While weather patterns vary across the country, prompting management strategies unique to different areas, stockpiling your pastures for fall and winter forage sources can save you time and money when managed appropriately.
Dennis Hancock, associate professor and state extension specialist of forage crops at the University of Georgia, notes one big misperception of stockpiling is: It takes more time and effort than other feeding arrangements such as baled hay.
“We can stockpile tall fescue or bermudagrass and allocate it out every few days,” Hancock says. “It’s a 15- to 20-minute job from the time you leave the barn until you’re back. It’s still faster than starting up the tractor and going to wherever the hay is stored, dealing with the net wrap and so forth. Stockpiling is still a lot less labor-intensive than feeding hay.”
As Emily Glunk, extension forage specialist and assistant professor of animal and range sciences at Montana State University, reflects on why the northern Great Plains rely heavily on stockpiling: “It’s convenient.”
“We don’t have to get out the swather to hay or try to swath graze and is usually fairly inexpensive, requiring only time to move cows and check on them,” Glunk says. “When compared to bale feeding, which requires daily equipment resources for moving and feeding bales, as well as labor and time, and is usually more expensive.”
“Swath grazing also requires time for harvest forage and putting it into swaths for grazing, as well as movement of animals and potentially fencing.”
While there are numerous ways to provide quality forages to your animals throughout the fall and winter months, Hancock says stockpiling is almost always the preferred way.
“Virtually any grazing we can provide is going to be a third of the cost of actual feed hay or other feedstuffs,” he says. “It’s almost always going to be more cost effective for those four-legged harvesters to go to work for us rather than us hauling feed to them.”
Weather impacts on stockpiling
“As the old agronomist says, ‘If it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t matter,’” Hancock says.
Stockpiling puts producers at the mercy of the year’s moisture, particularly leading up to the fall months.
“We can’t grow it if it doesn’t rain unless we can put water on it,” Hancock says. “In our area, irrigation is certainly the exception more than the rule. The biggest risk associated with trying to stockpile is the weather.”
However, drought years or areas that regularly see low precipitation can still be conducive to stockpiling with some proactive management and patience.
“Many [producers in Montana] will stockpile graze their hay fields, allowing it to grow immediately after the first harvest until grazing is needed in fall and winter,” Glunk says. “Native range is also used frequently after it has been allowed to regrow during the rainier fall months.
Because we have many areas that receive fairly low annual precipitation, we need to allow a much longer growing window to ensure adequate herbage mass production. This means we may end up with a slightly lower-quality pasture, but we will have enough production there to support our animals.”
Freezing precipitation and heavy snow can play a larger adverse factor than a lack of moisture in warmer months, as any producer in the north can tell you. Glunk says stockpiling no longer has a place in a producer’s toolbox when there is so much snow animals cannot access stockpiles.
However, in more temperate-climate areas of the country, such as the Gulf Coast states and Georgia, Hancock notes some of the negative effects winter weather can have on stockpiles is less of a concern.
“One of the biggest advantages we have is: We don’t have the winter weather the other areas of the country have,” he says. “We don’t have much snow or ice, and for the most part we don’t have to worry about it matting down as a result of severe winter weather.”
If you have spent a day in a region of the country that doesn’t face consistent freezes during the winter months, you are well aware bugs have a resilient tendency to thrive yearlong. Stockpiles are ideal nesting grounds of bugs, particularly armyworms in Hancock’s region of the country.
“Producers should regularly scout and be on the lookout for fall armyworm, as that insect pest can quickly consume all the stockpiled forage,” Hancock says. “Be prepared to treat affected fields to defend them against fall armyworm.”
Knowing what is in your field from a nutritional standpoint is imperative to stockpiling through the winter, Glunk says. Testing your forages immediately prior to turning cattle out on the forage is the most ideal time to understand the nutrient profile of your pasture.
“Sometimes, ranchers may underestimate the amount of quality lost as a forage matures,” she says. “During maturation, that plant accumulates fiber while losing digestibility and available nutrients. As an example, if you have two stockpiled fields side by side, but one had been growing for several weeks before the other (with all other things the same), then that one is likely lower in quality.”
“To minimize any risks of nutrient deficiencies, testing the forage immediately prior to grazing initiation will ensure that you can feed your animals exactly what they will be needing.”
While forages offer mid- to high planes of nutrition throughout most of the northern Great Plains, Glunk says the miscalculation of what nutrients are available when cattle are turned out can lead to producers losing out on some economic benefits as a result of under- or oversupplementing.
“Supplementing is really important for many of the producers [in Montana],” Glunk says. “We also graze stockpiled pastures really late into the winter, usually as late as we can, until the forage runs out or is no longer accessible. Hay may not even be fed until January or February in many situations.”
“I think many producers will be surprised at how it will test out. Unless you test, you have to guess,” Hancock adds. “You have to understand what is out there in case you do need to do some supplementation.”
Hancock advises sampling from the pasture being stockpiled a week or so before livestock actually begin to graze it. When sampling, leave 2 to 4 inches of stubble height because everything above that will be most likely to be consumed, he says.
“A common mistake is: Producers just shut up a pasture and let the forage accumulate in that area but, typically, there’s a lot of forage in that pasture that wasn’t consumed the first time,” Hancock notes. “If the animals didn’t eat it the first time, they certainly aren’t going to eat it the second time they see it. So folks either need to go in and graze everything down fairly uniformly or clip it to 3 to 4 inches to reset it so it is new, fresh growth and palatable forage that grows back.”
Another way to increase the nutrients available in various stockpiles throughout the fall and winter months is to initiate it at different times, Glunk says.
“One thing that can be helpful if you are set up with multiple pastures is to initiate stockpiling at different times,” she says. “That way, you will have pastures that are at different maturities, and potentially different forage quality, to offer animals when they are progressing through gestation or lactation.”
Tradition meets technology
While stockpiling has been around for a while, adoption of this practice has increased over the last decade or two, Hancock notes.
Precision agriculture has in a sense shifted producers to a micro-management way in thinking of forage production, Glunk says, which has increased producer implementation of this particular forage management strategy.
“Advances in fertilization and grazing management has really helped improve stockpiling, as well as new cultivar developments,” she says. “For example, tall fescue has long been recognized as one of the ‘prime’ species to use for stockpiling; it retains its nutrients later into maturity, holds onto its leaves better and withstands trampling better than many other species.”
“However, the toxic endophyte has always been a concern. With newer technologies, we are able to use friendly endophyte varieties that are safe to graze without negatively impacting forage production.”
Other advances in forage management include Agrotain-treated urea proven to decrease nitrogen volatilization losses in excess of 60 percent, Hancock cites. Urea products that reduce volatility loss to this degree offer a long-needed solution that yields similar results as did ammonia nitrate.
Temporary electric fencing to aid in rationing stockpiles is another big technology advancement Hancock credits to a rise in utilization of stockpiling.
“Stockpiling really works best if you can allow the pasture to be rationed out to the animals on a daily or two- or three-times-a-week basis rather than just turning them out to the pasture and letting them have at it,” Hancock says. “When we ration it out, using grazing techniques like strip grazing or frontal grazing, we provide just a little bit at a time. This makes the utilization much more efficient and makes that stockpile last a lot longer.”
PHOTO: Salers cattle graze fall pasture at Figure 4 Cattle Company in western Colorado. Photo by Mike Dixon.
Danielle Schlegel is a freelance writer based in Whitewood, South Dakota.