunch grass, I do like to mix it with a forage type Kentucky Bluegrass, which is a sodformer. Bluegrass is much more cold tolerant than Ryegrass, and if we have a bad winter, it picks up in the spring sooner and fills in any gaps where the Ryegrass died. The bad thing about Bluegrass is that it grows very quickly in spring and seems absolutely determined to make as many seeds as possible then go dormant. Turf-type bluegrass is worse in this regard, so get the forage type, which grows taller and is leafier (I’ve used two varieties, Selzanka and Ginger). It is very important to mow any grass before it sets seed. One of the reasons why I like Timothy so much is that it is the late bloomer among cool-season grasses. It is the latest heading grass, and I’d rather mow my pastures in spring than having to keep on my hayfields like a fanatic. The pastures are more important to me (I can always buy hay), and keeping them highly productive in the vegetative phase (and not allowing them to enter the reproductive phase) is very important. I like mowing hay in the summer, especially if it is hot, because this seems to dry it faster, even though it is less comfortable. And if you can’t get hay done, at least get out there and just mow it with a rotary lawn mower if you can and set the plant back to vegetative growth. The soil and earthworms (your subterranean livestock) will like the grass clippings, and it will give you another shot at making good hay in the summer. If the plants have seeds, there is no way you will make good hay out of it; at best, you will make OK hay, and the plants will probably go dormant afterwards because to their thinking (yes, plants think), they’ve accomplished their job—to reproduce—for the year. You basically will not make good hay that year, thought it might be ok. So, big advantage for Timothy as a hayfield grass! Orchardgrass is almost insane in how quickly it sets seed, and probably causes almost as much frustration in hayfields as broken baler belts!
Now I mentioned that funny word earlier: forbs. Forbs are herbaceous broadleaved plants. Dandelions are a perennial forb that is considered a weed. Truly, dandelions have better feed value than Alfalfa. If you mow them they come back for much longer into the summer than you’d think. I am always thrilled when I get a bumper crop of dandelions, though my lawn-fanatic neighbor isn’t, because I know they are nutritious and improve the soil with their amazingly deep penetrating taproot that seems to want to go all the way China. A close relative of the Dandelion, Chicory, known as “ragged sailors” where I live, are a road-side weed that likes to make its appearance late in summer when everything else is flagging. It, too, has an amazingly deep taproot, providing it with this considerable subterranean vitality. And, unlike Dandelion, it has been bred by humans to be an improved pasture plant with much bigger and juicer leaves with longer seasonal performance and less inclination to “bolt” and enter its reproductive phase like its wild ancestor. Plantain is another lawn and roadside weed enterprising seedmen have improved. In the spring, Lizzy, who is very gentle and likes to be petted like a dog, will bowl you over if she spots some plantain growing. Another forb that catches my fancy is Small Burnett (Delar is the variety I’ve used), which actually tastes good enough to eat in a salad. It is bit harder to establish than the others and is overall not as vigorous of a plant, but it is EVERGREEN. It is also extremely drought tolerant (because of big, thick taproot) and is a member of the rose family, being the only forage plant I know of in that family, so it gets diversity points. At the times of year when there is nothing out in the pasture that is worth eating and hay is the majority of the diet, a little fresh, green Burnett really seems satisfy (both man and animal).
So far I have only mentioned perennial forage plants. In fact, many annual plants make excellent forage, and though they require field prep and planting every year (disadvantage vs. perennials), they do not need to be harvested like an annual crop—the animals just eat them or you let them rot down (a cover crop). I’ve found oats, winter barley, and rye all make decent forage. In fact, I fed a heifer once on a diet of basically winter Barley and Red Clover with handfuls of Lambsquarters for months because nothing else was growing in a oddly dry spring. She gained weight on it! Rye has the ability to withstand brutal winter weather better than any forage plant I know. It remains green all winter and supposedly grows until it gets below freezing. I happen to think it makes much better winter-feed for animals than stockpiled tall fescue pasture. I have never tried planting it with a cold-hardy legume, like Austrian Winter peas (supposedly new varieties can survive to -5 F), but I want to in the future. As it is, I think Rye is decent alone for the dry period in dairy cows before they calve. I don’t think it would maintain production in a lactating animals without substantial hay and grain supplementation, but since I time it so the cow is dry in February and March and calves in April, feeding rye works well as it’s the only thing that will be nice green that time of year (expect Small Burnet). Winter Wheat and Winter Barley are a lot like Rye, only not as vigorous, tall, or cold hardy. Supposedly they have better TDNs, but I don’t believe it, especially if you are using a forage Rye like GrazeKing 90. I’ve found that Barley develops loose smut in humid Southern Indiana, and just ordinary VNS (variety not specified) Winter Wheat is about as good as Rye for a cover crop, but not as vigorous. It is much cheaper, and if I can’t get Rye, I get Wheat.
