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What are my options if hay supplies will be short this winter?

Chris Penrose for Progressive Forage Published on 14 July 2020

In my part of the country, the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, first cutting hay yields were very short. Late freezes and timely harvests likely contributed to this problem. If your hay supplies are likely to be short this winter, what are some options?

First, an application of fertilizer can still help with remaining hay harvests and pastures for this season. In your part of the country, is planting an annual warm-season grass such as sorghum-sudangrass or millet a possibility?

What are other possibilities to extend the hay supply this winter? Cornstalks, stockpiling forages, planting annual grains and planting brassicas come to mind. If you have access to cornstalks this fall, for every bushel of corn there is approximately 18 pounds of stem/stalk, 16 pounds of husk and leaves and 5.8 to 6 pounds of cob left as residue, according to a Penn State Extension publication entitled “Grazing Corn Stalks with Beef Cattle.” This does not include any grain left on the ground from harvest. The greatest nutritional benefit from grazing cornstalk residue is generally achieved by grazing within 45-60 days of harvest.

Another option to extend the grazing season is to stockpile forages for fall and winter grazing. Simply speaking, make a final cut or grazing of a field and let it grow to graze later in the fall or winter. In this part of the country, fescue and orchardgrass are common grasses and they stockpile well. Stockpiling can start in mid-summer through early fall, depending on your location. As a rule of thumb, the earlier you start stockpiling, the higher the yield and lower the quality.

Conversely, the sooner you start grazing, the lower the yield and higher the quality. Orchardgrass will not persist in the winter months as well as fescue, so I recommend grazing orchardgrass first (in Ohio, I try to graze before Christmas). Multiyear (2016-18) and multisite research in Ohio indicates that adding nitrogen will increase yields as well. Adding 46 pounds of nitrogen (100 pounds of urea) increased yields 1,000-1,500 pounds per acre. The plots were fertilized in early August and harvested in early November. One needs to consider the cost of the fertilizer compared to purchasing or growing other feed, utilization of feed of the stockpiled grass, and the time to fertilize or feed.

Annual grains and brassicas are options as well. There has been a lot of work done on growing oats and cereal rye planted in the late summer for fall and winter grazing. One trial in Ohio demonstrated that two bushels of bin-run oats planted into a harvested wheat field in July provided 5 tons of dry matter per acre for fall and winter grazing, and crude protein was still at 11% in March. Cereal rye is another grain that can be grazed effectively with a light grazing possible in December, and it starts growing again early in the season, making for a great late winter/early spring feed. While oats are dead by spring, cereal rye will continue to grow and produce a seedhead, so a mechanical harvest will be possible.

I have seen success growing brassicas over the years, and what is impressive is that with adequate fertility and rainfall, 5 tons per acre can be achieved in 90 days or less. Here in Ohio, I have planted turnips the last week in July at 2 to 4 pounds per acre and added 50 pounds of nitrogen to make this work. The key on when to plant is when does it get cold.

Over 20 years ago, we did a study on growing brassicas for grazing, and turnips generally survived temperatures down to 20ºF for the tops and 15ºF for the bulbs (other demonstrations indicate brassicas will survive colder weather if planted with oats or cereal rye).

Next, determine how many days you plan on grazing, then how many days for them to grow. Generally speaking, turnips reach maximum quality around 60 days and maximum quantity around 90 days (when the bulbs finish growing). Add up the days to graze and grow from your expected 15º-20ºF date, and that should be a good time to plant. In this particular study, kale survived the entire winter.

If you want to experiment, I have seen success planting oats and cereal rye, and brassicas and small grains together with a lot of success. I have seen brassicas and small grains flown on corn and soybean fields prior to harvest. A great combination for later-season grazing would be cornstalks with oats, cereal rye and turnips. Many have made it through most of the winter without supplemental feed, unless snowfall becomes too deep.

One potential downside to stockpiling and growing annual forages for fall and winter grazing is the increasing pressure from wildlife. I have seen fields of cereal rye and oats grazed bare by deer. I have one field of stockpiled fescue that I keep until early March to put my spring- calving cows on, nice thick sod, no mud, but over the years I have noticed less and less as we go through the winter due to deer grazing. A lot of “wildlife plot” seeding mixtures have annual grains and brassicas.

We do need to compare these possibilities with purchasing stored feed like hay and corn to stretch available supplies. The good news is there is still time to plan and prepare. We are still in the middle of summer, and if we figure out our best options now and take action, we will have less of a chance of a shortage of feed this winter.   end mark

Chris Penrose
  • Chris Penrose

  • Professor and Extension Educator
  • Ohio State University Extension – Morgan County
  • Email Chris Penrose

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