Harvesting stockpiled fescue and improving forages and soil health

Stockpiled fescue is forage allowed to grow and accumulate for future use, often during a forage deficit. It is common practice to harvest and store stockpiled-fescue as hay or silage, but the purposeful stockpiling of forage for grazing at a later time is a new concept for many livestock producers.

Nearly any grass or legume species can be stockpiled. Tall fescue has probably been used most frequently in stockpiling systems because of its good fall growth and persistent grazing.

Helpful practices

Fescue maintains its quality when exposed to adverse autumn and winter weather conditions. A few extra management practices, such as seeding legumes into the pasture and clipping seed heads in early summer, can improve forage traits and soil health.

Legumes such as alfalfa and red clover increase the forage nutritional value and contribute nitrogen fixation to grasses. Legumes often live for a shorter period of time in mixed stands where winter stockpile grazing is practiced.

Red clover has good seedling vigor and can be relatively easy to establish back into pasture stands by frost seeding in late winter or inter-seeding in the spring. This improves soil health by establishing legumes in bare soil areas.

The climate in Ohio permits cool season forage to grow during a seven to eight-month period. Beef cow herd and sheep flock records over the past few years show that winter feed costs are the single largest production expense.

Keeping the winter feeding costs low is crucial to profitable production. Extending the grazing season by using stockpiled fescue in late autumn and during the winter months has been shown to be a very cost-effective way to maintain livestock profitability. An additional three to four weeks can also be beneficial during the grazing season.

Defer grazing

The most common stockpiling practice is to allow the stockpiled forage to accumulate during the last 70-80 days of the growing season. This 70-day period can be achieved by deferring summer grazing or harvesting the last summer hay crop until late July or early August.

This allows for continuous growth during the stockpiling period. The fescue that grows during this autumn period is leafy and high in nutritional value. Stockpile grazing research shows that roughly three fourths to one ton of forage dry matter per acre can be stockpiled over a 70-day period.

Fertilizer

Applying 40-50 pounds per acre of nitrogen fertilization early to mid-August will increase fescue production to about 1.5 tons per acre. A fall application of fertilizer is much more preferred than a spring application if only one fertilizer application is applied.

While legumes will provide much needed nitrogen for grass growth in mixed pastures, modest amounts of nitrogen applications may be applied to mixed grass/legume pastures without affecting long-term legume persistence in the pasture. Weather conditions will have the greatest influence in the accumulation of stockpiled fescue.

If continuous grazing occurs the livestock will decrease the utilization of the forage, by selectively grazing plant parts with the highest digestibility and protein concentration. The livestock will leave behind stems and rolled down forage.

Stockpiled fescue should be strip grazed to extend the forage grazing period into the winter months. Managing forages with temporary fences and strip grazing smaller areas of the stockpiled forage allows the manager to ration the forage, extend the grazing days further into the winter, and provide a more uniform forage nutritional quality.

However, it is important to only strip graze forages after full dormancy. This method decreases plant damage and helps maintain full growth production for the spring growing season.

Access

Fescue fields used in early summer pasture may be used as stockpiled fescue fields in the late fall or early winter. Stockpiled pasture areas selected should be easily accessible in the winter for livestock handling and supplemental feeding, along with adequate winter water supply.

With thoughtful planning, stockpiling fescue for strip grazing may become an economically important part of your livestock enterprise. Keeping living roots in the soils and covering the soil with a forage provides a protective armor that improves soil health.

About the Author

Troyce Barnett is a grazing specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ohio. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460. More Stories by Troyce Barnett

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