Improving forage: Lessons to learn


It looks like the drought of 2012 is in the record books. Rainfall is back and we actually have seen pastures and hayfields recover and produce some fall growth, while annual crops like oats, cereal rye, field peas and brassicas planted in a timely manner have also grown well.

So, life is good and no worries right? O.K., hold on it’s not quite that simple. The truth is the drought had a major impact on forage production through most of the season and improved conditions in the fall can’t undo the forage shortage many livestock owners are facing.

In addition, some of the forage management practices I have seen this summer and fall are going to have some longer term impacts.


Let me begin with summer pasture management. I saw some severely overgrazed pastures this summer and I saw some pastures that had livestock pulled off in order to keep some pasture residual intact. Both those pastures are green at this point, but the severely overgrazed pasture took longer to green up and it still is not producing much forage growth.

In fact, it is likely that some of these types of pastures are going to be slow to green up and start growth next spring. In some cases, plants eaten down into the soil died. The green seen in the pasture field is weed growth that has filled in the space.

Long-term forage productivity has been lost. The protected pasture greened up quicker after the rain returned and resumed growth. It is providing more grazing for livestock. Weeds did not invade the pasture paddock.


The lesson here is managing to protect the grass plant during periods of slow growth and drought will pay back the manager. A healthy plant will produce more forage for livestock use. Congratulations to those pasture managers who protected pastures during the drought.

The next lesson is; don’t undo all your good summer management with poor fall decisions. Perennial forage plants need to manufacture and store carbohydrate reserves in stem bases, roots and rhizomes during the fall period. Leaf area is needed to harvest as much sunlight as possible and through photosynthesis, manufacture those carbohydrates.

In the fall of the year it is advisable to try to keep some additional leaf area on pasture plants and try to maintain grazing residues in that 5-to-6-inch range.

Are there grazing options that can be used to protect perennial pastures during the fall and allow them to store needed carbohydrates? Certainly there are. This is the perfect window of opportunity to use those annual forages mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Oats, or an oats and peas mix, brassicas such as turnips, kale and rape or a brassica, with a cereal grain such as oats or wheat, can provide some high quality forage with dry matter in the 2-4 ton/acre range depending upon date of planting, rainfall and soil fertility.

The lesson here is that in order to use those annual forages now, planting had to take place in August to allow about 60 days of growing weather, so some planning and preparation is necessary.


Another option, often underutilized, is the use of corn residue. There have been numerous articles written about using corn residue and cornstalks as a fall grazing option. It is good feedstuff for dry livestock through about mid-gestation stage livestock. Nutrient values are highest and best forage utilization is attained when corn residue is used within the first 30 to 60 days after the corn has been harvested.

An acre of corn residue can provide grazing and feed for one animal unit (1000 pounds) for between 45 to 60 days. Use of corn residue can provide additional days for grass growth to stockpile for winter grazing.

Despite these attractions, and despite the fact that we are in a short forage year, many acres — maybe most acres — of corn residue will not be grazed or utilized. The lesson here is to develop grazing systems that give you flexibility to take advantage of short-term forage/feed resources.

The drawback to using corn residue is fence and water. Portable electric fencing combined with solar/battery fence chargers can solve the fencing issue. A water tank on the back of a wagon could be used to meet water needs. If tank capacity limits the number of livestock, grazing, a portion of your livestock on residues is still helpful to stretch other forage supplies.

Make friends

Work on building relationships with your corn-growing neighbors who might allow you to take advantage of grazing corn residues in the coming years. Recently I had a conversation with a grazier who was evaluating his pasture growth and looking at some annual forages he had planted. He was trying to figure out how to best utilize his forage resources and wondering how many grazing days he could count on. This needed to be balanced against stored forage supplies.

If there was a deficit of forages, he wanted to be able to purchase more stored feed sooner than later. In the course of our conversation he said, “You know what I really need is some way of measuring these forages and determining how much quantity I have out there.”

Yes, exactly! As Bob Hendershot and other grazing gurus have so often stated, you cannot manage what you do not measure. The lesson is whether you use an expensive rising plate meter or a more economical pasture stick, measuring forage growth will help you to plan and prepare.

Life offers the opportunity to learn. As graziers, our job is to learn those lessons that will help us to improve our forage and livestock productivity.


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