When I was a kid growing up in south Louisiana, we used to buy our square hay from a retired gentleman who lived several miles down the road. Mr. Ralph, as we called him, had a sizable herd of cows and always seemed to have a barn full of hay for sale. Anytime Daddy sent me there for hay, Mr. Ralph’s parting words in his deep voice was always “be sure and close the gate, son”. Words every farm kid has grown up hearing. “Close the gate”, “shut the gate”, “did you check the gate?” The rule I try and teach our 4-H judging kids during workouts is the old standard, “the last one through, shuts the gate.”
So why is it when grass gets short, whether its during dry spells or drought or in early spring when the grass is just greening up, that we “farm kids” have the tendency to open all the gates? I know it’s human nature to try and let the cows scratch for anything they can find, but that strategy is short term at best. What usually happens is we hammer our forage base into the ground which not only increases recovery time but also opens the canopy for weeds down the road. Another potential problem in drought years is cattle that are allowed to wander and scrounge for forage may get tempted to consume noxious weeds they usually avoid such as perilla mint.
Shutting the cattle into either a sacrifice area or, better yet, the worst paddock or pasture on the place is a much better strategy. Feeding hay in a more limited area will not only allow the remainder of the farm to rest and recover when rainfall occurs but may give you an opportunity to “fertilize” a poorer paddock or pasture through hay feeding. Remember, 80% of what a cow eats comes out the other end, so hay feeding/bale grazing across a poor pasture during drought conditions could be a win/win in terms of nutrient recycling for a later renovation of the poor pasture and avoiding grazing damage on your good pastures.
This drought may present another opportunity to try a hay feeding strategy we demonstrated on the Circle F Farm in Gracey, KY way back in 2006-07. We called this strategy “strategic winter grazing” for lack of a better name. It could simply be called “feed your hay first” because that is the basis of the strategy. Our demonstration consisted of 41 spring calving cows and 71 acres of available pasture. A simple summary of this demonstration follows:
- Weaned the calves in mid-September, cow grazed stalks for 17 days then fed hay in a drylot for 70 days. Cows gained 135 lbs during the dry lot period and averaged 1345 lbs on December 15.
- Cows grazed stockpiled fescue pastures from December 16 to March 31 (106 days) and began grazing new spring grazing on April 1. No other supplements or hay was fed during this time.
- Cows calved out on stockpiled pasture and not around muddy hay rings.
- Body condition scores ranged from 5.2 (Dec 15) to 5.5 (March 5).
- Hay tested 10% protein and 51% TDN.
- Stockpile pasture averaged 14.6% protein and 62% TDN.
- 97% of cows calved before March 15, 2007.
- 94% of cows calved before March 1, 2008.
What’s interesting, is this demonstration was done the winter prior to the Easter freeze and the subsequent summer drought of 2007. Hay was very scarce that summer but fortunately Circle F Farms used only half of the amount of hay that they normally feed in a winter and was able to weather the summer drought more easily. I realize this strategy may not be for everyone and every year is obviously different in terms of weather and rainfall, however, it may be a strategy that is worth considering in total or in part to strategically feed lower maintenance dry cows along with resting our pastures for fall growth and subsequent winter grazing.
Last week I spent a considerable amount of time on the road in western KY and I saw quite a bit of hay feeding going on. In most cases however it looked much like early spring in terms of hay being fed next to the woods and cattle roaming in large fields. With some of our area starting to receive significant rainfall this week, we really need to get the early spring mindset of allowing our fields to recover before initiating grazing again. This could be simply done with temporary electric fencing or we could just listen to the Mr. Ralphs of our past and “be sure and close the gate, son”.
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