Bob Evans is excited about year-round grazing because he believes it can keep family farms profitable.
And he should know about profit. He owns the popular chain of Bob Evans Restaurants.
Promoting year-round grazing now is No. 1 on Evans' menu. You can graze five cows outside on winter pasture for the same cost as feeding one cow inside, he says. And you can cut labor in half by not preparing or hauling stored feed.
Cost savings like those are needed to keep family farms viable, according to Evans.
"Many small farmers are unwilling to make the necessary changes that will bring them to economic solvency."
Evans' 2,700-acre Hidden Valley Ranch, Gallipolis, OH, started year-round grazing five years ago. Part of the 850- to 1,000-head cow-calf herd grazes tall fescue all winter instead of eating round-baled hay or corn silage.
In year-round grazing, forages are stockpiled. Fescue works well because it retains quality better than some other species, explains manager Fred Vollborn. And during warm periods, some new growth takes place, greatly enhancing quality, he says.
Winter-grazed fescue is semi-retired during summer to allow roots to develop and production to accumulate. Stockpiling starts in August, when the tall fescue fields get 60 units of nitrogen per acre to stimulate fall growth.
The grass is allowed to grow for at least 60 days.
"Our rule of thumb is to wait until Thanksgiving to start grazing those fields," Vollborn reports.
Presently, 100 cattle graze year-round on 180 acres. Water flows into stock tanks from developed springs. Single-wire, high-tensile electric fence divides the hilly fields.
Vollborn started with a smaller field in 1983.
"We set up one section as an experiment to see how it would work. Now that we're far enough along, we're fine-tuning the system."He utilizes several grass sp ecies to provide grazing at different times. After tall fescue winter pasture is depleted about March 20, cattle are turned into a wheat-rye mixture seeded the previous fall.
Forage rye, which is leafier and regrows faster than cereal rye, also is available for fall and spring grazing. It's seeded with a no-till drill around Aug. 1.
Cattle start grazing rye in mid-October. Then those fields are rested for 30 days, and cattle are put back in early December. Vollborn keeps the cattle off the rye from December until March.
The rye is typically grazed until mid-June. Those fields are often planted to corn or turnips. A 25-acre field has been in a rye-crabgrass rotation for five years.
The manager is also searching for species that grow in cold climates and stay green during the winter. Presently, he's using kura clover, switchgrass and Red River crabgrass to supply quality forage during specific periods.
To retain forage quality, Vollborn checks protein levels.
"It's very important to be testing or working with someone to know where protein levels are."
Sometimes the winter-grazed feed is better quality than baled hay. At other times, the forage must be supplemented.
For example, in late February this year, Vollborn was feeding 4 lbs/cow/day of 24%-protein cubes. Cube feeding will last until spring greenup.
"This time of year, stockpiled fescues are getting low and the cows starting to calve need more protein."
He also watches the cows' condition.
"They look better than the cows on corn silage because there is less stress; they're not in the mud," he reports.
During wet, warm winters like this one, pastures are rotated daily. That prevents erosion, manure buildup and tramping of pastures, Vollborn explains.
Even with snow blanketing the ground, the cow herd will forage for grass. If snow crusts and cows can't reach the grass, they're fed hay.
Evans and Vollborn travel the country touting the cost-cutting benefits of year-round grazing.
"It sounds way out in left field, but we know we can do it," says Evans. "If we don't, we won't be able to transfer the farm back to family."