Higher beef gains with less expense and labor. That result is likely to appeal to many beef producers. And it's exactly what happened when Jerry Volesky, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension range and forage specialist, studied wintertime windrow grazing in western Nebraska.
Volesky found that newly weaned calves grazing windrows gained 1.2 lbs/day compared to 0.90 lb/day for calves fed baled hay. He attributes the extra gain to stubble regrowth that stayed green well into December.
Windrow grazing, which involves cutting and raking hay into windrows and then moving a fence to control access to the forage, is getting renewed attention in the face of continued low beef prices.
Spurred by that growing interest, Volesky delved into a multiyear windrow grazing study in the spring of 1997.
He separated an 18-acre section of sub-irrigated perennial grass meadow into three six-acre pastures. In May, the pastures were grazed heavily for two weeks.
"By grazing in May, we delayed the maturity of the hay and improved its quality. It looked like a golf course when the cattle were done grazing."
After that two-week period, the animals were removed and the grass regrew until early September. Then it was cut and raked into 3'-wide windrows. Every other windrow in each six-acre pasture was baled in big round bales and removed.
In mid-November he split 48 newly weaned, 450-lb calves into two groups - one group grazed the windrows; the other was fed baled hay in a drylot. Volesky moved an electric fence every two weeks to give the grazing calves fresh forage. No grain or protein supplement was fed to either group.
"The calves adapted readily. It didn't take them long to figure out that the good feed was in the windrows."
The calves were taken off the pastures a year ago in late January, and Volesky is repeating the study again this year.
"So far this year, the weight gains are comparable for both groups," he says.
Monthly testing showed the crude protein content of baled and windrowed hay was about 10.4% from September through February.
"If a producer didn't graze a pasture in late spring and just let it mature and grow over the summer, the crude protein wouldn't be anywhere close to that 10.4% level in September."
Volesky also left a small area of standing (stockpiled) grass in the meadow. That forage tested 10.4% protein in September, but fell to 5.1% by February.
"The stockpiled forage dried up and bleached out. Stockpiling doesn't work very well if you want to consistently feed higher-quality forage," he states.
He also analyzed the amount of waste for windrow grazing vs. feeding baled hay.
"When the hay was fed in bales, waste was 12%. With windrow grazing, waste was around 26%. After the calves were done grazing in January, we put some cows in the pasture to clean up the remaining hay, and waste dropped to about 18%."
"I think a producer could control the waste by using more intensive grazing management. In our case, we gave the calves an entire acre of windrows and let them have it for about two weeks. They laid on the windrows and dropped manure on them."
While windrow grazing might not be for every producer, Volesky believes there's definitely some merit to it.
"It saves baling, hauling and feeding costs. And from an ecological standpoint, you're spreading manure over the pasture rather than having it pile up in a feedlot."