Think about winter food needs as fall grazing comes to an end

With over 300 acres of rolling pastures in County Gallia, Vollborn cattle grazing in the valley creates a picturesque scene. In order to keep their lands vibrant, the Vollborns have developed foraging areas and grazing roads to combat the muddy conditions that are common in the area, use minimal tillage, and have developed various streams and natural sources. (photo by Catie Noyes)

For the first time last week, I really felt like the growing season was coming to an end. Cooler temperatures and shorter days slowed forage growth. Some may already feed hay; some may still have several months of grazing left. When I mowed the lawn last week, I was wondering if I should do it again, and at the same time, I was wondering if I would be able to graze the field from which I was once again taking the cattle.

Over the years, I have seen cool season grasses, especially fescue, continue to grow in the fall, so there may still be the possibility of a little more growth, but probably not much. I dug up some old research we did on fescue storage over 30 years ago in Southeast Ohio. When we applied nitrogen on November 1, we did not see a significant yield response, but did see a response from an application in late September. At this point, we probably have to figure out how best to use what we have.

Things to consider

Some basic things we need to keep in mind are: Do you have enough pasture and stored feed to get through the winter? If you calve, go kid or foal in the spring, we must feed ourselves accordingly; provide poorer quality hay first, save the best for last. Finally, regardless of quality, feed the hay most exposed to bad weather first.

Running out of power

If you don’t have enough food for the winter, now is the time to figure out your options. I knew last year I would run out of hay. To make matters worse, when I started to feed the quality was very good and the cattle were eating much faster than in previous years. I started supplementing with corn in January to expand my stores. From an energy point of view, one pound of corn will replace two pounds of hay for part of the feed, which will help, especially when calculating the cost of purchased feed.

Stretch pastures

If you still have good pasture left, you might be able to expand it by feeding some of your poorer quality hay for a more balanced diet. I plan to have the round bales in several pens after my last rotation to have them ready to feed when the pastures run out. If it’s wet, maybe I can reduce the tearing of the floor. If the ground gets really soft, I try to have square bales to take out with the utility vehicle when needed.

Calving

If you are calving in late winter / early spring, is there a great place to do it that won’t be as muddy as other fields? I start calving in early March and store a hay field on the hill after removing a couple of hay cuts. When I move the cows to the field in early March, there is a lot of grass and thick turf, which makes it ideal for calving. If I’m lucky, I don’t have to feed them any more hay for the season. I drive them away towards the end of the month before the cows tear up the field, start rotating the pastures for the year, and let the field grow for the hay season.

As mentioned, if you have hay exposed to the weather and a little covered, feed the exposed hay first. In Ohio conditions we can expect a 15-40% hay loss with hay stored outside. Having said that, the good quality hay that I fed last year was wrapped in a net and almost everything was eaten by the cattle. When the grass started growing where I had the bullet rings last winter, the grass grew where the inside of the ring was. It was only where the cattle stood to eat that the growth was a bit slow.

Have goals

Currently my goals are not to have to feed the hay until the beginning of December, to have round bales ready to be fed, and then to move the cows calving in the spring to a stored field on March 1, keeping the Most of my winter diet is less than 90 days old. For next year, I hope to bring it down to 60 days.

Do you think it can be done? It’s not uncommon to hear from grazers in the area that they arrived in February without having to feed hay, which is my long term goal. When you consider the cost of making the hay and buying feed, and the time and effort it takes to get it to our cattle, I think that’s a great goal. For now, with my luck, I probably won’t be able to graze the field I just removed the cattle from, but I will probably have to mow my lawn twice more.

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About Marco C. Nichols

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