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Winter-graze stockpiled forages

Curt Arens Cattle grazing on forage in field
CUTTING FEED COSTS: Using stockpiled forages — whether it is in standing forages or stockpiled windrows — can help save feed costs in the winter.
Be sure to monitor body condition and provide the correct amount of supplement.

If you are feeding stock cows this winter, you want to keep your feed costs down as much as possible, without losing ground on body condition.

Jerry Volesky, Nebraska Extension range and forage specialist, reminds producers that grass remaining on rangeland for winter grazing can help cut feed costs. But using stockpiled forages requires management.

“Grazing winter pastures has several benefits,” Volesky says. “It can save as much as a dollar a day per cow, compared to feeding hay. On native range, there is little risk of damage to grasses because they are dormant, and winter stocking rates can be somewhat higher compared to the summer.”

Heavily grazing winter pastures that are only grazed in the winter can actually improve vigor and productivity of those pastures during the growing season.

Heavy snow cover over rangeland can cause headaches for producers. “Something that is key — and also applies to cornstalk grazing — is that if the snow becomes icy or crusted, then that is a problem,” Volesky says.

However, there are instances, particularly with windrow grazing, that cattle learn to push through fairly deep snow and access the windrows.

Monitoring body condition of the cows during their winter grazing period is crucial. “Crude protein is generally the most limiting nutrient during winter grazing,” Volesky says.

For dormant warm-season grasses, it will be between 5% and 7%, and it will slowly decline through the winter months from weathering and from the cattle selectively grazing higher-quality forages.

Stockpiled cool-season grasses that have been only slightly grazed — or not grazed at all during the growing season — may have a little higher crude protein levels, but their quality also declines later into the winter.

“Our nutritionist emphasizes the importance of monitoring cow condition and feeding supplement accordingly,” Volesky explains. “Feeding the right amount of protein supplement will allow the cows to effectively utilize winter forages and maintain the desired body condition. It is more difficult to anticipate how the cows might look into the future.

"Also, of course, producers need to be aware of winter weather conditions, such as the number of significant snow events and periods when the animals are exposed to wet and cold conditions.”

Volesky suggests employing a simple rotational grazing strategy, moving cattle periodically to a new winter pasture. “This will allow for a more consistent diet quality when winter grazing,” he says.

“Windrow grazing can also work well,” he adds. “We did a windrow grazing study a number of years ago with weaned calves on Sandhills subirrigated meadow. The meadow was first grazed heavily in May, allowing regrowth in June, July and August. It was hayed in late August, so the quality of the regrowth hay was quite good, between 10% and 12% crude protein.

"When we strip-grazed the windrows with weekly access to fresh windrows, beginning in November on through February, we found that quality of the windrowed forage remained just as good as it was when it was put into windrows in late August.”

In that study, weight gain on the calves grazing windrows was equal to calves that were fed baled hay over the same period.

No matter what kind of winter grazing strategy a producer uses, they need to carefully consider what kind of nutrition the animals are getting from the grazed forages, so they don’t underfeed or overfeed expensive supplements. “Be sure to provide free choice of salt, calcium, phosphorous and vitamin A at all times,” Volesky says.

Learn more by contacting Volesky at jerry.volesky@unl.edu.

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