Consider stockpiling forage for winter use

Creative CommonsThis program requires having extra stored hay on hand as a backup in case of late summer-early fall drought. Storing this hay that you might not need to feed in a barn allows it to be kept for several winters without an appreciable loss in bale weight or forage quality.

This year has been tough on growing forage and hay production. 

Most people are a little short of their normal totals for hay, but most of us would like to feed less hay, especially when the snow is blowing and it is freezing outside, so wouldn’t it be nice if you could save the cost of one hay harvest a year (around $20-$25 a roll) and still have the forage your livestock needs for the winter? There is a way to make this dream a reality. It takes prior planning to make it possible, and conditions will hopefully be right to give it a try this year.

If you have the space and the time to devote to management, stockpiling Bermuda grass or even Bahia grass in the pasture can be a great tool for winter feeding. However, like other feeding programs, it takes planning to make it a success. The key components of a stockpiled forage system are a pasture that can be devoted to growing the grass to be fed later, good fertility, timely rainfall and the patience to utilize the stockpiled forage judiciously during the winter as a supplement to the cow herd.

Those interested in this type of winter program should follow some pointers.

Graze the pasture down to a one- to two-inch height or cut the field for hay around the first week of September, which is approximately eight weeks prior to the historical date of the first anticipated frost in our area. Mow the field to be stockpiled only as a last resort to keep from building up a layer of decomposing grass in the new growth and to save on labor, equipment and fuel costs.

Apply at least 60 pounds of nitrogen. Also phosphorus and potassium can be applied if recommended by a current soil test report.

Wait to graze the stockpiled area until after the first frost.

The goal is to accumulate as much growth as possible in this field while weather conditions will allow. The typical cow herd in our area will require about 30 acres of pasture to be devoted to this practice for every 25 cows.

Control access to the stockpiled area by using a movable electric fence that will allow you to graze the field in strips, or by opening and closing gates. The goal is to make the cows efficiently harvest the forage by manipulating access so that they will graze down only the top two-thirds of the grass — which is the most nutritious — and leave the bottom one-third of the grass — which is mostly low-quality stem — to protect the pasture against winter freeze and help control erosion.

Under good conditions, this scenario will provide around 45 to 60 days of grazing. This program has been shown to provide forage with a dry matter protein content of between 8 and 14 percent through January, which is more than adequate for the typical dry, pregnant cow.

If grazing is not controlled, cattle are likely to trample the stockpiled grass and selectively graze the higher quality tops down in about 28 to 35 days.

Once the dormant pasture has been used, cattle can then be switched to pastures that have been overseeded with ryegrass or some other winter forage or wintered on hay.

This program requires having extra stored hay on hand as a backup in case of late summer-early fall drought. Storing this hay that you might not need to feed in a barn allows it to be kept for several winters without an appreciable loss in bale weight or forage quality.

Monitor the cows grazing dormant pasture and add protein or energy supplements if the herd’s average body condition starts to decline.