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Plan fall grazing to cut wintering costs

Plant an annual forage crop in your grazing rotation this summer to help delay feeding hay this fall and to save money.

Particularly in the Midwest, grazing cattle on small grains, brassicas or forage combinations in the late fall or early winter can greatly reduce feed costs, says Ed Ballard, a retired University of Illinois animal systems educator who has done extensive research on crops for extended season grazing.

Even counting the expense of additional seeding, fencing, fertilizer, watering and labor, you should be able to keep a cow grazing for 40 to 60 cents a day compared to about $1.25 per day with hay, Ballard adds.

“Some of them work much better than using hay,” he stresses.

The best crop for any particular producer will depend on local growing conditions as well as the farm’s cropping system.

For Jake Wolfinger, who farms with his dad and brother in central Ohio, oats have worked well. The Wolfingers run a 150-cow cow-calf herd and ordinarily raise around 350 acres of forages along with row crops.

Usually, they grow 100 to 150 acres of wheat each year and follow the wheat with a forage crop for late-fall grazing. The wheat comes off in July; then around the first of August they kill weeds with glyphosate and plant oats.

“If we can’t get a poly wire around it and can’t get cows to it, we bale it,” Wolfinger explains.

If he fed round bales, Wolfinger figures he’d spend 80 cents a day per cow compared to 20 cents for grazing the oats.

Wolfinger has also tried aerial seeding of oats over standing corn or soybeans. “Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. He’s had the best results when rains happened to hit at the right time and he was able to harvest the grain crops early.

In some parts of the country, lack of moisture in late summer makes it difficult to establish a forage cover after a grain crop. For instance, the risk is high for producers west of Bismarck in North Dakota, explains Kevin Sedivic, Extension rangelands specialist with North Dakota State University. However, in the eastern Dakotas and throughout the Midwest, planting a forage crop after grain harvest can provide economical grazing or soil quality benefits.

Unfortunately, some of the best choices for grazing are not the best for conservation, Sedivic says. Forage turnips are an example.

“They’re very productive and the seed is cheap,” Sedivic says. However, turnips alone are not particularly good for protecting soil over winter because they decompose completely after a freeze, leaving little if any surface residue. Producers who also want some of the conservation benefits of a cover crop over the winter might want to choose a cocktail mix of forages instead.

Leaving crop ground bare through the fall and winter is a missed opportunity, says Keith Johnson, forage specialist at Purdue University. Crop producers can use cover crops to protect soil from erosion and improve soil quality and fertility. However, cattle producers can also use the fall growing season to produce forages. “What we have is essentially a double-crop system,” Johnson points out.

Fitting forages into cropping systems takes flexibility, Johnson adds. “A lot of this comes down to timing.”

For instance, if a preceding crop comes off late or fall weather comes early, a forage cover crop may not produce enough growth to graze in the fall. With some crops, though, you can defer grazing until spring. Then if weather is too wet to allow grazing in April, the forage can still be harvested as hay or silage in May.

Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.

Fall forage options have pros, cons

Beef producers may want to vary the forage crops they plant from one year to the next.

Make that decision depending on how each season is shaping up and such things as soil types, pH and fertility, and your needs, says Purdue University forage specialist Keith Johnson.

Here are a few options:

Forage turnips

High in energy and water, some varieties are highly productive. They die and decompose quickly after a hard freeze.

Teff

Teff is high-yielding and palatable. It is drought-resistant, but not frost-resistant. Establish it in warm soils.

Oats

Traditionally, oats are a companion with perennial forages. They also grow well seeded in the summer alone or in mixtures with forage turnips. They die when it freezes.

Annual ryegrass

It survives freezing longer than small-grain cover crops. Drought tolerance is poor, but forage quality is excellent.

Oilseed and forage radishes

Varieties vary greatly in the amount of top growth and root growth. They tolerate frosts, but not hard freezes.

Winter rye (cereal)

It survives freezing temperatures, providing forage in fall and spring.

Triticale

Wheat-rye crosses are bred for varied purposes, so make sure you choose a forage variety. Some overwinter well.

Sorghum-sudan or sudangrass

Both are drought-tolerant and fast-growing. Watch for prussic acid poisoning from frost or other stresses.

Pearl or foxtail millet

These summer annuals are drought-tolerant, and grow better than sorghums in low pH conditions. Prussic acid poisoning is not an issue.

Cornstalks extend grazing season

The crop residue left after corn harvest can help stretch the grazing season, but it doesn’t hold up well into winter in the Midwest.

“If you can be right behind the sheller, that would be great,” says Ed Ballard, an Illinois forage consultant.

Cornstalks lose feed value quickly, especially if weather turns wet. Cattle will consume only about a third of the corn residue, but that leaves plenty of organic matter to protect the soil, Ballard adds.

As a rule of thumb, an acre of cornstalks will feed a cow for about 60 days, says Steven Loerch, ruminant nutritionist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. If it is strip grazed, count on a half-acre of stalks per cow for 60 days. Cattle will need a source of minerals along with the residue, he adds.

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POSTPONING HAY: Ohio beef producer Jake Wolfinger uses summer-planted oats for late-fall and winter grazing.


This article published in the MAY, 2010 edition of BEEF PRODUCER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.