Photo by Chris Penrose.

Winter grazing go-time!

By Matt Reese

Weeks, months, and, in some cases, many years have gone into preparing for right now in Ohio’s pastures. This is crunch time for extending the grazing season where mistakes are magnified and the right decision may not be apparent for months.

“There is never a right or wrong answer. Sometimes it is a matter of which wrong is the most right,” said Chris Penrose, Ohio State University Extension Educator in Morgan County and president-elect of the American Forage and Grassland Council. “When we are looking at extending the grazing season, probably our No. 1 objective is to see how far through the winter we can get. Typically people rotate pastures on a 14- to maybe 60-day rotation during the growing season, but the greatest challenge is the 150- to 180-day rotation we have when the growing season stops to when the growing season starts again. We have seen a lot of people get close and a few people manage to do it. Every day we can graze is one less day we have to feed, one less day we have a chance to tear something up, one less day we are spending extra money on feed. Stored feed is the greatest expense of our forage consuming livestock. Anything we can do to extend the grazing season and reduce those costs will certainly help.”

There are many season-extending options requiring varying degrees of investment, preparation and strategy as winter sets in.

“We have had people over the years plant turnips in late July and that is a great alternative. With turnips, in many years, we can get 10,000 pounds of dry matter per acre, which is an excellent yield for the whole season for alfalfa. One of the keys is that we need to have those grazed before temperatures get down to 15 or 20 degrees,” he said. “Once it gets down to 20 degrees the leaves start dying off and at 15 degrees the bulbs start dying off. There is a caveat to that, though. If we plant small grains with them like oats or cereal rye, that does provide a level of insulation and helps the turnips make it further through the winter.”

Grazing stockpiled or standing orchardgrass and/or fescue can be another option this time of year.

“As we go from Thanksgiving to Christmas, fescue can hold up quality better than orchardgrass. About Christmas, the orchardgrass just starts dying off on my farm in southeast Ohio. If you still have orchardgrass to graze, do it now before it gets too cold,” Penrose said. “Cereal rye is another great crop to use to extend the growing season. A lot of people will do a light grazing of that in December and that is the first one to green up in March.”

This time of year, grazing harvested corn fields is another possibility.

“Grazing corn fields can be a good option too,” Penrose said. “There is still quite a bit of grain and there are leaves and the cobs and stalks.”

Victor Shelton, Natural Resources Conservation Service grazing specialist, pointed out that the nutritional value of corn stalks can vary significantly from year to year.

“Stalks will start out in the 8% crude protein range with approximately 70% total digestible nutrients (TDN) and over a period of about 60 days drop to 5% crude protein and 40% TDN. Spring calving cows will meet most of their energy needs during mid gestation. Growing animals such as calves and fall calving lactating cows may be lacking in energy and protein and most likely will need to be supplemented if run on stalks,” Shelton said. “About one acre of typical corn residue will be needed per animal unit per grazing month. Weekly allocations seem to work very well so you need to figure how many acres of stalks will be needed for one week of grazing for your herd. Higher yielding corn certainly produces more residue and more potential grazing. You can usually bank on about 12 to 15 pounds of desired residue to graze per bushel of corn.”

After a dry stretch in late summer, Shelton said rains have rejuvenated pastures in most areas and helped increase available stockpiled forages.

“Ideally, this stockpile is best used after it goes dormant in order to not slow next spring’s growth. Dormancy often requires several nights in a row at 25 degrees or lower. That type of weather isn’t far away. Once dormant, the forage can be grazed with less harm to the plant’s energy reserves,” Shelton said. “When it is grazed, it can be taken down a bit closer than normal but leaving good residual. That good stop grazing height will slow runoff over winter, reduce any erosion and help springboard growth next season. If you open up the sod too much in early winter, you also possibly open the site up for more weeds too.”

Before the full force of winter arrives, Shelton recommends a good assessment of winter feed needs to use as a basis for making important decisions.

