|Taking Steps to Stretch Winter Forage|
By Don Ball
Everyone knows that as a result of the exceptional drought, hay supplies are low on many Alabama farms. Obviously, some livestock producers will find it difficult and/or expensive to provide their animals with adequate nutrition during the winter months ahead. Although there is no substitute for having adequate stored feed on hand, there are some steps that can be taken to stretch winter feed supplies.
Many Alabama livestock producers will use winter annuals, either planted on a prepared seedbed or overseeded on perennial grass sods, to help compensate for having a low supply of hay available. Assuming adequate soil moisture for establishment and growth, winter annuals can go a long way toward meeting nutritional needs of livestock. Exercising good grazing management can help maximize the benefits from and growing winter annuals.
Rotational stocking involves the use of two or more pastures so animals can be concentrated in order to graze the forage to a relatively uniform height and then be moved to another pasture. Rotational stocking of winter annual pasture is unlikely to increase gain per animal (in fact, it may slightly decrease it) but it should increase grazing efficiency and gain per acre due to reduction of forage waste.
A particularly good way to stretch a winter annual pasture is to use the technique of "limit grazing." This simply means restricting the amount of time that animals have access to the pasture. Two to six hours of grazing of winter annuals per day is usually quite efficient in reducing trampling and fouling of forage while providing a substantial amount of nutrition to the animals. When limit grazing, hay or other feed should also be provided. Limit grazing works best if livestock are turned on and off a pasture on a fairly rigid time schedule. Animal gains during a limit-grazing period will be dependent upon the length of time they are grazed each day and on the amount and type of supplemental feed provided.
Rotational stocking also works well on a perennial pasture such as fescue. In the case of fescue that has been stockpiled, strip grazing is a wonderful approach for minimizing forage waste. Providing access to only enough stockpiled pasture to last three or four days has been found to be a very workable approach to utilizing stockpiled fescue.
Hay Storage & Feeding
Minimizing waste during storage and feeding of hay is a good idea in any year, but it is a particularly good idea when hay is in short supply and expensive. Short-term outside storage of tightly-wrapped round bale hay usually doesn’t result in much loss, but the longer the period of time hay is exposed to the elements, the higher the loss will be. Also, the higher the value of hay, the more expensive losses become. Loosely-baled hay or hay that will not turn rain water due to large stem size should be covered or stored under a shelter. With large bale hay stored outside, the greatest amount of spoilage generally occurs on the bottoms of bale rather than on the top and sides. Therefore, storing hay on crushed rock, railroad ties, old tires or other non-moisture holding materials rather than on the ground reduces spoilage.
Feeding losses can also be significant. Research has shown that 30 percent or more of hay fed can be wasted under extremely adverse feeding conditions. Feeding small quantities of hay on a frequent basis (daily or every other day) results in less waste than feeding more hay on a less frequent basis. Bale protectors substantially reduce hay waste.
Feeding priority can further help stretch hay. For example, hay stored outside should be fed before hay stored inside, high quality hay stored outside should be fed before low quality hay stored outside, and loosely baled hay stored outside should be fed before tightly baled hay stored outside. In each of these cases, the amount of hay loss and/or the value of hay wasted are reduced if the feeding priority stated is followed.
A few (very few) livestock producers have hay left over from last year. Hay stored inside and protected from the weather loses little in nutritional value. It may not look as good as new hay, but from a nutritional standpoint it should be worth virtually as much as it was when it was put in the barn.
Forage Testing & Ration Formulation
A final technique that can aid in stretching a hay supply is to have hay and other feedstuffs tested for nutritional value, followed by ration formulation based on the nutritional analysis. This pays off particularly well when stored feed supplies are low because it helps ensure nutritional needs of animals are met without providing more than needed. Feed and forage testing, a service that is offered by the Auburn University Soil Testing Lab as well as at numerous commercial laboratories, allows a livestock producer to know how much hay to feed, whether it needs to be supplemented and (if so) what level of supplementation is needed.
Don Ball is an Extension Forage Crop Agronomist with Auburn University.