Utilizing Crabgrass as Livestock Forage

— Written By and last updated by Jill Cofer
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Crabgrass gets its close-up!Crabgrass has gotten a bad reputation as an aggravating weed in yards, gardens or pastures. In livestock operations however, crabgrass is a high-quality, palatable forage which livestock love. Whether some producers realize it, at some point it has probably helped them make it through summer grazing when fescue is in its “summer slump.”

Crabgrass is a summer annual forage that will germinate in the spring when soil temperatures reach around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and die off in the fall. It can grow up to two feet tall in most situations. To get crabgrass established, don’t plant seeds more than a half inch in the ground and around 2-5 pounds per acre. There are several different varieties of crabgrass that are available. Crabgrass is a summer annual, once summer is over it will die and not come back until spring of the following year. To prevent erosion, and provide ground cover that can be grazed, it is recommended that a winter annual be planted in its place in the fall once the crabgrass has done its thing. It can also be broadcasted in feeding or high traffic areas for quick and excellent ground cover.

Even though it is an annual, in many cases if it is managed the right way, producers can make it come back year after year, reducing the amount of seed needed to be purchased and replanted. Crabgrass will generally produce enough seed over a season to where it will create a seed bank for the next year. To help make it more successful for the next year, producers should let it seed out at least once, then mow it with a rotary mower or mow it to make hay off of it. This will help scatter more seed heads in the pastures.

One advantage of using crabgrass as a grazing forage, is that it is tolerant to defoliation and can be grazed or mowed down to 3 inches. Studies have shown that cattle can be rotationally grazing on crabgrass when it reaches 12 inches and be grazed down to 3-5 inches and then turned back into the pastures when the crabgrass grows back to around 8 inches.

Another advantage is turning livestock out on crabgrass pastures in the summer when fescue is in its “summer slump.” Since fescue is a cool season perennial, it is actively growing in the spring and fall. Research has shown that fescue grows more over the winter than it will in the heat of summer. So, if you have crabgrass for livestock to graze during the summer, you can allow fescue pastures to rest during this period. Tall KY-31 fescue contains an endophyte fungus, which makes it hardy, but is also toxic to livestock causing fescue toxicity. Utilizing crabgrass or another summer annual can help with fescue toxicity in livestock. Seed heads of tall fescue can contain the highest levels of endophyte and generally are present during the summer months. Removing livestock from fescue pastures during the summer and putting them on a crabgrass forage can help lower the amount of toxins the animal consumes and in return, allowing livestock to grow and perform much better than they would while grazing tall fescue.

When thinking about forages, crabgrass can be another tool producers can utilize in their grazing management plan. It is a high-quality forage – that can reseed year after year – that livestock love. It can also allow livestock producers a different forage for their livestock to graze during the summer when cool season perennials go dormant. If you have any questions or want more information, contact Adam Lawing via email or at 336-308-6012.