With fuel prices burning through the roof, it's going to cost you even more money than ever to harvest, store and then redistribute hay to your cows this year. If there's ever been a time to stockpile forage it's now. Stockpiling forage near the end of the summer months can provide low cost feed this fall and winter.

Multiple recordkeeping programs from various states have shown that the most expensive period for feeding beef cows occurs in the winter when producers rely on stored feeds to maintain their cows. Feeding hay is often the largest single expense accounting for one-third of total cow costs.

"Hay is a losing proposition," states K.C. Olson, beef nutrition specialist for University of Missouri Extension.

In Missouri alone, 5.6 million tons of hay are produced each year at an average cash cost of $40 per ton. That's 2.7 tons of hay per every cow in Missouri each year. During the worst possible winter a cow only needs 1.6 tons of average quality hay, says Dr. Olson. And because shipping hay over long distances is not economical, the majority of the surplus is simply wasted. In fact, nutrient and yield losses as high as 30 percent can be expected from storing big round bales outside unprotected, further adding to your costs of hay production.

"Increasing grazable forage in the fall and winter months reduces our reliance on mechanically harvested feeds. The cows do the work," says Tauna Powell, who, along with husband Allen, operates a forage-based cow-calf operation in Linn County, Mo. "This greatly reduces winter feed costs."

As a rule of thumb, she says, one acre of stockpiled fescue and red clover forage, standing 10 to 12 inches tall, will feed a cow for 90 days. That's on the conservative side, adds Mrs. Powell. On her pasture, a one-acre stand of thick forage with little bare ground will typically feed a cow until spring with no hay.

What is stockpiling?

On the surface, stockpiling forage is not too complicated. You simply keep cattle off a pasture, allow forage to grow for a specific period of time and then utilize the forage at a later date. Effectively managing your stockpiled forage, however, requires that you consider when the forage is needed, the amount that can be produced and the level of nutrient quality.

Having identified high winter-feed costs as a problem, the purpose of stockpiling forage, in this case, is to minimize the need for stored feeds while supplying enough nutrition to maintain reproductive and growth performance. Maximizing both the quantity and quality of forage available when it is needed requires a little planning and the use of a few management tools.

Removing old growth

Delaying the maturity of the grass is an important step in producing higher quality stockpiled forage. An extended growing season may produce more forage by October and November, but the longer growing period results in lower nutritional quality due to plant maturity. Some form of forage harvest or clipping should be done in late July or early August regardless of projected quantity to ensure higher nutrient quality in the stockpiled forage.

"We remove old growth grass between August 1 and August 15 for our part of the country. Removal can be done with managed grazing, haying or just clipping. The forage then must not be disturbed before the first hard frost," says Mrs. Powell. "It's important to stay within that range of dates in our area for optimal quality and quantity of standing forage."

Fertilization

Nitrogen fertilization of grass pastures during late summer has been shown to have beneficial results in terms of both forage production and quality. Optimum fertilization rate depends on the amount of soil moisture as well as rainfall. Fertilization under drought conditions is of little value. Under favorable growing conditions, meaning ample rainfall, a response to nitrogen fertilization can be seen with up to 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

"A rule of thumb is that with adequate rainfall, pastures should yield an additional 2,000 pounds of forage growth for every 50 pounds of nitrogen that is spread on a pasture," says John Wheeler, livestock specialist for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a consulting firm in Ardmore, Okla.
Most published reports recommend applying between 50 and 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. However, applying higher levels of nitrogen resulted in incrementally lower improvement in yield and quality and may not warrant the cost of the extra nitrogen.

From a forage quality standpoint, increasing nitrogen fertilization beyond 60 pounds per acre had little beneficial effect on digestibility of the forage.

In determining when to apply nitrogen, a balance must be struck between maximum nutrient quality and total forage production. If your need is to increase the total forage available for the grazing period to maintain cattle for as long as possible, then fertilize earlier. If high nutrient content is important to improve cow body condition or calf gain, then there does appear to be an advantage to delaying nitrogen fertilization until mid-September on cool-season pasture, which results in both increased digestibility and higher crude protein concentration.

In pasture containing a mixture of legumes and cool season grasses the value of applying additional nitrogen is questionable. Pastures containing adequate legumes will provide nitrogen for the grasses and maintain quality of the forage stand. Consider having soil samples tested to more accurately manage soil nutrients.

Meeting the requirements

A dry, mature beef cow in mid-pregnancy needs, on average, 7 percent crude protein on a dry matter basis. A cow in early lactation needs a feed containing between 9 percent and 12 percent crude protein. In the event that a harvested forage of good quality is available, meaning forage having a crude protein content of 9 percent to 12 percent, then the need for additional supplementation is questionable.

Keep in mind that animal size, milk production potential and the age of the animal will affect the nutrient requirements. Larger cows, young females and those cows that produce more milk will likely need supplemental nutrition sooner than cows with moderate size and milk production.

Getting the most from stockpiled forage

Growth of both warm and cool season grasses starts to taper off in November as the grasses become dormant. Stockpiled forage can be grazed without negatively affecting the plants because regrowth has stopped for the season. Allowing access to the entire pasture, however, will result in wasted forage. Cows will trample and selectively graze the best forage early, and as the grazing period progresses, the quantity and quality of the forage will diminish.

Strip grazing, limiting the area of grazing each day with movable electric fence, is one tool that allows you to maintain quality throughout the grazing period. Strip grazing can substantially increase forage utilization from 40 percent in a continuous setting to 60 percent utilization or more.