By Mark Landefeld
As we move into the fall season here in September, how much longer will your livestock be able to graze forage from your hay and pasture fields? Have you prepared stockpiled forages? Are you able to utilize your livestock to take that last growth of forage off your hay fields rather than using equipment? Not using equipment to make a last cutting of hay, not having the livestock in pasture fields right now and not feeding hay for a while yet seems to be a winning combination all the way around.
Everyone’s situation is different and many producers are not able to get livestock to every hay field. Nevertheless, where you can use livestock to harvest forage from hay fields, production costs can be reduced. Producers who have not been doing this should try using their livestock, not the equipment to make later cuttings of hay and this last cutting everyone wants to get off in late September and October. This allows pasture fields and stockpiling areas to grow the maximum amount of forage before killing frosts arrive. I believe this is one of the best opportunities livestock producers have to reduce costs and make more profit year after year. There are some limitations and guidelines producers should consider when doing this and we will discuss them near the end of the article.
The greatest cost a producer incurs with livestock production comes from the cost of feeding animals’ year around. In Ohio, the majority of this cost is related to making and storing hay used for feeding cows, bulls and replacement heifers from the fall through mid-April each year. When costs are calculated for forages, hay made on the farm usually costs 2½-5 times what forage grazed in the field by livestock costs. Therefore, the shortest amount of time a producer must feed hay the more opportunity they have to increase profit.
Producers who have, or will have, quality standing forage for their livestock to graze in December, January and or even February have this forage because of planning and preparation they’ve done well ahead of the season. Good accumulation of stockpiled forage this time of year does not just happen by coincidence; it is usually the result of several factors. One of which is setting aside the areas to be stockpiled back in early August and applying nitrogen if needed.
Other factors would be, during the growing season the graziers who frequently rotate their livestock, pay close attention to their forages and correctly determine when, where and how long animals graze a paddock; tend to have grazeable forages available longer into the fall and winter than other producers do. While some of these factors may not seem very important as the days of spring and summer pass by, in the fall those small things add up. Things like better utilization percentage of existing forages, proper rest periods for forage plants to produce stronger healthier root systems, moving animals out of pastures based on residual plant height, and keeping the soil surface shaded to reduce moisture loss in dry weather, etc., all these add up to produce additional forage for livestock to graze late in the season.
In addition to grazing longer in the fall of the year, managers who take time to implement the practices just mentioned usually are rewarded with more grass growth earlier in the spring for livestock to graze. Because plants were not stressed, or over grazed the summer/fall before, properly managed forage plants break dormancy in the spring and take right off growing because they have fully charged root reserves and tillers. This again reduces the amount of hay required for each animal, providing opportunity for more profit.
So, is this something you want to do, or maybe do more of it? If an adequate water source is available, step-in posts or T-posts with insulators, polywire and an electrified fence charger or solar charger is all you need. Take some time now, fence off the fields and start extending your grazing season this year.
Remember, we said there were some limitations to consider when grazing in the fall. Why is fall a critical period of the forage cycle? There are a couple of activities that occur during fall grass plant growth as daylight become shorter and nights are longer. One is the storage of carbohydrates in the roots, lower stems and tiller bases. The other is the formation of shoots or growing points for next year’s growth. These functions are critical for long-term forage production to be maintained and maximum forage growth each year. In the fall, grazing or mowing plants lower than a 3-4 inch stubble height for tall fescues and bluegrass or 4-5 inches for orchardgrass, can reduced needed reserves and diminish new tiller growth that will affect next year’s growth. So, take advantage of the opportunity to extend your grazing season. Let your livestock do the harvesting, but manage the height carefully by moving livestock as needed to maintain the plant height desired. Hopefully your livestock can graze 100 days, or more, yet this season.