September 5, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman

Grazing corn stalks can be a valuable tool for beef cattle producers looking to stretch their short hay supply through the winter. Grazing the stalks can delay the need to feed hay while retaining much of the nutrients in the field, whereas baling the stalks reduces palatability and removes nutrients.

Kentucky’s cattle producers are facing challenges this year because of compounding weather conditions – spring freeze followed by extreme drought. This year also follows a winter feeding season with the lowest carryover in recent memory. All these things together have beef producers looking at the best options for their cattle farm.

“My main concern is that people are baling stalks and a lot of low quality feed, and some are selling it for high prices,” said Roy Burris, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture beef specialist.

He advises that, instead of going out and buying expensive, low quality feed, farmers should limit feed hay and buy complete feeds or supplements. 

“What you need to do is inventory feed, consider culling some cows judiciously and then limit feed hay and make up the difference with supplements.

“If you grow corn, it makes sense to use your corn stalks and the best option is to graze it,” Burris said. “It’s a desirable option and you can do it now if you are feeding hay and have harvested some corn. If you can knock off 30 days of hay feeding by grazing corn stalks, cull those cattle that need to be culled, then you can limit feed hay and use supplements. Then you probably will be able to manage this year’s feeding shortage.”

The stalks work best for cows that are not nursing because they have fewer nutritional needs.

Burris said if fall rains come and allow for some stockpiling of cool season grasses, then there’s a chance of further stretching the hay supply.

Grazing corn stalks has been a common practice for many beef producers in Kentucky, said Garry Lacefield, UK forage specialist. Farmers potentially can get more grazing days by using temporary fencing to limit access to only a few acres at a time. 

Work in Missouri using temporary fences to allocate a week’s feed supply resulted in cattle grazing for 60 days at a cost of 5 cents per day. Similar work in Iowa showed that each acre of corn stalks could replace one-half ton of hay and provided 33 days of grazing per acre. In this study, using a cost of $60 per ton for hay, each acre of corn stalks was worth $30. 

Grazing corn stalks helps keep nutrients in the field while baling stalks removes them. UK extension soils specialist Lloyd Murdock said grazing leaves more residue on the field and many of the nutrients consumed by the animals are returned to the soil through their manure.

Generally, about 8,000 pounds of corn residue is left after harvest from a crop yielding 175 bushels per acre. This year, Murdock estimates it will be closer to 4,500 pounds per acre because of the drought or about four bales per acre. Using this figure, he calculated baling stalks results in a loss of $4.50 per acre in phosphate and $15 per acre in potash based on current fertilizer costs. As a result, baling the stalks removes $19.50 in nutrients per acre from the field or about $5 per bale. 

“If you are going to graze corn stalks, remember that founder can occur if animals get too much grain,” Lacefield said. “This is usually associated with spills or piles of corn associated with truck loading areas. Prussic acid can be a problem with johnsongrass along fencerows or other areas where the weed has not been controlled. The most critical time is the first light, non-killing frost. If there is johnsongrass in the field, remove animals before the first frost. Grazing is safe 48 hours after the plants are frozen. Nitrates could be a problem on drought stressed corn. If in doubt, test.”

For more information on nitrate testing, visit the UK forages Web site and click on “Drought - Forage Issues.” General drought information can be found at

The bottom line is to make sure cattle have a balanced ration, otherwise they will lose body condition resulting in poorer milk quality and weaker calves this spring and that could result in higher deaths, Burris said. They also will be less likely to rebreed.

“It’s a matter of pay me now or pay me later,” he said. “Things are serious, but I think if we limit feed hay, cull where necessary and feed supplements we can get through this.”


Roy Burris, 270-365-7541, ext. 208, Garry Lacefield, 270-365-7541, ext. 202, Lloyd Murdock, 270-365-7541, ext. 207