Rebounding from summer drought conditions
A wet, rainy spring followed by a hot, dry summer created conditions that adversely impacted forages and hay crops. The first cutting of fescue hay fell short for many producers. The weather conditions caused a delayed fescue hay crop which led to it being more mature with a lower nutrient value. Then the drought eliminated the possibility of a second cutting of hay.
All these factors combined with a nationwide hay shortage has some farmers concerned about how they will feed their animals through the winter. Forage specialists recommend producers focus on forage management to help carry their herds through the cold months.
Stockpiling forages has been a strategy utilized by farmers for years to provide nutrition for their cattle in the winter months. Ideally, producers fertilize their fescue pastures in August and then close off the pastures until the fields are needed for grazing in the winter months. Producers may also want to plant turnips or fall oats when fertilizing.
Early fall is a good time to get some additional forages in the ground. “In September we focus on planting rye, triticale, barley or wheat for fall, winter and spring grazing,” Tim Schnakenberg, field specialist in agronomy with the University of Missouri Extension explained. “These can still be planted in early October, but tonnage potential for the fall is diminished greatly.”
Stockpiling Versus Feeding Hay
Though it is getting late in the season to plant or fertilize, it’s not too late to look at the differences of feeding hay compared to grazing stockpiled pastures in the winter months.
“The cost of hay may exceed $150 per ton and is usually much lower in quality compared to lush pasture,” Schnakenberg said. “If you figure cost of feeding hay along with typical feeding losses associated with hay, it could potentially cost well over $3.00 per day to feed a 1,200 pound lactating cow.” The cost per day could climb even higher if a producer supplemented with grain, which is higher in price this year.
However, in many cases it will cost less to feed cattle stockpiled pastures. “Factoring fall pasture rent, the cost of putting about 40 pounds of nitrogen on your strongest fescue pastures, and closing gates until about December, the cost to feed during that time could be closer to $1.30 per day,” Schnakenberg stated. How well the grass will grow each year, depends on fall rains and the absence of early freezes.
Managing Stockpiled Forages
There are management strategies to help maximize forages for operations that plan to utilize stockpiled pastures in the winter months. “In the university models, improving grass utilization rates makes stockpiling most profitable,” Schnakenberg stated. “This involves raising use rates up to 60 percent or better.”
Forage specialists recommend improving utilization rates by strip grazing using short grazing intervals allowing the maximum use of the forage. “Those who stockpile routinely have the benefit of having top quality feed that their cows are harvesting themselves versus having to rely on a more labor intensive, higher priced and lower quality feed source,” Schnakenberg added.
According to forage specialists, fall growth may typically produce 1,500 to 3,000 pounds per acre of forage with good fertility. “I have calculated one to two acres of properly stockpiled fescue can meet the nutrient requirements of a 1,200 pound beef cow well into the winter months (50 to 100 days),” Schnakenberg explained.
Producers with stockpiled fescue pastures may turnout cattle to graze starting as early as October. But more typically the stockpiled fescue fields are utilized beginning in December, then rationed out to cows until it is depleted. Some operations can keep some stockpiled grass as late as February, if the weather remains mild.