June 27, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman
PRINCETON, Ky.

Farmers may reduce feed costs while maintaining or even improving the condition of their spring-calving cows by strategically using stockpiled grasses during the winter, based on a recent study conducted by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

The strategic winter grazing program is designed to match the quantity and quality of stockpiled fescue and hay with the production cycle of the cows, said Kevin Laurent, extension associate in animal sciences. 

Basically, the plan has calves weaned from pregnant cows in September. Producers begin feeding hay or corn stalk residue to cows immediately after weaning. Cattle are on hay until about a month before they begin to calve in early spring. At calving and during lactation, the nutrient needs of the cows are highest, so farmers move them to stockpiled fescue pastures for strip grazing to better meet their nutritional needs.

Laurent said the benefits of the program include an ability to stockpile higher quality forage without the need of an alternative forage crop or additional acreage. It uses the hay when cow nutrient requirements are lower and uses stockpiled forage when cows’ needs are highest, reducing or eliminating the need to supplement lactating cows. In addition, the plan reduces hay feeding during the muddy time of year; allows cows to calve on pasture, not in muddy hay feeding areas; and allows for better nutrient recycling on pastures.

Recently, Laurent conducted a study in cooperation with David Fourqurean, Trigg County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources. They used 41 cows and 71 acres of stockpiled fescue, weaned the calves in mid September, and then placed the cows on corn stalks for two weeks followed by 70 days on hay. The cows were moved to stockpiled fescue in mid-December and began calving on Jan. 20. Laurent and Fourqurean moved the cattle to spring pastures April 1.

The cattle’s body condition scores were maintained between December and March. Also, hay feeding was cut in half from the normal hay feeding period of most Kentucky farmers.

For this study, stockpiling expenses totaled 34-cents per head per day for 106 days, including the cost of temporary fencing and nitrogen, while the cost of feeding hay for 70 days was $1.17 per head per day. Feeding hay for 70 days rather than 135 days showed a savings of a little more than $41 per cow. 

Thinking it would be too labor intensive, Fourqurean said initially he was skeptical of the plan, but that turned out not to be true. Moving fences was less trouble than feeding hay and rutting up fields.

“The plan definitely has its benefits,” he said. “It can save the farmer money, provide a better environment for his cows to calve and provide the best use of his forages.”

For the program to work, soil fertility must be adequate, two winter water sources must be available as well as stored hay, and proper fencing for strip grazing is essential. Farmers must also overcome the common misconceptions and their neighbor’s comments about winter grazing, Laurent said.

Some of the misconceptions include that additional acreage will be needed for stockpiling; cattle prefer or need hay during the winter; winter grazing will hurt summer pasture; cattle will not graze if it snows; stockpiled fescue loses its nutritional value by February; strip grazing is labor intensive and nitrogen costs too much to apply in the fall.

Once farmers move beyond these notions, they can use this plan to get the most benefit from their fescue fields, Laurent said.

Additional trials will be conducted to fine-tune the strategic winter grazing plan, Laurent said. If adequate moisture is available to allow for sufficient fescue growth, this may be an option for farmers to use this year, especially in light of the short hay supply, Laurent said. A similar program is being developed for fall-calving herds.

Contact: 

Kevin Laurent, 270-365-7541, ext. 226, David Fourqurean, 270-522-3269