Pete Conkle sections off new pasture for his cattle.

The goal: Feed less, graze more

By Victor Shelton, NRCS State Agronomist/Grazing Specialist

I often talk about upcoming grazing conferences this time of year. Right now, meetings in person are scarce and perhaps rightly so. I still encourage you to continue learning whether it’s from watching YouTube videos, reading books or articles, or attending a virtual meeting or conference.

It is also the time of year when I start thinking more about finding a comfortable chair, a warm blanket and some good reading material — especially when the snow flurries start. Winter is a great time for me to catch up on reading after checking on livestock in the cold, as long as I don’t get too warm and nod off. But, that said, winter chores still must be done! I’m never mentally prepared for winter, but that won’t stop it from happening. What’s a perfect winter to me? It includes stockpiled forages lasting for as long as possible, dry or frozen ground and as little hay needed to be fed.

You certainly can’t control the weather. You need to instead learn how to work around or with it, especially the farther north you live. Last month I asked the question “will there be enough feed or forage for your livestock until spring?” Livestock either have to be grazing something or be fed. One of the best ways to reduce winter feeding issues is to decrease the amount of winter feed that needs to be given to your animals. It is almost always cheaper to graze than it is to feed. Remember, if a wheel is turning, you are spending money.

The more animals are concentrated, and especially when fed in one spot, the more resource concerns you will have. Seasonal feeding areas need to be managed and minimized to reduce environmental impacts and for the health and well-being of the herd. Cold weather and mud certainly increase livestock nutritional requirements, intake and costs. So, let’s first try to reduce the timeframe for when winter-feeding areas are really needed.

Certainly, the longer you can graze annuals or crop residue in the early fall, the longer the pastures get to rest, grow and stockpile. The more stockpile you have, the longer you can graze into the winter. This all reduces the amount of time needed in winter feeding areas.

Making hay and feeding hay is the most expensive part of being in the cow business! It generally costs up to $2 per cow per day to feed hay and that is without counting waste. Jim Gerrish, University of Missouri-Forage Systems Research Center Manager, really made me start thinking several years ago when he said “there was more money to be made in the cow/calf business by managing cattle during winter; not just during the growing season.” Gerrish has also pointed out that no matter where people lived, they tended to feed similar amounts of hay. That doesn’t make any sense! You would think the ones in the far north would be feeding a lot more than the ones in the deep south, but quite often that’s not the case. The longer the growing season, the more forage you can normally produce allowing you to graze a lot longer and perhaps easily not feed any hay; some have learned to be efficient, some haven’t. If a wheel is turning, you are spending money.

Your goal each year should be to feed less and graze more. Think about how short you can cut your feeding time frame. If you are feeding hay five months out of the year now, can you reduce that to four, three or less?

If you are short on forages during the growing season and don’t change animal numbers or improve that animal-to-forage balance, you will be spending a lot of time and money feeding during the winter. If you want to graze longer and reduce winter feeding inputs, you first need to balance your forage base with the number of animals you have. Generally— and this is a huge “it depends” — on where you are located, your forages and your soils, but you’ll usually need at least 2.5 acres per animal unit to supply dry matter requirements. An animal unit is 1,000 pounds of live weight. That 2.5 acres also includes being efficient in grazing or feeding.

If you don’t have enough acres, then work to increase forage yield on the acres you do have. If you can double production on what you have, you just doubled your acreage without the extra taxes. You also need to be as efficient as possible in allocating out that forage and getting as much production as you can from it. You can increase production with good fertility, good soil health and good management.

I talk about “stop grazing” heights quite a bit. This is not only important during the growing season, but also over winter. This residual is important in the winter to reduce runoff, increase infiltration and to help balance that grazing animal next spring when forages are washy and have less fiber. So, it’s good to leave a bit behind anyway. What is ideal? Four inches for cool season forages such as orchardgrass and tall fescue and six inches for warm season grasses such as big bluestem.

That can be grazed down tighter if you want to slow spring growth which is a positive thing if you are trying to get more clover into the stand. It takes some of the competitive edge away from the perennial grasses.

Winter, and certainly early spring grazing, can be challenging at times. Ideally, you want either dry or frozen conditions, but you don’t always get that. The more forage growth that is present when you do graze it, the less negative soil impact there will be in most cases. This is especially true if animals are not allowed to linger or remain on the same spot for very long. This is also true when grazing annuals on cropland and a good reason to not feed supplements or hay on cropland. You don’t want to cause any undue compaction or have any long-term negative effects. An abundance of roots, soil life and natural freezing and thawing action fixes most compaction issues. You also don’t want too much disturbance. This generally occurs trying to graze it down too close to not “waste anything,” especially under wet conditions. Too much disturbance creates openings for opportunist weeds.

It would be nice if hay was just a primary part of your contingency plan — your insurance policy. You would use it to meet shortfalls in production. But don’t be afraid to feed hay if needed, especially if it will help production later and or reduce winter feeding time frame. That option sometimes appears during dry spells in the late summer. Reduce its use when possible to decrease resource concerns and input costs. It also never hurts to keep animal numbers flexible too. Remember, it’s not about maximizing a grazing event, but maximizing a grazing season! Keep on grazing!

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