Providing adequate fall and winter feed for cattle during dry years can be challenging. Stockpiling pastures can help, while alternative feeds can stretch or replace traditional forages.
Of course, some alternatives are more feasible than others, depending on what’s available locally, or how much freight is required to haul feed. One thing is for certain: When forage gets short, ranchers become innovative. Here is a roundup of some alternatives.
Try summer annuals
For the past five years, the University of Idaho’s Research, Extension and Education Center in Salmon has researched options to extend grazing with summer annuals.
“We tried species that grew well in dry corners of pivot-irrigated ground to increase hay yield or pasture,” says John Hall, Extension beef specialist. “This evolved into a project to increase forage for fall grazing.” The first test plots contained five species of warm-season annuals: sudex, a sorghum-sudan hybrid; teff, an annual grass; German foxtail millet; pearl millet; and grazing corn.
“Now we just plant sudex about the first of July, to provide grazeable forage in November and December. The most productive year, we grazed 100 head for 40 days on 16 acres,” Hall says.
Under irrigation, with some fertilization, the crop did well, he adds. Only 40-60 units of nitrogen/acre were used as a precaution against nitrate toxicity, because sudex is a nitrate accumulator.
“We strip-grazed it, using a rotary mower to make swaths where we wanted to run our fence — a single strand of poly wire. We estimated the portions to fence according to the number of cattle. We made several passes through the field for easy fencing. In some instances, we gave cattle too much and they wasted a little. Or we gave them too little, and moved fence more often, but it worked,” Hall says.
He reports that the mowed paths thatch over the ground, protecting it from freezing and making it easier to insert the tread-in posts into the ground for the hot wire.
“When choosing a crop for fall grazing, we look at whether it will hold up under a snow load. Sudex works well because it sticks up through the snow. If you want to graze windrows, making them big helps, because once the cattle find the windrow, they’ll root through the snow,” he says.
Another tactic in deep snow is to fence perpendicular to the windrows, rather than parallel. If snow is deep or crusted, the cows can locate the windrows since they’ve eaten on them in the previous strip. Plus, the snow will be broken as they move into the next strip.
One common drawback with annual crops is wildlife damage. Hall found that elk don’t damage sudex as much as other crops during the growing season.
“I don’t know if it’s a palatability issue or that sudex can grow so tall — up to 12 ft. — that elk can’t see through it. By contrast, deer come in and make little tunnels. Deer eat sudex, but don’t do near the damage as they do on grazing corn. There wasn’t an ear that hadn’t been chewed during the three years we planted corn,” he says.
Cornstalks are another option
Rising corn prices have prompted more corn acreage, which means more opportunity for grazing cornstalks, one of the most underutilized crop aftermaths in the U.S. The advantage to grazing stalks over baling is the lower cost, as grazing cattle do the harvesting. The most inhibiting factor to corn grazing, however, is often lack of access to stock water, Hall explains.
One difference in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, eastern Nebraska and Kansas, is that nearly every farm at one time included a small feedlot. While that feeding largely migrated to larger feedyards, those farmer-feeders still have those facilities and water.
Stalks can be baled, but that entails the cost of baling and transportation. Plus, stalks contain a lot of indigestible fiber.
“Can we buy cornstalks, baled and hauled, treat them chemically and have good, dry cow feed that’s still cheaper than hay? It all depends on the price of hay,” Hall says.