Experts recommend producers prepare pastures for fall and winter

Though most farmers were able to put up plenty of hay this spring, due to the challenges of hay harvest in May, the quality of hay is lower than past years. The decrease in hay quality means producers will need to spend more to supplement the nutritional needs of their cattle. 

Cost Savings Associated with Stockpiling Forage 

Therefore, cattle producers looking to add more money to their bottom lines may want to consider stockpiling forages for the winter months ahead. “About 45 to 50 percent of the cost of owning a cow is the feed costs to maintain the animal,” Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension Field Specialist in Agronomy, said. “Any way we can lower that cost and still provide all of the nutritional needs will lead to more money in our pockets when calves are sold.”

Experts point to research that indicates it costs more to feed cattle marginal quality hay, than to graze them on pasture during the winter months. “When doing the math, we find it normally costs twice as much each day to feed a cow herd with average quality hay than to ration out fertilized fescue pasture,” Schnakenberg explained. “This doesn’t even factor in the cost of supplemental feed if used.”

Additionally, in years when hay prices are higher than average, the numbers show it can cost as much as three times more to feed hay compared to feeding stockpiled fescue.

Types of Forages to Stockpile 

Fortunately for farmers living in parts of the country where tall fescue thrives, they have pastures full of grass that’s hardy enough to maintain forage quality through the winter months. “Outside of using a winter annual forage crop like cereal rye or triticale, we really don’t have a better perennial forage option that is better than tall fescue for fall and winter grazing,” Schnakenberg said.

Tall fescue contains a waxy cuticle on the leaf that helps it retain its quality through the winter. “In fact, it can stay green and palatable even under several inches of snow cover,” Schnakenberg added. 

Bermudagrass is another forage worth stockpiling for the fall and winter months. “Even after frost, there is still some forage quality in bermudagrass, though not as good as fescue and it certainly would not last as long as fescue going into the winter months,” Schnakenberg explained. 

Time to Start Stockpiling is Now

Agronomists recommend the month of August as the time to start preparing paddocks and pastures for tall fescue stockpile growth. The first step is to dedicate some of the paddocks that have an ample amount of tall fescue. Experts recommend avoiding overgrazed fields with a weak stand of tall fescue. Farmers also need to evaluate the quality of the tall fescue. “Producers should walk their fields in August to make sure they are still considered a tall fescue field and not full of Kentucky bluegrass or summer annual grasses,” Schnakenberg stated. 

When selecting fields for stockpiling, producers should examine the grass height. “For optimal quality in the fall, it’s usually best to start with a field that has been mowed off or grazed down to three inches by mid-August,” Schnakenberg recommended. “Then close the gates of designated paddocks and apply nitrogen fertilizer.” In addition, producers should keep in mind that fields with low phosphorus or potassium and exceptionally low pH fail to respond well to nitrogen applications. 

The time to start stockpiling bermudagrass pastures is late summer. Producers should use the stockpiled bermudagrass fields in the early winter, while the tall fescue fields are still growing. 

Managing Nitrogen on Stockpiled Tall Fescue Fields

The amount of nitrogen applied to a tall fescue field depends on the variety of tall fescue growing in that pasture. Agronomists advise high nitrogen levels can increase the threat of fescue endophyte in Kentucky 31 stands in the fall. 

Therefore, experts recommend limiting nitrogen rates to around 40 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre on those fields with Kentucky 31 tall fescue. In pastures with novel endophyte or endophyte-free stands, producers can apply up to 60 to 70 pounds of nitrogen per acre. 

Though there are many positive economic benefits to stockpiling forages for the winter, there are some occasions where it may not work as planned. Droughts in the fall and early ice storms in the winter can reduce the quality and quantity of the forage. But more often than not, experts say stockpiling fescue will pay off. 


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