Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

Plan now for quality winter feed

Chris Penrose Published on 30 September 2013

Did you get up enough hay this year? What was the quality of your hay? The drought of last year and the excessive rains in many parts of the country this year have left us with two forage problems going into the winter: not enough hay, and the hay made will be of very poor quality.

How fast does the quality go down? Two of my co-workers, Clif Little and Mark Landefeld (Ohio State University extension ag educators) a couple years ago illustrated how fast hay quality declines and the need for supplementation for livestock in the winter.

Clif had taken samples of hay from a field on June 2, and then on June 16, to illustrate how fast quality declines.

Crude protein for this mixed-grass field was 14.2 percent on June 2, then dropped to 8.9 percent two weeks later on June 16. Relative fed value dropped from 85 to 67. What was the quality like when you finished up first cutting?

Even if our livestock get plenty of hay this winter, the quality may be so low that the hay cannot meet their nutritional needs.

There may need to be supplementation of energy or protein, depending on your situation. For now, if your cattle are in good condition, consider feeding your poorest hay first to the cattle with the lowest nutritional needs.

A good example would be to stretch out your pastures as growth slows with the lowest-quality hay so the cattle may still get some high-quality pasture and poor-quality hay. A good-flesh spring-calving cow that recently had its calf weaned would work well in this situation.

Another option that is often overlooked and may still be an option is to feed corn stalks. According to Rory Lewandowski, Ohio State University extension ag educator, it is estimated that about 50 percent of the total corn plant yield remains in the field after harvest.

Most of this weight is the stalk, but there are also leaves, husks, some corn grain and cobs. As a guideline, figure that for each bushel of shell corn produced there will be about 50 pounds of crop residue.

The amount of corn grain left on the field typically averages around 3 bushels per acre. That figure can vary depending upon combine adjustments and the condition of the crop.

Grazing rather than baling typically provides the best utilization of corn residue. Use of temporary electric fence can provide a flexible and economical means for livestock to harvest corn residue.

An added benefit is the nutrients returned to the field through manure. The best use of corn residue is obtained when livestock graze the field as soon as possible after harvest.

A good rule of thumb is that corn residue can make suitable feed for between 30 to 60 days after harvest, depending upon weather conditions. Generally, 1 acre of corn residue can provide enough feed for between 45 to 60 days for one animal unit (1,000 pounds).

However, if we see that we need more quality or quantity in the future, we have options. An inexpensive option for quality feed is to stockpile predominantly grass pastures or hay fields for late fall and winter grazing.

Adding 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre to a field that has been recently grazed or clipped in mid-summer to late summer and left alone to grow for grazing later in the fall or winter can increase yield by a ton and increase crude protein by two percentage points.

Fescue works best to stockpile, and other grasses will work, but they need to be grazed before the end of the year. Fescue will maintain quality later into the winter.

Finally, there are crops we can plant. Brassicas (i.e., turnips, rape, kale) can be planted mid-summer to late summer and can provide up to 5 tons of dry matter in 75 days.

They can be planted with conventional tillage or no-till with a burndown herbicide. There has been limited success with close grazing, especially with sheep, then use no-till into the sod (wait to fertilize after the brassicas have emerged).

The advantage to no-till is the sod will be present when grazing, reducing “pugging” of the soil during grazing when it is wet. If soil pH and fertility levels are at minimally acceptable levels, only 50 pounds of additional nitrogen is needed.

Brassicas are low in fiber so supplementing with poor-quality hay (if acceptable for the animals you are feeding) or other high-fiber forage will balance the ration and stretch the brassica availability. Many brassicas will freeze and lose quality when temperatures dip into the teens.

Cereal rye and oats are also options if additional quality feed is needed for fall and winter. These crops can have good protein and energy levels.

According to Stan Smith, OSU extension, if your primary need for forage is next spring, then your best option is cereal rye. It will grow much like wheat but reach about 6 to perhaps 10 inches in height yet this fall, but after going dormant this winter will give most of its abundant growth in the spring. It’s better than wheat because it is a little more cold-tolerant, growing a little longer into fall and breaking dormancy a little earlier in the spring than wheat.

Also, there are Hessian fly issues that must be dealt with if wheat is planted before the fly-free date. Although producing less tonnage than oats yet this calendar year, the cereal rye growth one could graze this fall would be very high-quality feed, much higher in protein than oats likely would be.

If your primary need for forage is in the fall, then oats are a better option. They do not need to go dormant in order to elongate and provide abundant growth. Instead, when planted in mid-summer to late summer, they will reach maximum height and growth in about 75 days after planting.

By planting them after the summer solstice, they will generally remain vegetative and not make seed.

Sometimes oats will push out what appears to be seed heads, but the hulls are typically hollow. In addition, oats don’t need to be chemically killed in order to plant a row crop next spring as rye would be.

You can also plant rye and oats together. This will provide additional fall yield from the oats and high-quality feed late winter or early spring.

There has also been success fly-seeding oats or rye to standing corn or soybeans prior to harvest. For soybeans, make sure the rye or oats are flown on prior to leaf drop.

Over the years, there have been many successful variations to feeding oats, rye and brassicas. For example, mixing oats, rye and brassicas together or planting them separately in strips along with stockpiled fescue and then strip grazing.

Broadcasting wheat or rye as animals finish grazing brassicas (for forages for next spring) has been accomplished. When brassicas have been planted with oats or rye, there is some additional protection and they can stand colder temperatures.

In conclusion, if feed supplies are going to be short or of poor quality, planning ahead may provide time to produce additional quality feed and strategically feed poor-quality forages.

Feeding poor-quality hay to cattle with the lowest nutritional needs, utilizing inexpensive corn stalks and stockpiled grass or planting high-quality brassicas, oats and cereal rye provide many viable options to provide the quality and quantity of feed needed for our cattle during winter.  FG


Chris Penrose

Extension Educator
Ohio State University