Rain makes grain, and forages too, according to Ohio State University Extension beef expert Stan Smith. The old saying about precipitation and crop production applies especially to stockpiled forages in a year when frequent rains precluded forage producers from harvesting hay at its peak quality.
"We got lots of tonnage this year," said Smith, editor of the OSU Extension Beef Team newsletter. "It was a challenge to get forages made if we were harvesting them as hay, and even some guys struggled to get them harvested as ensilage. One thing we've promoted for years is stockpiling late in the year by putting down some nitrogen in August, pulling the cattle off and letting those forages grow."
Smith said producers who did so now have an abundant stock of high-quality forage that, if managed patiently, will yield a much higher nutritive value than hay that was made later than normally advisable. First cutting hay this year was especially poor quality, he noted, because many producers put off making hay until after an already delayed corn and soybean crop.
In recent years dry weather conditions in the fall have precluded much forage growth during that ideal stockpiling period, Smith observed, but weather conditions in 2011 allowed significant regrowth of fescue. Producers who planted oats for forage should also be pleased with the crop they now have on hand.
"With an abundance of frequent rains, we've been unable to harvest those oats, and it might not yet be fit to start grazing that stockpiled fescue," he cautioned. "I'm encouraging livestock producers to be patient. It might make more sense to feed hay now, and when conditions are better to start grazing or mechanically harvest those forages we've stockpiled."
Considering the generally assumed lower quality of 2011-made hay, feeding poor-quality forages sooner is recommended, Smith said, because gestating animals have additional nutritional needs closer to calving and in the early stages of lactation. Saving stockpiled forages for the final months of gestation should provide those additional needs more adequately than poorer-quality hay.
Smith advised waiting to graze cattle on stockpiled fields until rain-soaked acreage either dries out or freezes as winter progresses. Grazing sooner could damage soil conditions as well as forage stands.
"Our research indicates both fescue and oats should maintain their quality pretty well, so the best move is to be patient and not risk tearing up a field or damaging a permanent stand," he said.
As producers evaluate fields that may have incurred such damage throughout 2011, Smith recommends they consider results of the 2011 Ohio Forage Performance Trials, now available online at http://oardc.osu.edu/forage2011/ . Trial results will provide forage producers with the latest information on varieties suitable for Ohio.
Considering the economics of forage production versus grain production, Smith said farmers must get every ton of forage possible from every field they raise. He observed that, generally speaking, newer forage varieties outperformed older varieties, and with fewer forage acres available because of the relatively high value of corn and soybeans, it behooves farmers to capture every pound of forage by considering replanting poorer fields.
"I would highly recommend taking advantage of these newer varieties to increase production. Stands that were healthy even a couple of years ago are thinning out because of the harsher weather conditions we've had in recent years. Instead of tolerating damaged stands when we're competing for acres with $6 corn or $12 soybeans, we can't afford to raise only 2 or 3 tons of hay per acre. We need to optimize those yields by looking at the newer varieties tested in the performance trials."