Grazing managers often rely on only one or two forage species to meet livestock's grazing needs throughout the year. However, Missouri forage extension specialist Robert Kallenbach says producers should think broader and more creatively about how to fill in gaps in forage production and reduce feeding costs.
"It is incumbent on the manager to know where the gaps in forage production are and figure out how to deal with them," says Kallenbach. "We need to think more broadly about the kinds of forage plants we can use and the management strategies to extend their use."
A World of Savings
John Jennings, extension forage specialist for University of Arkansas, agrees noting studies have shown the average hay feeding period for livestock producers from Mississippi all the way to Wisconsin is about 140 days. Given the differences in climate, he notes, this should not be. Producers are often hesitant to make management changes due to preconceived ideas about the cost and time commitment of trying new strategies.
Jennings' research through the 300 Days of Grazing program has shown that great savings, both in money and time, can be found by approaching forage management more resourcefully. Producers in his studies saved an average of $200 to $280 per animal unit by grazing annual forages such as brassicas instead of feeding hay during drought years of 2011 and 2012.
When it comes to time, producers have the potential to go from spending over half a day every day feeding hay in winter to less than a few hours a week to move an electric fence so cattle can access new forage. Even with the added time of planting an annual crop, the amount spent is significantly less than producing and feeding hay, Jennings estimates. His initial studies on time savings have shown producers spend nearly six to nine 40-hour work weeks on hay harvest and feeding each year.
Improve Management and Take Inventory
To get started, both experts recommend improving forage management practices with existing forages first through rotational grazing and stockpiling.
"Take inventory of the forages you have available," says Jennings. "Do some better grazing. Learn where the gaps are and then have a complimentary forage to fill that in."
Complementary options to fill in forage gaps include annuals, legumes, and brassicas, says Jennings. He recommends producers use a grazing plan to map out forage needs and management for the year.
"Have a grazing plan and always plan at least one season ahead because you don't know what's going to happen in 30 days," says Jennings. "If you don't have a plan in place, you're going to take what Mother Nature gives you and that may not always be the optimum situation."
Options for All Regions, Seasons
Kallenbach says producers should approach forage selection like a agronomist. This requires understanding plant growth curves of their current forage base and then diversifying with a mix of species to fill in the gaps during feed deficit periods. Forage seed programs like Barenbrug's Pinpoint Forage Delivery System are designed with these concepts in mind and offer one solutions to meet livestock's forage needs during critical deficit periods.
In warmer states across the South, such as Mississippi or Alabama, warm season grasses like bermudagrass and bahiagrass are commonly the base forage. Forage shortages in this region typically occur from November to March, describes Kallenbach. He suggests annual forage options such as annual ryegrass, cereal rye, oats, and turnips to bridge this winter gap.
Of the Southern selections for winter, ryegrass varieties like Maximus or Barenbrug's Green Spirit will offer the longest grazing season and highest quality. Turnips, such as Barenbrug's Barkant, can be planted in late summer or early fall to provide grazing during the transition period to annual ryegrass in winter.
Unlike their southern neighbors transition zone states like Missouri, northern Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the surrounding areas experience bimodal periods of surplus and deficit, remarks Kallenbach.
"Those are typically cool season grass-based," says Kallenbach. "They're tall fescue states where you have a lot of growth in April and May, then growth again in September, with some more periods into June and October as well."
In these regions, Kallenbach stresses producers must broaden their thinking in how they deal with deficit periods in summer and winter. He recommends two options for dealing with summer shortages, using either a perennial or annual warm season grass on part of pasture acres.
Of the choices given, annual forages like Barenbrug's Mojo crabgrass or Moxie teff offer the most variety and best forage quality. Winter deficits can be filled by using Barenbrug's brassicas such as Barkant turnips, Barsica forage rape or T-Raptor hybrid brassica paired with a cool-season annual, for example ryegrass.
Head farther north, and Kallenbach says, the need for summer feed is not as great, though periods of drought can still occur and cause forage shortages. Instead, huge winter deficits are the larger issue because the growing season is shorter.
Kallebach quickly points out, "People underestimate how much snow cattle will graze through. They can graze through almost, but not quite, three feet of snow to get grass. Up to a foot, we don't worry, but ice can be a bit of an issue if you get up to a quarter inch."
In these areas, it's granted there will be more stored feed, says Kallenbach, but some annual forage options to bridge both winter and summer forage gaps with grazing still exist. Winter annuals can be used as a cover crop and winter grazing option to hold livestock over until stockpiled cool-season forages are ready.
One of the best annual forage strategies for winter Kallenbach has found is cereal rye. The small grain can be planted in early September for late fall and early winter grazing. When paired with brassicas, cereal rye provides nutritious forage for multiple late season grazings. If coupled with annual ryegrass, the forage can also offer a source of plentiful, high quality spring grazing as well.
For cool season areas prone to summer forage shortfalls, Kallenbach says crabgrass is the one annual forage which pencils out best.
"Most people think of it as a weed, but it's one of the most digestible warm season grasses you will find," says Kallenbach. "The intakes, gains, and milk production is very good and with a little bit of management you can get crabgrass to reseed itself each year making it reasonably inexpensive."
Start Small, Understand Environment
When it comes to implementation of annual forages for extending the grazing season, both Kallenbach and Jennings have some words of wisdom for producers.
"We encourage people to pick one practice and start with that, get comfortable with it, figure out how it's going to fit your management, and then build on that," says Jennings.
Kallenbach adds, "There are a lot of options on the table, so it's worth some time to think about when you have historically been out of feed and have the biggest bills relative to gain. Take a look at that when picking a practice."
It is obvious environment will ultimately dictate producers' options, but as Kallenbach and Jennings both point out, if they start small, take the time to understand their environment, and go one step at a time, success with annual forages is possible.
"In every environment, it's about finding out what your competitive advantage is," says Kallenbach.