“It is better to know now than later. First, take different grazing animal classes — cows, heifers, stockers, ewes, etc. — and figure an average weight per class and then multiply that number times the number in each class. Now you have a total live weight. Multiply the live weight by .03 to get an average daily intake. For example, 20 cows averaging a weight of 1,100 pounds is 22,000 pounds live weight. Multiply that by .03 (3% dry matter intake) and it equals 660 pounds of dry matter needed per day,” Shelton said. “Now what are you going to feed those animals? It could be hay, stockpiled forage, crop residue, supplements or most likely a combination of these.”

It is also important to assess the amount of available feed, Shelton said.

“Stockpiled forage is usually going to be tall fescue with some other grasses and legumes mixed in. You can lay a clipboard on top of the standing sward and measure the height of the compressed forages to estimate it. If the stand is dense, there is usually about 300 pounds per acre inch of dry matter. So, if you happen to have 10 inches, that is 3,000 pounds of dry matter per acre. You do not want to remove it all, so let’s say you remove six inches. That is 1,800 pounds available for grazing times the number of acres of this stockpiled forage,” he said. “Fields do vary. Adjust as needed. The efficiency of grazing will depend on how you allocate it out. If you let stock have the whole field, then expect 60% to 75% utilization. At best you’ll have 1,800 pounds available. If you allocate it out like you are feeding hay with temporary fence providing one- or two-days’ worth at a time, you’ll find the efficiency to be up near 90%. In areas with plenty of moisture, the stockpiled fescue is good quality and quantity and will provide a lot of good grazing. There is always some waste, it just can’t be avoided. That waste will help feed the next year’s growth.”

In addition, it is important to take an inventory of hay.

“You should have an idea on how much bales weigh and how many you have of each. For example, if you have 50 1,500-pound bales  — about 1,300 pounds dry matter — on hand, you essentially have 65,000 pounds available. The efficiency of this hay is also dependent on how you feed it, in addition to how it is stored. The worst-case scenario is feeding hay free-choice without any feeder structure and storing hay outside on the ground, which sadly wastes about 45% of the offered hay,” Shelton said. “Feeding enough hay for only 2 or 3 days at a time creates some competition between cows. In ring or cone type feeders and storing bales inside is efficient with an average of about 15% waste assuming that the hay is good quality. Small bales are probably the most efficient, but are certainly a little more labor intensive and not used as often as in the past. If you have silage or balage on hand to feed, figure it into the plan and generally expect 90% efficiency adjusted to dry weight.”

In cases where feed needs are greater than what is available, there are additional options.

“If you are a little short on forages, you can add some supplements such as corn gluten, soybean hulls, etc. into your feeding plan. In fact, you may want to anyway if hay quality is lacking, or if more energy is needed. We used 3% for the intake estimate, which is actually a little high, but if we have a wet, cold winter, energy needed to keep warm will increase and any growing animals will also have higher needs. It’s better to overestimate than to be short,” Shelton said. “Cold, wet and especially muddy conditions will increase energy requirements. If you are still short on feed, then you may want to purchase some hay or consider reducing numbers.”

A bit of pre-winter maintenance can also be important.

“If you haven’t checked your winter-feeding pads, it would be better to do that now and add more lime topping or aggregate as needed,” Shelton said. “Also, it’s not a bad idea to take the time to double check winter watering tanks while the weather is still good. I like the fall weather, but it never seems to last long enough.”

Many of these issues will be covered in more detail at the American Forage and Grassland Council (AFGC) hybrid conference in January 2021. The AFGC Annual Conference will be held in-person January 3 through Jan. 6 at the Hyatt Regency in Savannah, Georgia and the AFGC Virtual Conference will be held Jan. 11 and 12, 2021. The content offered in person will be recorded and available at the virtual event and the virtual will include sessions by presenters who made the decision to present remotely. Additional details are available at

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