While many beef producers make daily hay-feeding runs, Kim Tipton quietly watches his herd graze nutritious, green forage. Besides saving on labor and time, stockpiling helps cut his herd's hay consumption.
Tipton participated in a recent Arkansas forage stockpiling demonstration aimed at reducing winter feed costs. Impressed by the results, he's continued the practice. Most of the other cooperating producers have, too.
Stockpiling is defined as the accumulation of forage at one time of the year for grazing at a later time. It works with cool- and warm-season grasses. When properly implemented, it can trim two months or more off the hay feeding period.
Although stockpiling is widely applicable, its advantages were thoroughly documented in the Arkansas project.
Cattlemen who stockpiled fescue saved an average of $19.56 per animal unit compared to what they would have spent if feeding hay. This figure was derived from data collected over a four-year period, beginning in 2002.
Those who stockpiled bermudagrass enjoyed average savings per animal unit of $20.14 compared to feeding hay. Results were charted over a three-year period, beginning in 2003.
And the benefits continue.
“Strip grazing stockpiled forage is easier than feeding hay,” says Larry Johnston, manager at Gerald Johnston Farms near Atkins, AR. The operation has more than 450 mama cows, so feeding hay every day can be a big job.
“Stockpiling leaves more time for other chores, and we spend fewer man hours making and feeding hay. Stockpiling also cuts equipment wear and tear,” says Johnston. “And we've noticed that our cows are in better condition compared to when they are eating hay.”
In an average year, Arkansas producers can expect stockpiled bermudagrass, a warm-season species, to provide grazing from late October through December. Stockpiled tall fescue makes good pasture from late November or early December to early March. Producers who stockpile both grasses eliminate even more days of hay feeding.
But stockpiling requires management. There's more to it than simply excluding cattle from part of your pasture for a few weeks before winter sets in.
Tipton, who runs 70 cows near Huntsville, AR, stockpiles about 40 acres of Kentucky 31 tall fescue. His cattle strip graze it for five to seven weeks beginning in early to mid-December.
“I feed hay until we reach the toughest part of the winter,” he says. “That's when cattle need the most nutritious forage, so that's when I turn them on the stockpiled grass.” He also feeds hay after his cattle have grazed out the stockpile and before spring pasture growth is up and running.
During 2003, a year of fairly reasonable moisture, stockpiling on one of Tipton's two farms enabled him to save $16.84 per animal unit. He says the idea worked well during years of average to good rainfall, and was still practical during one year of drought.
“In 2005, which was a worst-case scenario, we still broke even,” Tipton says. “The money we spent on fertilizer to produce stockpiled forage was about equal to what we saved in reduced hay consumption. But the cows were in better condition because they had been on the stockpiled grass.”
Johnston stockpiles up to 170 acres of common bermudagrass. During the growing season he takes three hay cuttings from the acreage, the final cut removed Aug. 1-15. Then he fertilizes and lets the grass grow.
“This gives our grass about two months before we get a frost in mid-October,” he says. “The grass usually is about two-thirds knee-high when we begin grazing.”
Using a single-strand electric fence, he partitions the grass in paddocks that the cattle graze down during a period of two to three days. Then he moves the fence and opens up a new grazing section.
According to data collected the three years he was part of the demonstration, Johnston saved an average of $34.25/animal unit/year. He averaged 143.6 animal unit grazing days per acre. Over the three years, stockpiling saved $33,541.82.
John Jennings, Arkansas' extension forage specialist, says strip grazing brings a better return than unmanaged grazing. In 2002, for example, producers who strip-grazed stockpiled fescue averaged 88 animal unit grazing days per acre, while those who continuously grazed only averaged 35.
“With strip grazing, about 70% of the forage is consumed,” Jennings says. “Utilization averages 30-35% with unmanaged grazing.”
Some critics of the concept say strip grazing is too labor-intensive. To that, Johnston replies, “It takes about 30 minutes for two men to move the wire fence. That provides two days of grazing.
“In a best-case scenario, two men would spend about three hours feeding hay to the same number of cattle. That's a total of six man hours, but it has to be done every day.”