Winter Annual Grazing Plots

Christine Gelley, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, Noble County, OSU Extension

Food plot with purple top turnips that are suitable for wildlife, or livestock! Photo by Clif Little, Ohio State University Extension.

Some people take great pride in providing superior forage for grazing animals in the late fall utilizing combinations of annual, biennial, and perennial forages. In areas like ours, it seems like the most popular animal this smorgasbord of delightful feed is planted for is the white tailed deer. It makes sense to do this if deer are your passion.

In late fall-early winter the selection of leafy green forbs, legumes, and grasses dwindles and they will be seeking ways to add protein and carbohydrates to their diets. Deer are browsers. They consume between 30-50 percent of their diet as “browse”, which is material from shrubs and trees. Legumes and broadleaf weeds make up 30-50 percent of their intake. The remaining 10-30 percent consumed is grass. In a deer plot you can add forbs (broadleaf plants like plantain or turnips), legumes (clovers primarily), and winter annual grasses to fill the gap of what they are seeking from the landscape.

The best placement for a good deer plot is located with a wooded or brushy border. This allows the deer to sneak in and sneak out as they browse the woods for food or mates. Plots can be successful next to crop fields, but tend to attract deer to the crop when it is growing and makes them feel exposed after the crop is harvested. Cover crops after an annual grain crop can give you the best of both worlds. Green coverage for the soil after harvest and food for grazing animals.

Now, I’d like to ask . . .

If we are willing to put forth the effort to establish these buffets for wildlife, why are we so hesitant to do the same for our grazing livestock?

They have a gap to fill in their diets at this time too. Many are on the search for a mate, pregnant, nursing, or growing rapidly and in need of carbohydrates and protein. Cattle, sheep, and goats would all dine on the same feast we discussed for the deer. Establishing winter (late-fall) grazing plots for our livestock can provide forage of excellent nutritional value, rejuvenative properties for the soil, and reduce our need for stored feed.

It is pretty late in the fall to begin establishing winter-grazing plots today, but there is still potential for success with cold hardy crops. August is the ideal time to seed, but if the soil temperature is still adequate for germination and there is some moisture in the soil, you may be able to no-till drill some seed straight into over grazed pasture and get some additional feed for December or into early spring.

It would be risky, but so is waiting to buy stored feed. Who knows what hay prices will be later in the season? The difference between the price of a round bale now versus a round bale in December may be enough to pay for a bag of winter annual grazing mix.

What do you have to lose if you try it and it doesn’t work? The price of the seed and a little time.

What do you have to gain? A source of excellent feed for your livestock and protection for your soil this winter.

If you think I’m silly to suggest planting this late, I wouldn’t argue with you. It is silly, but I’m not the only one considering it. We just seeded a plot of winter annual grasses at the Jackson Agricultural Research Station last week as part of a grass cover crops study that we will monitor through to early spring (which would be the best time to graze or wet wrap in this case).

To plan ahead for next year’s winter grazing plots, think about your options in the summer, get the seed planted in August, and be ready to give your animals access to a thanksgiving feast.

Extension Educators Clif Little and Mark Landefeld have put together a factsheet series about establishing wildlife food plots. They are fabulous resources to consult and you can access the first of the series at this link: