It's often said that in the Corn Belt, wintering a cow is less expensive than summering a cow (due in no small part to the region's abundance of corn stalks used for grazing). But there's also potential to stretch perennial forages into the winter and early spring months through stockpiling.
Of course, stockpiling is different in Nebraska compared to states to the east and south, where fescue is more prominent. "The majority of the stockpiled forage used in Nebraska is going to be rangeland that hasn't been grazed during the summer or has been grazed very lightly," says Bruce Anderson, Nebraska Extension forage specialist. "It's not like stockpiled fescue used in Kentucky, Missouri or Tennessee. Although that is a possibility for folks in Nebraska, the acres may be more limited."
That said, for those producers in Nebraska stockpiling rangeland for grazing in the dormant season, there are some major benefits.
"The first, especially from a financial standpoint, is the ability to have material to graze that will preclude you from needing to feed a full load of hay in winter. Producers may still need to supplement, depending on how aggressively they're grazing and the quality of the diet," Anderson says. "The other benefit is to the rangeland itself. By withholding grazing for an extended time period during the actual growing season, plants can become much healthier, much stronger. So, when they are grazed in winter, very little stress is placed on those plants."
While there isn't as much pressure on forages while they are dormant, it doesn't mean they should simply be grazed to the ground, Anderson says. Grazing stockpiled forage, like grazing during the growing season, takes the right strategy.
When grazing stockpiled forage, Anderson notes the limiting factor is nutritional requirements of cattle. To realize the benefits of stockpiled forage, it's better to allow cattle to be more selective in grazing more nutritious parts of plants to minimize the supplementation needed.
"It's as much of an art as a science in terms of trying to evaluate the degree of selectivity that's going on in any winter range grazing scenario. It's a matter of knowing what kind of plants you have available and their nutritional composition," Anderson says. "When you see the animals are able to pick and choose freely, they're getting an adequate diet to meet most of their nutritional needs. When they start grazing species or plant parts known to be lower in quality, that's a signal they need to be moved to a fresher, more nutritious area to graze or supplementation will be needed."
When cattle are primarily grazing leafy material, and aren't forced to graze stemmy material, they are usually better off nutritionally. In addition, forbs species such as leadplant typically have a higher protein concentration than grasses. With an abundance of different species, there's a greater likelihood the diet will meet the overall needs of cattle. It's also important to keep in mind that as calving season approaches — when nutritional requirements are increasing — much of the higher-quality forages have already been grazed.
So, which pastures are best for stockpiling? In many cases, pastures in poor or fair range condition are the best suited and will benefit the most from removing the stress of grazing in the growing season.
"While I want to encourage winter grazing, I don't want people to end up overgrazing their other pastures in order to have an area set aside for winter grazing," Anderson says. "We've got to make sure we aren't putting excess stress on some of our grazing lands to accomplish stockpiling."
However, when done properly, stockpiling provides a way to not only stretch the grazing season into winter, but also provide more flexibility for drought situations.
"A lot of it comes down to the stocking rate the rangeland can support. In areas where hay or supplementation may be expensive, avoiding excessive stocking in order to save money on a winter-feeding program is one way of using the grass resource more efficiently and economically," Anderson says. "Using more conservative stocking rates also puts us in better shape in the event of droughty periods, so we aren't under pressure immediately to de-stock or make changes in our overall grazing program. That stockpiled grass tends to serve as a reserve to protect us from those periods of low growth."