(In the background, a lousy hayfield, in the middle sweet clover cover crop, in the foreground a rye cover crop or late winter grazing, picture taken last day of 2016)
I haven’t touched upon the Brassicas yet, which I am enthusiastic about, because I think I have unusual conditions that make Brassicas grow extremely well on my place compared to most other places, so I doubt your experiences will be as good as mine. My soils are very high pH because they are very magnesium rich (about 2x normal). My pH, without any liming, is always above 7. It gets up to 8 sometimes. pHs this high actually start to harm most plants, especially grasses (and Wheat, Rye, Barley, Oats, Corn, Sorghum are all grasses). Acid loving plants, like the cranberry and blueberry, simply will not grow without complete soil removal and replacement. You have to dig a hole and fill it with peat, and other soil making ingredients, and then pant the Blueberry. It is just not worth it. I am constantly trying to lower my pH, which is the opposite of most famers. Brassicas, in general, are high pH loving plants. The ancestral Brassicas grew in chalk! Brassicas include plants like Kale (the most wild of the bunch), Turnips, Rutabagas (Swedes), Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbages, Radishes, Kohlrabi, Rape, etc. They are a big part of most folks’ gardens. I also think they can be a big part of most folks’ forage and crop programs. I am simply amazed by the Brassica tribe at my place. Radishes the size of baseball bats, with roots that go two feet down in two months, are my biological sub-soilers, and an overabundant supply of pickle making material. There are many useful forage brassicas. The two I have messed with for forage are Rutabagas and Kale (which both can be eaten by humans and are quite good). I can tell you, Lizzy loves them. Too much in fact. The problem with brassicas is that they don’t have enough fiber in them and should constitute less than half the diet. Oats and turnips work well together for late fall grazing, but both die if it goes down to 20 degrees or so, and the turnips flatten out and get kind of gross. So make sure it is eaten up by Christmas at the latest. If you put oats, turnips and rye together, and have a mild winter, what happens is the oats and turnips get all eaten up, and once the rye is no longer threatened by plant predators and is released from the oat-turnip canopy that covered it, it shoots up from the ground with abandon in warm days in January and February. In March or early April, when rains make everything a muddy mess, this rye field may be the cleanest place on your farm and a good place for some grazing during good weather.
(a typical “tillage” radish)
I’ve tried several summer annuals and been disappointed. Teffgrass grows well here, but Lizzy will not touch it. It makes good straw bedding for chickens, especially chicks. It also makes good modeling straw (I give the stuff to crafters and model train enthusiasts who want scaled down “straw” for their model farms and whatnot). And chickens eat the little seeds, too. Lespedeza just doesn’t impress me like Red Clover does. I see no advantage it has over Red Clover on my place. It is an acid-preferring plant, so that may be why. My neighbors all plant forage Sudax (a sterile Sorghum-Sudangrass hybrid) that they use to make silage with. Like corn, it is an impressive plant, growing rapidly and is very nutritious and reasonably drought tolerant. I suppose animals could graze it, too, but it is risky as there is the chance for prussic acid and nitrate poisoning with these plants. In the end, I don’t think Sudax is any better than the weed Johnsongrass, which is a perennial with the same problems and benefits. Why people go through the effort of planting Sudax ever year when they could plant Johnsgrass once and leave it for a century makes me wonder. I suppose it is because they want to rotate the field into other crops and the sterile Sudax is good for this (no volunteers the next year).