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How to Extend Grazing and Reduce Feeding Hay During the winter

Considering that winter feed costs usually represent between 60 – 70% of the costs associated with running a ranch the most profitable operations focus heavily on minimizing feeding hay. Fortunately, there are several strategies that can be implemented to help minimize winter feeding costs by extending the grazing season to reduce hay feeding.

Short-Term

If extending the grazing season is an immediate need because of factors such as drought or excessively high hay costs etc., the most immediate thing that can be done is to reduce the stocking rate and nutritional needs of the remaining livestock. Early weaning and de-stocking by marketing cull cows and selling stockers early are some examples of ways to reduce forage demand. Of course, these are short-term emergency measures but are sometimes required if an operation finds itself facing extreme conditions. The good news is there are more proactive mid & long-term management practices that can be implemented that provide management flexibility and fit into a well-managed operation.

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Mid-Term

These sets of practices can usually be implemented and utilized within the year they are needed; however, they take some forward planning since they don’t happen overnight. Fortunately, the payback is usually substantial because of the high-cost savings which contribute to an operation’s overall profitability.

Grazing Stockpiled Forage: This practice involves setting aside pastures or saving some pastures to be grazed during fall and/or winter. Utilizing pastures with a high percentage of tall fescue has been proven to work best because of tall fescue’s ability to maintain high forage quality into fall and winter. This is because tall fescues store their energy during fall and winter in a form of sugar that is more readily available to grazing animals.

Windrow Grazins: This practice involves windrowing a field or pasture, usually in early fall. Instead of baling and feeding the hay mechanically later in the fall or winter, leave the windrows in the field and allow livestock to graze it during winter. This practice has proven highly successful for many operations and can be utilized with a high-producing pasture that has high-quality forage or a field that has been planted with a CoverGraze mix that contains a mixture of grasses and brassicas.

Grazing Standing Cover Crops: Similarly CoverGraze forages such as Italian Ryegrass (Green Spirit), annual ryegrass, brassicas, etc. can be grazed throughout the year but are especially beneficial during the fall and winter months or as an early spring grazing in the case of Green Spirit and annual ryegrass. In that case, mixing with cereal rye, oats or triticale works very well.

 

Long-Term

The operations that are best at reducing feed costs take a long-term, “continuous improvement” approach that allows them to take advantage of practices that contribute to their profitability. Capitalizing on superior modern forage varieties with high nutritional and yield characteristics gives you a higher payback when implementing these practices. Consider paying special attention to these areas: 

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Focus on Soil Health: Soil health is the basis for all forage and grazing systems. A focus on continuously improving soil health is at the heart of all other practices. Fortunately, good soil health is highly correlated with good grazing which means improving one can improve the other.

Focus on Grazing Management: This sounds obvious but bears repeating, the best way to improve soil health is by improving forage health, and the best way to improve forage health is to improve grazing management. The two most critical principles to good grazing are:

  1. Don’t graze (or re-graze) grass until it is at least 8 inches tall.
  2. Never graze or harvest grass below 4 inches (i.e., always leave at least four inches of residual, especially during fall and winter).

Grow Higher Quality & Higher Yielding Forage Varieties: Getting optimal productivity from your actual forage itself is critically important for supporting extending grazing. There is huge variation across varieties of grass and forages, but the modern forage genetics in Barenbrug grasses and forages are specifically designed to support the practices outlined in this article.

Focus on Principles of Regenerative Agriculture: You can greatly support the practices outlined in this article by practicing the principles of Regenerative Agriculture. Any operation considering implementing any of these practices is highly encouraged to learn and continuously focus on the principles of Regenerative Agriculture. As a quick summary the principles of Regenerative Agriculture are:

  1. Understanding your context – what are you trying to achieve and why.
  2. Keep living roots in the ground at all times.
  3. Protect the soil by keeping it covered.
  4. Build diversity and resiliency into the system.
  5. Reduce mechanical and chemical disturbance.
  6. Incorporate and properly utilize animal impact, both livestock and the Soil Food Web. There are numerous resources available to help an operation through the process of practicing more regenerative agriculture. Please reach out to your Barenbrug representative if you want to learn more.

There’s a wise saying that goes, “the best time to plant a tree was 20-years ago, the next best time to plant a tree is today!” Operations that start to prepare themselves to implement strategies today that allow them to extend grazing opportunities will greatly benefit through reduced costs and improved overall profitability.