How to Work on Improving your Forages

By Doug Hanson, ProHarvest Seeds 

Forage & Cover Crop Lead

Doug Hason horitz

It is often said that a properly fertilized pasture or hayfield is the cheapest forage you can buy.  With current land values and high input costs (seed, fertilizer, diesel fuel) it is important to get the most out of land that has been dedicated to forage production.  Finding 1200# round bales for $25 to $30 per bale is no longer practical.  With forage values ranging from $120 to over $200 per ton it is important to manage forage production with the same intensity as corn and soybeans.


Pastures will increase production with added fertility.  I like to use 200 pounds of ammonium sulfate in either spring or fall.  Mid to late August is the best time in Illinois.  Spring fertilizing can be done in late February through mid March.  This is also around the same time that wheat is being fertilized.  This will provide around 40 pounds of nitrogen and it will also provide some sulfur.  Legumes will respond to Sulfur like grasses respond to Nitrogen.  Ammonium sulfate can be used in the granular or liquid forms depending on availability from your supplier.  It is often the cheapest source of N on the market.  This can change from year to year and by supplier location.  ESN (encapsulated Urea) or comparable types of time released products are another good source of Nitrogen.  You will need to check with individual suppliers if you want Sulfur mixed in with your ESN. 

Pastures will perform best if they have some legumes with the grasses.  Legumes can make up as much as 35% of the pasture.  I think this is too high for most beef producers.  I would recommend more in the 20 to 25% range with good management. 

I like to add white clover seed and sometimes red clover, if a pasture needs legumes, when I am fertilizing in the spring.  Three to four pounds of a good white clover (not Dutch white) is more than enough.  If using red clover I would go with 8 to 12 pounds.  A mix of 3 pounds white and 5 pounds red is a good way to hedge your opportunity.  I have seen years where one clover will do better one year, and the other type will do better the next.  Therefore, this reduces risk and provides more variety in the pasture.

Hay Fields

Two hundred pounds of ammonium sulfate applied to a grass Alfalfa mix hay field is an excellent way to increase hay tonnage and create more healthy roots.  The Alfalfa will respond to the sulfur and it will respond to the Nitrogen early in the season before Nitrogen fixation takes place.  The grasses will respond to the Nitrogen.

If a hayfield is under performing it is best to add grasses or red clover in the fall.  It will compete against the existing plants better and will have minimal weed pressure.  If you realize after first cutting that a field suffered a high percentage of winter kill it is going to be too late to help the hay field for the rest of the summer and it will probably be economically wise to terminate the field after the first cutting.  Terminating the hay field and planting it to a high-quality summer annual could yield anywhere from 6 to 10 tons of good quality feed.  If you add your first cutting tonnage to that number you will see why summer annuals can really help meet a farms forage needs.  Some popular summer annuals to use are Brown Mid-Rib (BMR) Forage Sorghum, BMR Sorghum Sudan Grass, Sudan hybrids and Hybrid Pearl Millet.  Teff grass can definitely be an option if you want dry hay, but it is more difficult to get established.


"In order to increase our chances at profitability, cattle producers must reduce feed costs and this can be done most effectively through aggressive management of our forages. The best returns from pasture fertilization will depend on effective utilization through well-managed livestock and forage programs"

- Doug Hanson, Seed Specialist/Forage Seeds Lead

Click here to read the full article on fertilizing forages from the Jan./Feb. 2014 IL Beef Magazine.

Recommendations for Frost Seeding

Evergraze White Clover is a high yielding, easy to establish ladino white clover.  This variety works great in close grazing situations and is very persistent in dry conditions.  Click here for the Evergraze tech sheet.  Ladino white clover is seeded at approximately 4 to 6 pounds per acre.

Freedom Red Clover is an excellent companion to most cool season grasses for both grazing and haying. Freedom has reduced stem pubescence and large leaves that make it ideal for grazing and hay production. Click here for the Freedom Red Clover tech sheet. Red clover is seeded at approximately 8 to 10 pounds per acre.

To increase diversity, try our new Red and White Clover Mix. This is a blend of Evergraze and Freedom Red Clovers. Frost seed at 8 pounds per acre to maximize production.

The Quick-To-Grow Mix is a combination of fast establishing grasses and clovers that can be frost seeded in existing pastures and hay fields. This blend is great for filling in bare spots or high traffic areas. Click here for the Quick-to-grow tech sheet. Quick-to-grow is frost seeded at 10 to 20 pounds per acre. It can also be planted at 30 to 40 pounds per acre for a fast growing, 3 to 4 year pasture.

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A summer annual in your rotation is a great way to provide relief for your permanent pastures. Sorghum Sudan grass, hybrid Sudan grass, or a hybrid pearl millet are all great products. If you manage your grazing times, you can get much more return per acre with an annual in the rotation. With a little moisture and heat, a summer annual can easily make up for your summer slump.


  • Average seed cost per acre will between $40-$80 with a yield ranging from 3 to 8 tons of dry matter, depending on proper management and fertility.

  • “Turn-out” time on these grasses will be at a height of 18 to 24 inches; around 30 to 40 days after planting.

  • Summer annuals can grow at astounding rates, as much as 2 inches a day. These grasses can support much higher stocking rates than most permanent pastures.

Check out these links for other pasture management topics.


Every year people ask us what options they have with a thin hay field in May. It is being asked with a lot more concern this year than it has been in years past. Here is the best option for a field that is in its last year or two of production. Take the first cutting for hay, let it grow back enough to burn it down with a herbicide and then plant it to a summer annual. I recommend one of the following summer annuals: Sorghum Sudan Grass, Forage Sorghum, Sudan Hybrid, Hybrid Pearl Millet. They all fit different needs and can provide an excellent source of very good quality forage. Here are some facts to think about.

  • A hay field will produce approximately 40% to 50% of its tonnage in the first cutting. That means you will only get 2 to 3 more tons of forage the rest of the year from the hayfield.

  • By harvesting the first cutting in May, terminating the field and planting the summer annual in June, you will be able to produce 8 to 12 tons of forage.

What are my options if I want to keep my hay field?

We only have one option to improve a hayfield after first cutting and keep the hayfield. That option is TeffGrass. I have had excellent experiences with Teff and I have had disasters with it. Teff grass can be inter-seeded at about 5 pounds per acre. If properly established it can produce an additional 1.5-3 tons of forage. It can be difficult to establish, but it is worth it when you do.   

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