Stockpiled forage: Use it or lose it

Though it's been used for decades, many beef producers may not recognize stockpiled forage as a viable option, says a forage scientist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.

“And even if they do recognize it as viable, they are faced with the dilemma of how to best use it,” said Monte Rouquette, who is based at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton.

Rouquette recently completed two years of a study comparing two utilization methods for stockpiled forage: strip grazing and continuous grazing. Counter-intuitively, continuous grazing offers some real advantages when it comes to most efficiently utilizing stockpiled forage, he said.

Stockpiling has been around since the cows came home. The principle is simple enough. Instead of putting the last cutting of warm season forage up as hay, the forage is left standing. The standing forage continues to grow until it becomes dormant with the first frost. When the producer runs out of other forage, he or she turns the cows in on the stockpiled forage.

Stockpiling saves money mainly in not having to bale the hay — a baler costs at least $20,000 today — but also saves fuel for the baling operation. In recent years, custom balers have charged from $13 to $18 per big round bale, but rates are expected to increase with farm diesel prices. Producers also can realize additional savings in fuel and labor by not having to haul big round bales to a barn or storage area.

Stockpile degraded

Many things can affect the quality of stockpiled forage, including the amount of available soil nitrogen and the duration of the growing period before the grass becomes dormant. Another factor is the grazing method. Stockpiled hay can grow as tall as 2 feet, and as cows graze, they are prone to trample, lie on and knock down the forage. A grazed stockpiled field can soon look like a real mess.

If flattening was causing more nutritive loss, then strip grazing — using portable electric fencing to partition a pasture and regulate access to grazing — should offer a clear advantage, Rouquette reasoned.

By limiting access, cattle would have to clean their plate and waste less. It's akin, he said, to making a child finish his vegetables before allowing dessert.

Rouquette stocked Coastal bermudagrass hay meadows with fall-calving cows in early October. The strip-grazed meadows were divided into four equal parts, and cattle were allowed to successively graze each strip. The cattle were allowed to have access to previously grazed strips as the next strip was opened.

“We didn't shut them off the previously grazed strip, we just expanded it,” he said.

Rouquette's research team took hay samples at the beginning of grazing and the opening of each new strip. Samples of the continuously stocked meadow were taken at the same times. Plant nutritive value was tested in the top third of the plant, which is mainly leaves; the middle third, which is part leaf and part stem; and the bottom third, which is primarily stem.

Counter-intuitively, Rouquette found that as bad as the continuously grazed meadows looked, the nutritive value did not differ significantly from the strip-grazed forages.

At the beginning of the study in October, percentage crude protein was similar on the strip and continuously grazed areas, 9.2 and 10.5 percent respectively. As Rouquette expected, nutritive value dropped over time on the continuously grazed meadows, dropping to 7 percent by mid-December. This is because when allowed free choice to a meadow, cattle will eat the tops of the plants where the protein levels are higher. When the tops are gone, they will eat the mid-third, and finally, the low-value bottom third.

Protein levels

The strip-stocked pastures started out with lower protein levels until mid-November, when they dropped to 7 percent, but stayed in that range throughout the remainder of the study. The exception was the fourth strip-stocked area which had a crude protein level of 7.7 percent as grazing began in late November.

What do all these numbers mean to the beef producer?

“Simply put, it means continuous stocking is as good as strip stocking,” Rouquette said.

However, there are extra expenses involved with strip stocking, plus a lot of extra labor and management, with no real advantages, he emphasized.

Also, the inclination is to leave the cattle on the strip long enough to force them to clean up everything.

“The problem with strip grazing is that if you leave the cattle on too long, you run the risk of penalizing them by forcing them to eat everything,” Rouquette said.

He also noted most lactating cattle on stockpiled forage will likely need some protein and energy supplementation even under the best of conditions.

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