The column on "stockpiled" hay (May issue, page 14) created a lot of confusion and controversy. To clear it up, I believe it necessary to discuss year-round grazing.
The article was aimed at Western ranchers who leave the last hay cutting in the field for grazing over winter. When I encountered this practice, I was shocked. The warm-season grasses typically used for summer hay crops would be totally dormant in winter.
Left unsupplemented, it would lead to health problems in newborn calves.
Unbeknownst to me, in the mid-South, fescue is typically left in the field and called "stockpiled" hay. In my original article, I stated I was referring to "warm-season grasses," yet many cow-calf operators in Tennessee, Kentucky, etc., thought I was referring to their practices with fescue.
The Perfect Grass If there is such a thing as a perfect grass in North America, it is fescue. What's most remarkable about fescue is it will grow under a wider temperature range than just about any other grass. Though not a true cool-season grass, it will grow during very cold weather.
Where fescue is adapted, it can substantially reduce feed costs for cow-calf operations. Of course, you don't have to use fescue for winter grazing. The same can be done with such cool-season grasses as wheat, oats or ryegrass.
However, most true cool-season grasses are either annuals or won't grow well in summer. Most commonly, these grasses are planted annually and double cropped with corn, soybeans, cotton, etc.
Cereal grasses typically supply winter grazing, not year-round grazing. They are also more nutritious than fescue. Typically, they allow double the gain of fescue. For that reason, they are most often used for stocker cattle.
For cows, however, the nutrition in fescue is totally adequate, as long as it's green. And that brings us back to the "stockpiled" hay issue.
The reality is that the term "stockpiled" hay is inherently misleading. In the original article, I called it a misnomer. To be more specific, there simply is no such thing as "stockpiled" hay.
Hay Is More Than Preserved Grass Hay is not just preserved grass. It has the same protein but not the same energy.
When grass is cut during the hay-making process, it continues to respire while lying in the field. The sugars and soluble carbohydrates in the stalk are metabolized and used up during the drying process. These sugars and carbohydrates are the most digestible form of energy in grass. In hay, while not totally absent, they are greatly reduced.
The bottom line is that cattle can gain a pound or more a day on green-growing fescue. Cut it for hay, and gains would be 11/44 to 11/42 lb./day.
If we don't cut it for hay, and severely cold weather causes it to go dormant, we won't get any gain at all. Cattle will lose weight. The reason is that like hay, dormant grass loses the soluble sugars and carbohydrates but also loses most of the digestible protein.
We can supplement protein, and either eliminate or keep the weight loss to a minimum, but in no way do we have hay. (In addition to protein loss, much of the riber in dormant grass lignifies and becomes less digestible.)
The bottom line is that the term "stockpiled" hay is misleading. If we have a standing field of grass, that's exactly what we have - grass. If the grass is green, it's better than hay; if it's dormant, it's inferior to hay.
And if it is dormant, we'd better supplement it. If we don't, we'll encounter greatly reduced gain in stockers or increased baby-calf death loss. That's the message I was trying to get across.