John F. Kennedy, in his 1962 State of the Union Address, said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
This little bit of wisdom is good advice for living our lives, but it especially sums up how we should approach raising livestock and growing crops. Thinking ahead almost always pays dividends.
For the grazing operation, advanced planning this time of year usually entails a strategy for stockpiling a portion of your perennial pastures. This will provide an invaluable forage resource in late fall and early winter.
Stockpiling forage is the practice of letting existing perennial pastures grow through the late summer and early fall. It’s the equivalent of putting hay in the barn or haylage in the bunker. The cool, late-season temperatures make it possible for the accumulation of high-quality forage even after an extended period of growth.
Though there are plenty of options to plant something new in the form of annuals, stockpiling existing perennial pastures is easily the cheapest method to extend a grazing season. Now is the time to fix the roof and plan for slower forage growth in the fall while feeding the same number of animals.
Stockpiling strategies can be implemented from the North to the South, though timing and grazing duration will vary with latitude. Tall fescue is often cited as the premier grass for stockpiling; farther south, it can also be done successfully with bermudagrass.
Plan to strip graze
To prepare pastures for stockpiling, most experts suggest grazing or cutting pastures to about a 3-inch stubble height; then apply nitrogen. For tall fescue in more southern regions, begin stockpiling in late August to early September.
Stockpiled forage generally holds its quality through the cooler fall season. Research has demonstrated that stockpiled tall fescue is more than sufficient to carry dry cows through the winter and can carry lactating beef cows into January without additional supplementation.
For growing cattle, some energy supplementation may be needed, especially if toxic tall fescue is being utilized. To confirm nutritional value, take forage samples and submit them to a lab for analysis.
To get the most from stockpiled forage later this fall and early winter, either rotationally graze paddocks or, better yet, strip or frontal graze by allocating a new strip of stockpiled forage every one to three days. This method will double the carrying capacity of stockpiled pastures and maximize forage utilization.
The ability to accumulate fall growth and tolerate repeated frosts without losing quality make tall fescue the stockpiling poster child. Toxic alkaloids will still be present in varieties like Kentucky 31 but generally not at the levels found earlier in the season. Still, novel endophyte or endophyte-free varieties are desired.
Research has documented yields of 1 to over 1.5 tons of dry matter (DM) per acre where tall fescue was successfully stockpiled. Those higher yields can only be accomplished if nitrogen is applied immediately after the last cutting or grazing. As discussed in last week’s eHay Weekly, 50 to 60 pounds of actual nitrogen is recommended for toxic fescue and up to 100 pounds for nontoxic varieties.
In a Kentucky on-farm trial, tall fescue pastures fertilized with 100 pounds per acre of urea (46 pounds of actual nitrogen) accumulated an average of 1,500 more pounds of stockpiled forage compared to those pastures that weren’t fertilized.
Improved bermudagrass is best
The warm-season perennial, bermudagrass, also offers good stockpiling opportunities where it is adapted.
According to Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia extension forage specialist, improved varieties or hybrids will offer the highest level of success. He suggests Tifton 85, Tifton 78, Tifton 44, Russell, or Coastal. These tend to be more productive in late summer and early fall and offer better disease resistance.
Bermudagrass is more sensitive to late-season growing conditions than tall fescue, and yields can be more variable. It will accumulate the most growth when temperatures remain warm into early fall, and the species is more sensitive to frost than tall fescue.
Apply 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen at the onset of stockpiling, immediately after the last summer grazing or harvest. Depending on when stockpiling is initiated and early fall weather conditions, bermudagrass can provide from 0.5 to over 1.5 tons of stockpiled dry matter per acre. Bermudagrass carrying capacity is more variable than tall fescue but still provides an excellent forage resource.
It’s rapidly approaching the time to make sure the roof doesn’t leak this fall and winter in the form of reduced pasture availability. Hay, especially the good stuff, is at a premium this year. Anything that can be done to extend the grazing season will pay big dividends.