As feed prices escalate, the ability to graze cattle a little longer into the fall or winter could improve profitability in a stocker enterprise. Iowa State University Extension agronomist Stephen K. Barnhart notes that stockpiling standing forage can effectively extend the grazing season in many areas.

Barnhart says a typical stockpiling method is to discontinue grazing or harvesting forage in the stockpile pasture 70 to 80 days prior to the end of the growing season. The forage that grows during this late-summer and fall period, he says, tends to be leafy and high in nutritive value. Research in southern Iowa and northern Missouri has shown that stockpiling for a 70-day period can produce about 1 ton of forage dry matter per acre.

Longer periods of stockpiling resulted in higher forage yields in these tests, but lower nutritional value in terms of digestibility and crude protein content of the forage. Barnhart encourages producers to use nitrogen fertilization in grass pastures intended for stockpiling. Applying 40 to 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen at the beginning of the stockpiling period, he says, can improve forage production by up to 50 percent.

Nearly any grass or legume species can be stockpiled, Barnhart says. Ranchers commonly use tall fescue, particularly the endophyte fungus-free varieties, in stockpiling systems because of its good fall growth and persistence under grazing. And while palatability of tall fescue is relatively low compared to other grasses during the grazing season, he notes, it maintains its quality into the fall and winter. Endophyte-infected fescue also can work for stockpiling with some extra management such as seeding legumes into the pasture and clipping seedheads during the summer.

Barnhart notes that smooth bromegrass and orchardgrass have slightly higher nutritive value than tall fescue but may have less persistence in subsequent years following winter grazing.

Legumes such as alfalfa and red clover also increase forage quality and contribute nitrogen to the pasture, but late-season grazing can shorten the life span in mixed stands. Barnhart adds that red clover has good seedling vigor and can be relatively easy to establish back into pasture stands by frost seeding in late winter or interseeding in the spring.

Finally, some form of rotational or strip grazing can allow better utilization of stockpiled forage. Given unrestricted access to a pasture, Barnhart says, cattle select forage with the highest digestibility and protein concentration first, resulting in a high-quality diet early but declining quality as the grazing period progresses on the stockpiled pasture. By using temporary fencing for more intensive grazing and frequent movement to fresh pasture, managers can encourage better forage utilization and provide more consistent forage quality through the extended grazing season.