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To stretch forage, options are many

September 18, 2007|By Jeff Semler

Boy, does a little rain go a long way!

Things have really greened up and spirits have improved, as well.

With that said, our summer annual crops like corn and soybeans did not benefit from these rains, so we still need to plan for the shortfalls in forages.

When we think of stretching our forage resources, we usually think of how long we can go into the fall or winter without feeding stored feed or how soon we can stop feeding as spring approaches.

There are several options to accomplish this.

The first is by the use of oats, wheat, barley, cereal rye or annual ryegrass planted from late summer into early fall. If fall grazing or haying is your primary objective for the crop, oats may be the best bet.

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This crop can be grazed several times before it winter kills or can be mechanically harvested in November as haylage or baleage.

Cereal rye and ryegrass can be grazed in fall/early winter and then graze again in the spring. Cereal rye is probably the small grain that will start growing first in late winter/early spring.

When young, it is high quality and provides feed in March. However, if rye is not stocked adequately as temperatures warm up, it can quickly get out of control and lose quality and palatability.

If you plant a small grain crop for winter or early spring grazing, I recommend no-till to provide firmer ground when grazing. Livestock, especially cattle, can make a mess if the ground gets too wet.

Sheep and goats are a good option when the ground is wet and light stocking or fast rotation can reduce mud problems with the early grazing.

Annual ryegrass, on the other hand, while fast growing, can yield up to four cuttings or grazings in the spring in addition to a fall grazing or two. This forage is extremely nutritious when properly fertilized. It is also a good complimentary forage for alfalfa fields that are on their way out.

Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion on how early we can turn livestock out on pasture.

Often, it depends if you are looking from the forage or livestock perspective (or if you are out of hay). If you have a healthy, productive pasture, you can turn out livestock as soon as the grass starts to green up.

If you use rotational grazing, you can use a fast rotation or open up all the paddocks until the grass really takes off in early April, then start rotational grazing.

A couple other ideas that can work include stockpiling and grazing hay fields.

Each year, you can stockpile a field (set it aside to grow from the end of summer through the fall). Tall fescue is the best species to stockpile.

Let it set until Thanksgiving. If the animals are in good condition, the only feed they will get is the stockpiled fescue and a good salt/mineral mix. There are several advantages to this.

First, according to University of Missouri research, the endophyte levels start dropping in fescue after freezing temperatures, and by the end of January, are low enough that they will not cause problems.

Second, if you are trying to introduce new species into a predominately fescue sod, grazing down in the winter and even exposing the soil will make it ideal for frost seeding and allowing other grasses and clovers to germinate.

Finally, it is nice not to have to feed any more hay.

Early grazing hay fields may be an option. It seems no matter how hard some folks try, many years they just can't get hay made until late May or June (for some wrapping high moisture bales is an option).

If we have hay fields that were not grazed last fall, the option of turning them out in early March has worked.

Try to estimate how much forage is available, the needs of the animals, minus estimated waste, to figure how many days are available. Then turn out the animals in March and try to have the animals finish the hay fields when the pastures start growing.

Another advantage to early grazing hay fields is if you can't get hay made until mid to late June, early grazing will set back the hay a little and you will have a higher quality first cutting.

Finish early grazing of hay fields in mid to late April, prior to stem elongation, and yield loss on the hay fields will be minimal. Keep in mind when early grazing, especially with cattle, to keep an eye on wet fields for pugging or mudding up.

Finally, don't forget to have a good mineral program to reduce chances of grass tetany and other mineral deficiencies that occur in late stockpiled forages or when grazing young grass pastures.

The final suggestion really applies to any pasture you are managing through the winter and spring and that is strip grazing instead of just turning the animals on the entire field.

Strip grazing

The basic principles for strip grazing are:

Give non-lactating cows and bred heifers a three- to four-day allocation of grass. This is the best balance between your labor and forage utilization. Growing or lactating cattle should be fed (move wire forward) more often.

Remove animals that do not adjust to this system.

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