Hay prices at the auction are hovering around $200/T for large bales and averaging considerably higher at about $300/T for small square bales. There is of course a range surrounding those prices based on cutting and other quality and appearance factors.
That being said, many of us are getting anxious to let our livestock out to pasture so that we can stop purchasing hay and bedding. In general, grazing is a more efficient and economical use of land for feeding livestock because it excludes most of the fieldwork that is necessary to make a hay crop. However, those that graze all their farmland in Ohio are likely to be subject to hay and other feed prices during the winter. Like most things in life, there are always tradeoffs- benefits and costs with every management decision.
I remember asking my dad when we could let the cows out to pasture each spring. I was likely asking as soon as the grass started to green back up and it reached a measly height of 4 inches. I always enjoy watching the cows run off the barn lot and out to pasture each year. However, my dad knew better than to let the cows out early and always told me we had to wait. Even at 28, I still impatiently wait to get the heifers out to pasture so that I can stop dragging hay around for them and stop bedding them in the barn. Speaking of pastures, I should probably check the fence…
All this to say, that many things in life are worth waiting for. In a recent article, Dr. Katie VanValin from the University of Kentucky urged grazers to wait until the pastures reach a height of at least 6-8 inches. During that first grazing, only allow the livestock to consume the top 2, maybe 3 inches, before moving them to another pasture. Be conservative with that first grazing pass. Our pasture forages are just emerging from winter dormancy and they have a lot of work to do to rebuild their energy reserves and establish new root mass for a successful growing season.
I would also add that if our spring is overly wet, like some forecasters are predicting, waiting until pastures are relatively dry and firm is a good practice as well. Letting our livestock out onto pastures that are soggy, especially if they have been cooped up all winter and are going to tear around is a recipe for rutted and damaged pastures. It is easy to see when tractors were in a wet field. It is not as easy to tell when livestock have been in a wet pasture. So, while your neighbors may not be able to talk about your rutted pasture, there still may be yield losses later.
In order to only remove those top couple inches of the pasture during the first grazing, and to limit the time that a group of animals is in any one place, consider a higher stocking density with quicker rotations between paddocks. This might mean investing in some temporary fencing and subdividing current pastures. Livestock are more efficient grazers when we manage where and when they graze. There is less trampling and waste because of their perceived increase in competition for the available food. Therefore, they spend more time eating and less time wandering in the pasture.
For our farmers who grow a lot of cover crops, especially winter annuals like rye, triticale, or barley, if you do not have plans to harvest that as a grain, consider grazing some of it to get an early start to the season. Our winter annuals can be grazed when they are only 4-6 inches in height. Starting that early is more important when intending to graze many acres of winter annuals with relatively few livestock. Winter annuals become unpalatable and are low in nutrition when the seed head starts to form.
If not grazed down too short, these may continue growing enough for a second grazing, tilled in for increasing organic matter and returning nutrients, or to get a haylage harvest before planting soybeans or corn.
There are a lot of options with our winter annual cover crops. Not only do they provide ground cover and nutrient scavenging from fall to spring, but they can also provide a high-quality feed. The same cautions with overgrazing can apply and especially the warning to avoid letting grazing livestock into a wet field causing rutting and damage to the soil structure.
Matthew Nussbaum is an OSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program Assistant and may be reached at 330-264-8722.
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