Believe it or not, it is time to begin planning for your winter forage program. A little effort now can pay big dividends this winter. Following are a few forage management practices to help reduce costs, improve cattle performance and increase profit potential.
1. Stockpile tall fescue to extend grazing. Stockpiling tall fescue has the potential to extend the fall grazing season approximately 60 days. This will be 60 days that hay will not have to be fed, reducing costs accordingly. Stockpiling is nothing more than saving forage while it is growing for later use. Research has shown that the fall growth of tall fescue is high-quality and the quality is maintained into the winter, providing an excellent feed for cows. The steps to stockpiling are simple. About the first of September, either graze or clip the pastures to remove all of the mature forage. Apply 60 units of nitrogen per acre after the fall rains begin and then allow the fescue to grow as long as possible without grazing, even up to a killing frost. If possible, rotationally graze the fescue, so that less of the forage is trampled and wasted by the cattle. Even though the nitrogen expense is significant, it is still less expensive than having to feed hay for 60 days. Stockpiling may not be effective during periods of limited rainfall, but will work most falls in Tennessee.
2. Properly store hay. One of the best ways to stretch your hay inventory is by wasting less of the hay during storage. Most people would agree that a 5x5 bale that sits outside during the winter will have approximately 6 inches of rotted forage around the outside. But most people do not realize that this 6 inches of loss is 30 percent of the bale. This is the same as taking every third bale out of the field and throwing it into the ditch, because no value is coming from it. If bales are stored inside, or off the ground and covered, the hay supplies will go farther because less hay will be lost due to rotting. This will also reduce cost. If possible, store hay inside. This will do the best possible job protecting the hay from the elements. If barn space is not available, get the hay off the ground by putting it on crushed stone, tires, poles and comparable material. There will be as much hay lost because of water taken up from the bottom of the bale as from rain damage. The next step is to cover the bales with some sort of plastic. Several types of hay tarps are available, and have been shown to be relatively durable and effective. Be sure to securely tie down the tarps. One of the best ways to do this is by laying ropes down and placing the bales on top of the ropes. These ropes can then be used to anchor the tarps. Be sure do not completely cover the ends of the hay stacks. This will impede air flow. If there is not any air movement up and down the stack under the tarp, there could be a significant amount of mold development on the hay.
3. Forage test hay. To be both effective and economical with your winter hay feeding program, test your hay to learn its protein and energy level. Without this information, there is no way to know if your cow's ration will be sufficient to meet her needs. Don't assume that all bales are equal. Different cuttings of hay will be of different quality, depending on when they were cut, how much fertilizer was applied and curing conditions. You don't need to sample every bale, but a representative sample from each cutting will provide valuable information. The University of Tennessee Forage Testing Laboratory can provide the moisture, fiber, protein, and TDN content of your hay. The cost is $7 per sample. Your local Agricultural Extension Service agent will be able to provide help in this area.
4. Control weeds with late-fall herbicide application. If sprayed in a timely manner, buttercup and musk thistle are easy to kill. Most producers think about spraying these weeds in the spring. However, both of these plants germinate from seed in the fall, grow during the winter and early spring, and then produce blooms in late spring and early summer. A late November or December spray can eliminate these weeds from a pasture. Use two pints per acre of 2,4-D ester after three days with about 60º F for the high. This temperature will stimulate the weeds to grow, and the chemical will be more effective. By this time of the year, most of the germination of seeds has already occurred. The good part of this procedure is that the residual action of the 2,4-D will be gone by the time clovers need to be seeded in late February. Be sure to read and follow all herbicide label instructions.
For additional information on forage production and management and cattle feeding contact your local University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension service.