Now is the time for pasture-based livestock operations to begin stockpiling pasture grass if they want to extend the grazing season into late fall and/or winter. To stockpile forage, take a last cutting, clipping or grazing pass in a pasture paddock in early to mid-August and then let the pasture regrow and accumulate forage until the end of the growing season. Stockpiling research and on-farm trial results have shown this timing is the best compromise between quantity of forage stockpiled and quality of forage stockpiled. Beginning earlier can result in more tonnage but quality will be lower, while beginning later will result in higher quality forage, but lower total tonnage. Tall fescue is the best grass to stockpile, especially for late winter grazing, because it holds its forage quality value better than other forage grasses. Other pasture grasses can be stockpiled, but then they need to be managed so that they are grazed off by early winter.
Variables that influence the success of stockpiling are weather and nitrogen fertilization. Nitrogen fertilization can increase both the quality and the quantity of the forage being stockpiled. Research results from a southeastern Ohio location showed that applying nitrogen increased the crude protein content of stockpiled fescue by an average of 2 to 3 percentage points as compared to the unfertilized fescue across late fall and into winter. Nitrogen applied to tall fescue in the early to mid-August time period should return 20 to 30 lbs. of additional stockpiled dry matter (DM) per lb. of nitrogen as compared to stockpiled fescue without supplemental nitrogen. Weather-wise, moisture is needed. That hasn’t been an issue so far this year, but without rainfall fall stockpile growth is greatly reduced.
Stockpiling offers the opportunity to reduce winter feeding costs. The highest cost of raising an animal or maintaining a flock or herd through the winter is the cost of using stored feed. In most situations you just can’t beat the cost of livestock out harvesting and eating their own feed compared to the fertilizer, machinery, and labor costs associated with making, storing and then feeding hay. What does it cost to stockpile pasture? The answer to that question depends upon whether synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is applied. If the pasture paddock has 30% or more legumes evenly distributed throughout the stand, there is no need for any additional nitrogen. If the legume component is under 30% and/or unevenly distributed in the stand, it may be beneficial and economical to apply nitrogen.
Stockpiling research results indicate that in predominantly grass stands, providing 50 lbs. of actual nitrogen per acre is economical. Considering a current urea price of $455/ton, plus a spreading cost of $7/acre, it would cost approximately $32/acre to apply 50 lbs. of actual nitrogen. Provided there are some timely rains, we might expect an additional 1000 to 1500 lbs. of DM to be produced from an early to mid-August nitrogen application. This figures out to between $43 - $64/ton of additional DM. This is cheaper than producing or purchasing a ton of hay and doesn’t involve the cost of moving the hay bale out to the livestock.
Use your hay as a tool to help you stockpile. I believe there is merit to feeding first cut hay during the stockpiling time period. There are a couple of advantages to doing so. First, stockpiling allows that paddock to recover from any overgrazing that occurred during the season and allows those pasture plants to build carbohydrate reserves during the critical fall period. Second, feeding first cut hay at this time usually matches up forage quality with livestock nutritional needs better than winter/spring feeding of first cut hay. This year is a perfect example. Rain prevented the majority of first cut hay for non-dairy livestock from getting made until July. We are going to have plenty of low quality hay out there. Feeding this low quality hay anytime from August to November while pastures are stockpiling is going to come closer to meeting early gestation nutrient requirements as compared to feeding that hay in late winter/early spring when the animal is in late gestation or, in some cases, early lactation and needs a higher level of nutrient intake. Meanwhile, stockpiled fescue, especially if some nitrogen has been applied, could supply15% crude protein hay and better from November to December and 13-15% crude protein forage from January-March. This stockpiled forage is generally higher quality than first cutting hay and about equal to a lot of 2nd cutting hay made for non-dairy livestock.