If you’re in the business of harvesting forage with machines of the hooved variety, then you probably don’t like to feed forage that was harvested with those that roll on two or four tires. Other than the Deep South, the latter becomes a necessary evil at some point in the winter, but minimizing those days into stored feed has a big impact on the bottom line.
Though there are plenty of options to plant something new in the form of annuals, stockpiling existing perennial pastures is easily the cheapest method to extend a grazing season. To do so, however, requires some advanced planning and now is the time to begin sharpening the axe.
Stockpiling forage is the practice of letting existing perennial pastures grow through the late summer and early fall so that they can provide forage into late fall and early winter. The cool, late-season temperatures make it possible for the accumulation of high-quality forage even after an extended period of growth.
The axe-sharpening component of stockpiling entails the determination of what to stockpile, when to start, how many acres, and getting some nitrogen fertilizer on order.
Stockpiling strategies can be implemented from the North to the South, though timing and grazing duration will vary with latitude. Tall fescue is often cited as the premier grass for stockpiling; farther south, bermudagrass can also be successful.
The ability to accumulate fall growth and tolerate repeated frosts without losing quality make tall fescue the stockpiling poster child. Toxic alkaloids will still be present in varieties like Kentucky 31, but generally not at the levels found earlier in the season. Still, novel endophyte varieties are the best play.
Research has documented yields of 1.0 to over 1.5 tons of dry matter (DM) per acre where tall fescue was successfully stockpiled. Those higher yields can only be accomplished if nitrogen is applied immediately after the last cutting or grazing. Typically, 50 to 60 pounds of actual nitrogen is needed. In a Kentucky on-farm trial from 2014, tall fescue pastures fertilized with 100 pounds per acre of urea (46 pounds of nitrogen) accumulated an average of 1,500 more pounds of stockpiled forage compared to those pastures that weren’t fertilized.
The warm-season perennial, bermudagrass, also offers good stockpiling opportunities where it is adapted. According to Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia extension forage specialist, improved varieties or hybrids will offer the greatest route to success. He suggests Tifton 85, Tifton 78, Tifton 44, Russell, or Coastal. These tend to be more productive in late summer and early fall and offer better disease resistance.
Bermudagrass is more sensitive to late-season growing conditions than tall fescue and yields can be more variable. It will accumulate the most growth when temperatures remain warm into early fall and the species is more sensitive to frost than tall fescue. Apply 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen at the onset of stockpiling, immediately after the last summer grazing or harvest. Depending on when stockpiling is initiated and the early fall weather conditions, bermudagrass can provide from 0.5 to over 1.5 tons of stockpiled dry matter per acre.
Getting the most
To prepare pastures for stockpiling, graze or cut pastures to about a 3-inch stubble; then apply nitrogen. For bermudagrass in the South and for about anything in the North, now is the time to start the process. For tall fescue in more southern regions, begin stockpiling in late August to early September.
To get the most from stockpiled forage later this fall and early winter, either rotationally graze paddocks or, better yet, frontal graze by allocating a strip of stockpiled forage every one to three days. This method will double the carrying capacity of stockpiled pastures and maximize forage utilization.
Stockpiled forage generally holds its quality through the cooler fall season. Research has demonstrated that stockpiled tall fescue is more than sufficient to carry dry cows through the winter and can carry lactating beef cows into January without additional supplementation. For growing cattle, some energy supplementation may be needed, especially if toxic tall fescue is being utilized. To confirm nutritional value, take forage samples and submit them to a lab for analysis.
Bermudagrass carrying capacity is more variable than tall fescue, but still provides an excellent forage resource. Weather conditions, the hybrid used, and grazing strategy will dictate dry matter yield and degree of utilization.
It’s time to begin sharpening the axe, if not taking your first swing.