Adapting to weather extremes when grazing

By Stan Smith, PA, Ohio State University County Extension, Fairfield County

Mother Nature continues to prove she can keep it interesting when grazing livestock. Considering the extremes in weather we’ve experienced in recent years, to suggest we need to remain flexible with our forage and feed management plans would be an understatement. However, as we consider past experience when setting course for the future, let’s reflect on our recent past and a few of those lessons learned.

Too wet, and then too dry, and too wet again does not average out to just right

After experiencing several Ohio winter and early springs of near record precipitation, followed by dry summers, this year most of us enjoyed a dry — perhaps too dry — late spring and early summer. Regardless, for many it allowed us to make some of the best quality first cutting hay we’ve seen in years. While quality might have been good, for some, yield was lacking.

Is it time to assemble a feed management plan that buffers the cow herd against stresses resulting from weather extremes many anticipate will continue in the coming years? Feeding pads, managed grazing of forages or crop residues, and stockpiled forage all go a long way towards keeping cows out of the mud while meeting their nutritional needs. While managed grazing requires less investment, a feeding pad allows forages to be processed and bunk fed for more efficiency, and when needed, blended with additional protein or energy from by-product feed sources.

We can’t starve a profit into a cow, and feed quality, feed waste, and cow condition must be monitored utilizing a variety of tactics to keep them properly fed.

Cover crops aren’t just cover crops

The value of utilizing cover crops for feed or bedding is well documented in Ohio. Cover crops fed to beef cattle in both early spring and/or early winter remain an asset particularly in times when quality forages may be limited.

Crop residue

With 3.5 million acres of Ohio corn to harvest this fall, for a spring calving cow herd the opportunity is great for extending the grazing season well into fall and perhaps winter with corn crop residue. While corn residues offer a considerable amount of digestible energy and fiber, it’s always good to review the palatability and practicality of utilizing residues resulting from corn or perhaps even soybean harvest as a significant feed source. This is especially true as one considers economics of baling and hauling the residues to the cows. Grazing is always the most economical option.

Fall weed control

Weather extremes in recent years and the necessity to graze or harvest fields in less than optimum soil conditions allowed many weeds to gain a foothold in places we’ve not always seen them in the past. Poison hemlock, cressleaf groundsel, and in some cases Canada thistle are the first ones that come to mind first.

The ability to effectively use 2,4-D or similar products to kill broadleaf plants in the fall eliminates the possibility of killing desirable grasses such as when a glyphosate-based product is used, thus maintaining desirable competition and helping to prevent future broadleaf weed invasions. Another advantage of controlling perennial and biennial broadleaves in the fall is with few gardens or annual flower beds still intact, it provides an opportunity to utilize chemical broadleaf killers that have been known to volatilize or drift when used in the spring, killing or severely damaging sensitive garden, fruit and landscape plants.

That being said, if you identified locations this past spring where poison hemlock or cressleaf groundsel was growing, it’s likely new plants will be emerging there soon if not already. Scout those locations from now until freezing temperatures shut the plants down for the winter and treat them with herbicides such as 2,4-D, dicamba or Crossbow.

Fall fertilization of forages

Again, we can’t starve profit into a cow, or a hay field! If it’s not been done for a few years now’s a perfect time to pull soil samples. If you don’t soil test this year, at least replace the P and K you removed during forage harvest. Each ton of forage removed from a field — regardless the quality — takes with it 12 pounds of P2O5 and 50 pounds of K2O.

Forage quality analysis

You can’t manage what you don’t measure and even though we’re guessing our hay quality is better this year, do we know how much better? By knowing we can strategically utilize the varying quality of forages we harvest throughout the year at the most opportune times. Poorer quality goes to the bred, dry, mid gestation cows and the best feed goes to them as they near calving and into lactation.

Adapt and change

Considering two years are seldom the same, not too long-ago colleague Dr. Les Anderson, University of Kentucky Extension Beef Specialist, said it best in his monthly newsletter: “Adapt and change. It’s the story of life and it’s how we evolve.”

To do that we must value experience, stay flexible, and be prepared for the next curve ball Mother Nature throws.

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