Nurturing and saving new forage growth for winter feed can decrease winter feed and labor costs.
“Every 30 days of grazing stockpiled forage provides a cost savings that is nearly equivalent to increasing your calving rate by 8-10%,” explains Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage agronomist.
Hancock adds that 30 days of winter feed is usually the minimum producers can expect from stockpiling tame forages like bermudagrass and tall fescue in the Southeast, if both new growth and subsequent grazing are well managed.
Further north, stockpiled forages offer 2,000-2,500 lbs. of forage on a dry matter (DM) basis, according to Rory Lewandowski, Ohio State University Extension educator in agriculture and natural resources. With fertilizer, production can be increased by 1,000-1,500 lbs./acre. This is for forages such as tall fescue and/or orchardgrass mixed with legumes.
Letting cows harvest the forage, rather than making hay out of it and then feeding it to them, is where the obvious savings occur.
Lewandowski emphasizes that stockpiled forage also provides flexibility. For example, some producers benefit by feeding hay while forage is stockpiled, then grazing rather than feeding hay during winter's harshest months.
“Another stockpiling advantage is it assures grasses will be replenishing and storing carbohydrate root reserves during the critical fall period, which will build stronger root systems,” Lewandowski explains. He adds, “If the grass to be stockpiled is fescue, this may be the best use for it. Cattle that reluctantly graze fescue in August and September find fescue in November-February to be very palatable. In addition, fescue will maintain its forage quality and tonnage better than other cool-season pasture grasses throughout the winter.”
Keep in mind we're talking about stockpiling new growth forage, rather than simply deferring the grazing of summer pastures until the winter months.
Hancock says one common producer mistake is fertilizing the old or mature residue that cows refuse to eat.
“The key is to start with a clean slate,” Hancock says, “either by grazing the pasture down tightly, mowing a last cutting of hay or clipping the forage to a consistent height.”
In the Southeast, Hancock explains the chief stockpiling strategy for tall fescue is to fertilize pastures from mid August to early September. He recommends applying 40-50 lbs./acre of nitrogen (N), but says it responds to as much as 100 lbs. in good years. The Cadillac is still ammonium nitrate, followed by urea and broiler litter. Recommendations are the same for bermudagrass, except application should be 6-8 weeks before the first expected frost.
In Lewandowski's neck of the woods, for maximum production, stockpiling initiation occurs Aug. 1-15. Application rates for N depend on the level of legumes in the pastures. If a tall-fescue pasture contains 35-40% legumes, for example, extra N isn't required. If legume levels are less than that, Lewandowski suggests applying up to 50 lbs./acre of N.
“The later in the season you begin stockpiling, the less forage you will grow, but the quality of it will be better,” he says.
Just turning cattle out to graze stockpiled forage can fritter away lots of opportunity, though.
Generally speaking, Hancock says continuous grazing means only about 30-40% utilization. Research indicates 50-60% utilization can be had with rotational grazing, 65-75% with frontal grazing.
That's why Hancock recommends frontal grazing, starting in the part of pasture where water is available and moving the grazing front further from the water every few days.
“Allow cattle enough forage for 3-4 days and then move the fences. That will almost double the amount of utilization you can get,” he says.
When pastures contain legumes, Lewandowski says flash grazing can also increase utilization. Here, you basically allow cattle to graze long enough to utilize the legumes, which deteriorate quickest, then pull them back off until you're ready to utilize the grass stockpiled there.
Determining how much forage is available on a DM basis is another necessity of effective utilization. James Rogers recommends that producers, even those with a developed eye for estimating forage quality, recalibrate every few years (see “Measuring What You Have”). Rogers is a pasture and range consultant at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, OK.
As usual, Mother Nature will determine the ultimate success.
“If it doesn't rain, all bets are off,” Hancock says.
That's one reason some producers are reluctant to stockpile forage, Rogers says. When grass is growing, producers are most likely to think about how much hay they can put into the barn for insurance.
“We can't get away from hay, but we have to make the cattle hustle for it as much as possible,” Rogers says.
It's also tougher to manage grazing in sprawling native-grass pastures like those of the High Plains where Rogers works. But he says it's still economically worthwhile.
At the other end of nature's extremes, too much rain can submarine meticulous management plans, too.
“It goes back to balancing your management goals,” Lewandowski explains. “If one of your goals is maintaining the sod base of the pasture, you have to be concerned about crowding it too tightly and you may need to remove cattle from the pasture during a muddy period.” On the other hand, the opposite can help prepare the pasture for planned renovation.
When stockpiling fits the management scheme and Mother Nature cooperates, Hancock says producers in his part of the world will delay grazing stockpiled forage until at least the end of October. Many can graze it into January, even into February. He cautions producers to keep in mind there's an opportunity cost to stockpiling — foregoing winter annuals on the same ground — for example.
All of these pasture and range specialists emphasize that making the decision to stockpile forage is about balance. There's the balance between available forage and the nutritional needs of cattle, as well as balance between management goals, resources and alternative strategies.
Opportunity costs aside, Lewandowski recently ran the numbers on stockpiling vs. haying, given higher-than-traditional fuel and fertilizer costs.
“It still makes economic sense,” Lewandowski says. “Take some time to push a pencil and assess your situation. In our new economic climate, timely management decisions and/or more intensive management are necessary to improve the bottom line.”
Measure What You Have
“The vast majority of producers aren't going out and measuring their forage; they use rule-of-thumb estimates,” says Rory Lewandowski, Ohio State University Extension educator in agriculture and natural resources. These estimates are based on research over time, specific to forages and geography.
A step toward increased accuracy is measuring the forage's canopy height at various locations within the pasture with a pasture — or grazing — stick. These are basically yardsticks that also include numeric tables with a range of estimates for pounds of dry matter (DM) per acre inch based upon the stand's density. This is possible because a direct relationship exists between canopy height and pounds of standing DM, says James Rogers, The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation pasture and range consultant, Ardmore, OK.
Making these estimates more accurate requires clipping samples from pasture quadrants, then drying and weighing the samples in order to come up with the actual pounds of DM per acre inch.
In other words, the pasture stick and tables — necessarily wide — will get you in the ballpark, but the most accurate estimates require calibrating the stick to a specific situation. Narrowing the range of possibility takes you back to clipping, drying and weighing.
On the other hand, Rogers points out that plenty of producers have already developed an accurate eye for estimating how much hay a field or pasture will produce in a given year. If so, he says that estimate can be used as a basis for extrapolating the DM per acre inch.
You can find all of the equations and steps in the Noble Foundation's “Grazing Stick Instruction Manual”. Extension agents are also an invaluable resource.