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Fall & Winter Feed Strategies for cattle

Here is a compilation of advice for fall/winter grazing, provided by Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist

Joe Roybal 1

September 3, 2010

5 Min Read
Fall & Winter Feed Strategies for cattle

Here is a compilation of advice for fall/winter grazing, provided by Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist.

Add grass to thinning alfalfa

Thin alfalfa stands can be rejuvenated by interseeding grasses and converting them to pasture or haying a grass-alfalfa mixture, says Anderson.

Most alfalfa fields start to lose stand and production ability after several years of hay cuttings, and winterkill sometimes thins stands. But interseeding grasses into thinning alfalfa can extend an alfalfa field’s useful life by several years while providing excellent hay or grazing, he says.

Anderson says orchardgrass is the grass most commonly interseeded into alfalfa, but other grasses like endophyte-free tall fescue, meadow brome, festulolium and wheatgrasses also can be used. In fact, if the field will be used as pasture, a mixture of several grasses will add diversity to the animals’ diet, he says.

“Interseeding after a mid-August to early-September hay harvest can be excellent timing if you have moisture to start the new seedlings,” Anderson says. “Alfalfa regrows more slowly this time of year, so it won’t compete with your new grasses as aggressively. Still, if your alfalfa is relatively thick, you’ll probably need to take another cutting in about four weeks, or as soon as the alfalfa starts to form a full canopy. This allows sunlight to continue to reach new seedlings below the alfalfa.”

Next spring, you’ll need to judge how well established the new grasses have become. If they seem a little weak, cut hay real early to again open the canopy for better light penetration, he says. After that, you should be able to hay or rotationally graze as you choose.

Crabgrass can be first-rate

Crabgrass can be another first-rate forage if used in the right place and the right time, Anderson says.
“Cattle love crabgrass. Given a choice, cattle will graze crabgrass before almost any other forage. That’s why you rarely see much of it in pastures. And they perform well, too. Steers have gained over 2½ lbs./day on well-managed crabgrass,” he says.

Anderson says some folks simply graze crabgrass that volunteers naturally after wheat. Others double-crop it after grazing out rye or another small grain. Later, when the crabgrass goes dormant during cooler weather, a small grain is drilled directly into the crabgrass residue. It can also be grown in combination with sudangrass, pearl millet, or forage corn.

To use crabgrass most effectively, Anderson says natural reseeding should be encouraged so the crop doesn’t need to be planted each year. While this might cause some lower animal production as you delay use to assure good seed production, especially during the first year, plenty of seed will likely be in the soil for several years after that, he says. Like other grasses, crabgrass responds well to nitrogen fertilizer, irrigation and rotational grazing, he adds.

Keep in mind for next year

It’s too late for this fall, but if you’re interested in a high-quality pasture for late fall and winter grazing, consider oats or plant turnips into wheat or oat stubble.

While it may be one of the most under-used fall forages, oats grow fast, thrive under cool fall conditions, have good feed value, and can produce over 2 tons of hay or pasture for fall grazing, Anderson says. Plus, the crop dies out over winter, so it protects soil without causing planting problems next spring.

To plant oats, drill about 3 bu. oats/acre in early August for maximum yield potential. A fully prepared seedbed is usually best, he says, but you can plant oats directly into wheat stubble or other crop residues if weeds are killed ahead of planting.

“Even flying oats onto cornfields severely damaged by weather or to be chopped early for silage can work, although rye tends to work better for flying on seed. Avoid fields with herbicide carryover, and top-dress 40 lbs. of nitrogen/acre unless the previous crop was heavily fertilized,” Anderson says.

With good moisture, oats will be ready to graze 6-8 weeks after emergence, with the potential for calves and yearlings to gain more than 2 lbs./day.

“But be careful to avoid grass tetany on lush oat pasture; ask your veterinarian if you should supplement with magnesium. Also, don’t suddenly turn out on oat pasture if livestock have been grazing short or dry pastures. Sudden respiratory problems can occur,” he says.

To make hay, cut soon after plants begin to dry out following a killing freeze, or earlier if plants reach a desirable growth stage. Because oats can accumulate nitrates, hay should be tested before feeding. Meanwhile, planting turnips into wheat or oat stubble in late July to early August can provide good grazing beginning in October and lasting into the new year. Turnips are also cheap to plant, as seed is less than $10/acre.

“Seedbed preparation and planting can be done several ways. Some turnip growers work soil like a fully prepared alfalfa seedbed. Others heavily disk their ground, but leave it fairly rough before broadcasting seed. And a few growers spray glyphosate or Gramoxone on wheat or oat stubble to kill weeds and then plant no-till,” he says.

Whatever method chosen, good early weed control is essential, he adds, as turnips do poorly if weeds get ahead of them. But once started, turnips compete very well.

“Since no herbicides are labeled for turnips, weeds must be controlled either by tillage or by using contact herbicides like glyphosate or Gramoxone before planting. Then plant quickly to get the turnips off and running,” he says.

Anderson suggests planting only 2-4 lbs./acre of turnip seed. “Turnip seed is very small, so barely cover it. If you drill your seed, just scratch the surface with your openers. Simply broadcasting seed onto tilled soils works well for many growers, especially on rough seedbeds where rainfall or irrigation washes soil onto the seeds for soil coverage.”

With a few timely rains, you should have excellent green feed for late October, November and December, he says.

Added value

For more on this topic, see the following BEEF magazine articles:
• “Consider Cover Crops”.
• “Perfect Pair”.
• “Consider Adding Turnips For Fall & Winter Grazing”.

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