As winter approaches we continue to be extremely dry. We have not had more than a few tenths of an inch of rain at a time since late September, and it was already dry then. Our stockpiled tall fescue pastures have the least available grazing seen in recent years; less than half of normal. We are not alone in this as most of North Carolina and Virginia have had a very dry fall.
As a rule have our farm stocked with the goal of 300 days or more grazing, with about two months of hay feeding. This is consistent with the goal set by many educational programs around the region, including “Graze300” in our home state Virginia. Consistent with the approaches of that program we extend the grazing season into winter using stockpiled forages, and start grazing early by using cool season annuals.
If we reduced our stocking rate enough we could graze 365 days a year, but that would leave us with a problem of where to get hay if and when we need it. We have an annual arrangement with a hay producer such that we do know where our hay is coming from and we plan to feed a certain amount each year.
One thing we have done for about a decade is to plan on doing 30 days of our hay feeding from mid-October to mid-November, our first month of calving. This keeps the cows in a location where we can easily check them and get them up if they need help. We also give a small strip of fresh pasture each day which provides only a little feed, but gives the cattle a clean place to bed down each day if they need it.
This year we were very dry coming out of summer and most of the forage we had available had a lot of crabgrass, foxtail, and dallisgrass with only about 25% cool season forages.. Rather than stockpile that forage we decided to graze it off during calving, so we didn’t start feeding hay until about Thanksgiving. We plan on continuing to feed until the 20th of December when we will move to what stockpile we do have, enough for about 30-45 days. If that works out we will still have another 75 days of hay feeding ahead of us, so it looks like we will be more like 260 days of grazing this year. We are short of our goal but not too bad given the very dry conditions we have had.
We feed hay using several different techniques. I am a big fan of unrolling hay and that works well if the hay is pretty good quality and if the conditions are not muddy. If the hay is not very palatable the cows walk up and down picking the best parts and they waste more. Obviously if it is muddy then the hay gets stomped into the mud. We have never had much trouble with that until the last two winters when we received record rain amounts. You can unroll a bale and put a single strand of polywire along the center of the windrow to reduce the losses in wet conditions.
I usually unroll hay by using a flatbed dump truck we have. I can put 4 rolls on it at a time, making sure the direction of the bales is right so they will easily unroll. You can tell easily in net wrapped hay from the wrap, and it is also easy to tell in string tied bales that have two stringers. With round bales with only one stringer, you can’t tell which way it was rolled up from the string, so it takes a little more talent to see which way they need to roll.
After loading I go to the cows and find a clean place on a hill where I can unblock one of the bales, cut and pull out the strings and then lift the dump until it rolls off. If I have done it right and the hay cooperates it will unroll all the way down the hill. If it gets stuck I use a hay hook to pull it along, and some hay requires more effort than other. The cows line up to eat and it makes it super easy to count and check on their health. I especially like unrolling about ½ a day worth of hay while the cows have access to lower quality hay in a hay trailer or ring. We also usually feed whole cottonseed at about 3-5 lbs/cow and it works really well to put it on top of an unrolled round bale.
Unrolling by hand out of the back of a truck works well if you have hills, but is certainly not easy on flatter ground. We also have fields that are hard to unroll on, so I recently purchased a single bale transporter/unroller called a Hay-b-Gone. I can pull this trailer behind my small 4×4 SUV, and it is easy unroll even just a part of a roll with it. This is an advantage because you should not unroll more than the group can eat at in 24 hours, and that is a problem with smaller groups and large bales. I am just getting started on this new piece of equipment, but I can see it will help us a lot.
Last year we tried bale grazing in a serious way. Bale grazing was developed in Canada and the Western US where the last cutting of hay was left in the field, and then it was “grazed” using temporary electric fence in the winter. We are now adapting that technique to the eastern USA, and it is a little different where the soils are often wet and rarely frozen.
To bale graze in our environment, you set up a group of round bales spaced out evenly across a pasture. Typically about 10 bales per acre for 4×5 bales is about right. Electric fence is then used to keep cows off the bales, and only a few are opened up at a time, using hay rings to reduce waste. I have used this practice years ago on a farm where we don’t have a tractor and wintered some cattle, and it worked out great. I am not sure why I quit doing that, but that area we bale grazed on really grew grass well for years after we used the technique.
Last year it was very wet and we knew we would have a group of yearlings on hay for at least 30 days. We set out 45 4×5 foot rolls of hay, as we estimated they would need 1.5 bales per day. This pasture has been used to hold cattle for hay feeding in the past, but it has wet natured soil and if there is a lot of rain it gets really muddy, especially where the tractor runs in and out delivering hay.
By putting the hay out all at the same time when the soil was dry we saved some major damage to the pasture. It rained and rained and rained some more last fall (and winter!), and while there was mud around those hay rings, it was nothing like it would have been if we had run the tractor in there more than 20 times. This spring and summer there were weeds in the area, but there also was a lot of great grass growth.
This year we are doing things a little different. After we move to our stockpile I will continue to unroll one bale a day with the Hay-b-Gone for the mature cow herd (80 cows) and feed whole cottonseed on top, in addition to moving over the stockpile. For the yearling heifers we will be using bale grazing again as part of a project with Virginia Tech. This is part of a multistate project on bale grazing recently funded by NRCS and led by Dr. Greg Halich from the University of Kentucky. It will be an exciting project as we plan many demonstrations and associated workshops across the entire eastern USA.
Keep your ears open for these educational opportunities and happy hay feeding this winter.
~ Dr. Matt Poore, NCSU
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion. For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org