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Stockpiling Forage for Winter Grazing

Stockpiling Forage for Winter Grazing

By David Hartman

Stockpiling forages is a great way to reduce feeding dried or ensiled forages during the winter, but it starts now. Are you doing what’s necessary to prepare for winter?

This article is this week’s Agronomy Highlight, recorded live on Fridays at 9:00 am. The Agronomy Highlight is an opportunity for readers to ask the author questions and hear updates from around Pennsylvania. Join the Agronomy highlight live on Facebook or zoom or join by calling +1 646 876 9923, and when prompted enter the webinar ID: 946 6516 7271.

The USDA-NRCS defines stockpiling as 'allowing standing forage to accumulate for grazing at a later period, often for fall and winter grazing after dormancy'. Stockpiling can be a cost-effective way to provide winter forage for dry cows and ewes and can also be used for stocker cattle grazing. But it does take some planning and effort to make it successful.

Late July to early August is the time to begin the stockpiling process for winter grazing. Getting started in this timeframe provides more time for maximizing yield. 60-75 days ahead of average first frost is ideal. The field intended for stockpiling should be grazed or clipped down to 3-4 inches. Nitrogen should be applied to stands that are mainly grass. Anywhere from 50-100 lbs. is recommended and can be in the form of manure or nitrogen fertilizers. Fields intended for stockpiled pasture that have a heavy legume content (30%+) do not need additional nitrogen, but should be utilized earlier or given a very light grazing to allow livestock consumption of the legume before its quality deteriorates. Otherwise, the field should be allowed to grow all fall ungrazed.

Most cool-season perennials, such as tall fescue and orchardgrass, can be stockpiled. However, tall fescue tends to have better growth in cooler conditions than the other cool-season perennial grasses. Furthermore, the heavy waxy coating on the leaves of tall fescue allows it to withstand winter weather and retain more of its nutritional content for a longer period when compared to other grasses. Species other than tall fescue that are stockpiled should be used on the earlier side of the stockpile grazing timeframe due to their tendency to deteriorate more rapidly.

Stockpiled forage is best utilized through strip-grazing. Breaking out enough forage for 1-3 days of grazing is ideal. Longer occupation periods, and especially continuous grazing, are strongly discouraged. Research studies have shown relatively short grazing periods result in much more efficient utilization of the accumulated forage. Longer periods allow more trampling and fouling with manure and urine. 

To plan the grazing, you need to have some idea of how much forage is present. Many county conservation districts and USDA-NRCS offices have 'grazing sticks' available that can help you estimate forage dry matter levels per acre in your accumulated pasture. To complete this process, you need to have an estimate of how much your animals weigh. You can estimate consumption knowing that the animals will consume about 2.5-3.0% of their bodyweight in forage dry matter per day. By using this estimate and a measuring wheel to measure land area, you can 'break out' enough pasture for a given period of time, eg., 1-3 days.

Dry matter yield accumulations are often 2000 lbs/acre and can be higher. Research studies have shown that nutritional quality, especially with tall fescue, is often better than typical first cutting hay. If using older varieties of tall fescue that are endophyte-infected, much of the toxicity will dissipate before stockpiled forage is used in winter. Some producers who are new to stockpiling may be concerned with snow. Cattle and sheep are very adept at pawing through or otherwise moving snow to reach significant accumulated forage. Be aware that a heavy ice accumulation can impede grazing and will require resorting to hay feeding, if only until the ice melts.

Using stockpiled forage can be a cost-effective way to feed beef cattle and sheep during late fall and winter. In addition to lowering feed costs, it reduces manure handling costs as well. Grazing dry cows and ewes all winter is possible many years in Pennsylvania, with only occasional interruptions for ice and deep snow. The main limitation is usually access to enough land, or fenced land, to make it feasible. Even if you do not have access to large amounts of land to stockpile forage, applying sound grazing management on your land all season, and stockpiling what you can spare in late summer and fall, can effectively stretch your grazing season well into the dormant season.

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