Leave the fescue in the pasture, graze your cattle and fatten your wallet. That's what Mark Kennedy, USDA-NRCS state grassland specialist for Missouri, says to do.
Kennedy points out that wintertime feeding is the cow-calf producer's biggest cost. If managed correctly, stockpiled fescue, or “hay on the stump” as Kennedy likes to call it, can meet a herd's nutritional needs at half the cost of suitable hay.
That's true even at today's nitrogen costs, he says. He calculated the cost of stockpiling when 60 lbs/acre of nitrogen were applied, and compared it with buying medium-quality grass hay for $40/ton.
He figured that 10" — about 3,000 lbs/acre — of grass growth, at 70% utilization, would supply 80 cow days of grazing per acre. Assuming that each cow would eat 26 lbs/day, the stockpiling cost totalled 23¢/cow/day. The hay buying cost was 52¢/cow/day.
Kennedy figured the cost of nitrogen at 30¢/lb. Prices have risen since then, but he says today's numbers still favor stockpiling over hay buying by a wide margin. Also, 60 lbs is the highest recommended nitrogen rate, and his hay cost calculation assumed no waste.
Quality is key on many producers' minds. Fescue peaks at 20% crude protein in mid-October and drops about two percentage points each month, ending up at around 10% in March, says Kennedy. Digestible organic matter also peaks in October at 70% and drops to around 60% in March.
These numbers mean that stockpiled fescue meets the nutritional requirements of beef cows without costly supplementation.
“Fescue's had a bad name in the past,” Kennedy says. “There was a belief that you could stockpile fescue but the quality really drops off, so you have to supplement. The research shows that, if the fescue is managed properly, you don't have to supplement.”
Timing is the most critical component of producing a high-quality stockpile. Kennedy recommends clipping or grazing pastures to 3-6" and applying 40-60 lbs of nitrogen 60-90 days before the end of the growing season. Starting the stockpile earlier means lower quality; starting it later means higher quality but lower yield.
If the forage is strip-grazed properly, stockpiling an acre per cow would provide a 75- to 90-day feed supply says Kennedy.
He says stockpiling can help producers make money while meeting the goals of conservationists like himself.
“One of the best ways to get conservation on the land is to come up with profitable systems that are both economically and environmentally sound,” he says. “If we can work on that aspect just by changing some management and reduce the producer's cost, then we'll increase profitability and still manage that resource in a beneficial way.”