As snow cover begins to recede and the tractor no longer needs to be plugged in to feed hay, you might be wondering if there’s an easier way. One solution is to bring your cows to forage resources by swath grazing (“Sweet On Swaths,” September BEEF, page 66).
Though the benefits of swath grazing may not materialize until the fall, pre- paring to plant forages begins now. “It’s got to be something you start thinking about in April or May, especially with annual forages,” says Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University Extension beef specialist. It’s this time of year when producers need to ask themselves, “Where and what am I going to plant?”
Both annual and perennial forages can be used for grazing. Location con- siderations include access to winter water, wind shelter and fencing needs. It’s also important to determine what time of year forage will be grazed, the class of livestock and stage of produc- tion, and their performance goals while grazing swaths. Keep in mind lactating cows have different needs than replace- ment heifers and stockers.
Annual crops are planted every year and include warm-season and cool-season grasses. Warm-season annuals such as foxtail millet, sorghum-sundangrass hybrids or sudangrass, and cool-season annuals such as barley and oats, have been used for windrow grazing, says Jerry Volesky, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension range and forage specialist.
Selecting warm- or cool-season forages is dependent upon the climatic re- gion. “With the heat we typically get in July, cool-seasons don’t quite work out as well in a lot of situations,” Lardy explains, noting producers in Canada use more cool-season grasses.
Cattlemen swath grazing in Canada and the Western U.S. are fans of annual forages.
“The annual route is one of the best ways to go in the Upper Great Lakes Region,” says Ryon Walker, University of Minnesota Extension beef specialist. “It’s the safest way mainly because annuals typically will not come back the following growing season, whereas regrowth of perennial forages may be reduced the following spring due to grazing pressure.”
Walker adds that producers planning to swath graze using an annual forage should be prepared to work the ground the following year. Annual forages work well in most climates, but in wetter conditions high-yielding annuals reduce the potential for molding and the stem component helps swaths dry. Annual crops should be seeded so that when harvested before the first frost, crops are in the early-heading to soft-dough stage. Annuals grazed before this stage will regrow, Walker says.
Costs can add up quickly using annuals, especially in light of increasing nitrogen prices. “If you put the expense of the inputs into trying to produce an annual forage, and you don’t get much for tonnage, it’s probably hard to economically justify the expense of trying to swath it and cross-fence it,” Lardy says.
One other caution is drought stress and the potential for that crop to have high nitrate levels. Lardy recommends drought-stressed annuals be tested prior to grazing.
Perennials, on the other hand, grow each year without replanting (e.g., alfalfa, smooth bromegrass) but face inherent challenges. “A perennial coming back next spring is going to have a hard time because of all the stress cattle put on it,” Walker says. These crops should be seeded in early spring, unless pastures have been already established. Like annual crops, these are harvested prior to first frost and can be grazed early in the season.
“We grazed those meadows during the month of May,” explains Volesky. “And the reason for doing that was we wanted to delay the maturity of those grasses and be working with regrowth in September when we hayed it.”
He was working with sub-irrigated hay meadows in the Sand Hills of Nebraska comprised of cool-season grasses such as smooth bromegrass, slender wheatgrass with a few legumes and clovers added in. By grazing in May, the forage didn’t become rank when hayed in September.
Another forage that has worked well for producers in Nebraska is alfalfa. Volesky says this is typically last-cutting alfalfa harvested around mid-October for grazing in early November. This works well when compared to grazing standing (stockpiled) alfalfa because after freeze-down, standing alfalfa looses leaves and overall quality fairly quickly.
In Lardy’s experience, “perennials were lower-quality forages just because of when they were cut relative to when they would have peaked in terms of productivity.” Big bluestem (a warm-season) growing in North Dakota hits peak production mid- to late-July, which if swathed at that time is hard to keep in good condition due to heat, humidity and moisture. To get around lower-quality forage, a lick-barrel molasses supplement tub was provided to cattle swath grazing.
Tables 1-3 illustrate how various forages, when put into swaths, fared for crude protein, total digestible nutrients and yield.
Walker preferred the Italian ryegrass/oats (Table 2) mixture because as the oats matured, it choked out Italian ryegrass and made for better swaths. He estimated the stand to be 20% Italian ryegrass, 80% oats. He noted that annual ryegrass was the “best bang for our buck” in terms of yield.