This has been an interesting and challenging year for grazing management.
Most of us started the year with an excess of rain, which resulted in an explosion of early forage and wet soil conditions. This was quickly replaced with one of the hottest and driest summers on record.
We are again blessed with rain and growing forages, but there are a limited number of growing days before Jack Frost takes a toll on production.
Our challenge now seems to be in managing what we have to get us through the winter with economics and animal needs in mind.
Quantity, quality. May I suggest that we need to seriously take a look at the quantity and quality of stored feed we have along with the growing forage that we have to use?
Don’t forget to also consider any crop residue that may be available for grazing.
Next consider what quality of feed your animals require during the early, middle and late winter seasons.
If we are currently grazing our highest quality feeds while we have a barn full of low-quality hay that got rained on two or three times while we were trying to get it baled, we may be setting our livestock up to disappoint us with their performance later this winter.
While most of us want to graze as long as we can in the fall, we might want to consider stockpiling as much forage as we can while the plants are actively growing.
If animal nutrition requirements are lower right now than they will be later in the year, consider limiting the amount of fresh forage they can get now and start feeding some of your lower quality stored feed.
By limiting the amount of forage that the animals can access each time they are moved to a three-day supply you can go from about 35 percent utilization and 65 percent waste to about 70 percent utilization.
Solar collection. Let’s think about our forage plant as a solar collection system.
The more leaf surface area that is present on our plants, the more workers we have working in our solar collection system.
Taller grass and legume plants can produce much faster growth through photosynthesis than a plant that is grazed close to the ground.
If we let our plants grow until the weather shuts them down, we can still produce a tremendous amount of forage this fall while ensuring a healthy root system to carry our plants through the winter.
Keeping in mind that some forages stockpile better than others, plan to graze your fields that contain the most legumes near the time that a killing frost will shut them down.
Legumes will not hold their quality or quantity nearly as long after a killing frost as our grass plants will.
Bluegrass and orchard grass fields should be the next priority for grazing after the weather turns cold.
Fescue on the other hand will hold its quality late into the winter and may even be considered a better feed in the winter due to the lower effects from the endophyte during midwinter grazing.
Forage quality. Through a manure and forage sampling project that I worked on last year, we discovered that the forage quality of stockpiled grasses was often higher than the stored hay that is being fed to our livestock in the winter months.
If you have not already done so, now is the time to pull forage samples from your hay. By knowing the quality of the hay from each different type and cutting of hay you have to feed, you can make an informed decision as to what to feed when.
You can also adjust your supplement program to what you actually need. If you are guessing what supplements to add, you are probably spending more than you need to meet the animals requirements – or in the opposite situation, hurting animal performance by not meeting their needs.
Forage tests are cheap compared to the potential costs or savings involved in balancing the ration to meet the livestock needs.
When to feed. Additional consideration should be given now as to how and when you will feed the stockpiled or remaining forage in your fields.
Limiting the amount of forage the livestock has access to at a given time will increase the overall utilization by decreasing the amount that they waste.
Consider access to good clean water at all times.
Which fields have water that will not freeze when it gets extremely cold? Which fields will remain firm during rainy periods? Which fields will offer shelter during calving or lambing season?
Spreading nutrients. Consider feeding your round bales on your existing pastures whenever you can.
This will allow the livestock to spread manure on the areas that usually need it most and will reduce the amount that you must store and handle.
The wasted hay will also go directly back to the soil.
This is an excellent technique to build up the soil in areas that are not as fertile as we would like them to be.
Select these areas to also minimize the runoff leaving the field. We want to keep our nutrients on the farm where they will benefit us, not allow then to enter the stream where they will be considered pollution to the neighbor.
Well-drained ridge tops are good spots to consider for winter feeding areas. Be prepared to go to a heavy-use area, preferably with a solid foundation during periods of particularly bad weather.
The cost for feeding livestock during the winter can range from a few cents per day to well over a dollar per day.
Your decisions and actions now will determine which end of that spectrum you will be on.
(The author is a grazing lands conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)