Farmer walking in tall grass field

Winter Security for Your Herd: The Art of Stockpiling Grass

Livestock producers should always be looking for ways to cut costs and increase the nutritional value of feedstuffs used in the operation.  When experiencing record-high fuel prices, increasing costs of new equipment as well as maintenance expenses, the cost of making hay quickly bites into the bottom line of an operation.  Enterprise Budgets from North Carolina State University estimate the cost of cutting, tedding, raking, and round baling (4’x5’) of hay in 2022 at approximately $140.00 per ton.  When economists estimate the cost of making hay, the cost of growing the forage is usually not calculated as a part of the hay cost.  Three 4’x5’ round bales are approximately one ton of hay.  Given these numbers, it costs around $46.00 per roll of hay just to make. 

Given the costs of “making” hay, if we can eliminate a good percentage of the number of rolls that we need to feed our cattle, this will be money saved that goes into the bottom line of the budget.  Livestock can harvest, process, and utilize grass without the expense of operating tractors and equipment. 

Stockpiling Strategies 

Most producers have the paradigm in their head that hay is to be fed in the winter, however, hay should be fed anytime the predominant species of grass is not actively growing and producing enough to keep up with grazing pressure.  This means that we might need to feed hay in the summer when experiencing a hot, dry period and only cool season grasses are being grown.  These strategies will not only be effective to lower hay demand in the typical hay feeding season, but they will also address forage production deficiencies during the summer grazing months that will affect our ability to stockpile for winter.




Strategy 1: Utilizing both Cool & Warm Season Grasses 

Depending on the climate location of your farm/ranch, consider planting both cool season and warm-season forages.  Do not mix these forages together in the same pasture unless the predominant species experiences complete dormancy at some period during the growing season.  Perennial cool season and warm season grasses should not usually be planted together. 

With some warm season forages in your acreage, you have the flexibility to graze your animals on the warm season forage during the summer and allow the cool season forage “rest” time during their semi-dormant period.  In a typical growing season, the cool season forages will break out of their summer semi-dormancy while the warm season forages are still actively growing allowing for those cool season forages to stockpile for grazing later in the year. 

Research by North Carolina State University has shown that overwintered, stockpiled tall fescue in February has a crude protein of 12%, higher than most tall fescue hay.  Although warm season bermuda grasses will have leaf degradation faster than tall fescue steps can be taken in the fall to stockpile those warm season grasses and maintain crude protein between 11 – 14% according to a Mississippi State University study. 

Strategy 2: Annual Ryegrass 

For those producers who utilize warm season perennials and/or annuals, extend the grazing season by overseeding with annual ryegrass.  This strategy does not stretch out the grazing season as much as it starts the grazing season earlier.  The use of annual ryegrass means that the ryegrass will produce and then began to die out as the warm season forage that it was overseeded with begins to break dormancy. 

Strategy 3: Brassicas 

Even though the discussion has been on reducing the amount of hay that a producer needs to feed, every bale that is baled needs to be utilized.  Rarely is there a perfect hay making year.  There is always some that gets rained on or is cut a little too late or perhaps was not stored correctly and has become nothing more than a filler. 

A strategy to incorporate for producers in this situation would be to plant a fall crop of one or more of the brassicas.  In northern areas of the country, brassicas can be grown in the summer as well.  These fast-growing annual forage crops are of the same family of the brassicas used for human consumption but have been bred to greater foliage growth.  This highly nutritious species can have crude protein of up to 32%.  However, the brassicas contain large amounts of water in the plant and very little fiber.  So, how does this help utilize that poor-quality hay?  It is recommended that producers flash graze their animals and then provide them with a fiber source for the rumen bacteria to feed on.  This is where the poor-quality hay can be utilized to balance the diet of those animals.


 Another benefit of brassica utilization is that if a producer is cross-grazing species such as pastured pork, cattle can utilize the leaves of the plant and after the final grazing the swine can be turned in to eat the roots, effectively tilling the soil and helping prepare to plant the next crop. 



Strategy 4: Rotational Grazing 

One might wonder why a discussion of stockpiling grass for winter grazing includes a strategy of rotational grazing.  In areas where several tons of forage can be produced on each acre during the growing season, it is vitally important that producers manage the grazing of the animals.  If the animals’ grazing is not controlled, they will eat selectively and not consume all the forage available to them.  Factors such as trampling and defecation will render a good portion of the available forage unusable.  By utilizing the different rotational grazing strategies and allowing the animals to have only what they can completely consume in a given period producers are more effectively utilizing the available forage.  The forage that would have been wasted is now available for consumption and utilization by the animals. 


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