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Pre-Winter Feed Inventory and Tips for Grazing the Last of Your Cover Crops


Here’s Victor’s math for figuring what he needs. Click to check out the article if you missed it in October.

Back in October we talked about taking an inventory of your pastures, hay, and other feed stuff and weighing that against what your ruminant livestock would be requiring until next spring. I hope that everyone has at least considered that recommendation and sharpened the pencil. If animal numbers have changed, which they often do, or the inventory of hay or forages has changed, then it is never a bad idea to reevaluate it again. I have certainly picked up more forage that can be stockpiled with the recent rains, which is a game changer.

I spoke with one producer recently that had decided to graze some of his annuals he had planted in a crop field. He had a beautiful stand of turnips and oats. The time frame those oats and turnips will be good for grazing is somewhat limited and dependent on how long it is to a very hard freeze. It generally has to get down to 20 for a night or two to kill the oats. They can still be grazed, but quality falls quickly.

The entire time that the cows are grazing the annuals, you are resting the pasture that you would have been grazing and hopefully continuing to grow some forage. Forages throughout the state are still growing some and have not gone into winter dormancy yet. However, dormancy is not too far away now, especially for the northern part of the Indiana.

Cows-Grazing-BrassicasJust a little more about the grazing of cover crops, especially if the cover crop has been planted with financial assistance from NRCS. Grazing it can be positive move as long as the primary purpose of the cover crop is not compromised. Grazing must not cause any additional compaction problems, erosion, and/or rutting, and there must be adequate live plant material left behind. This live plant residual is needed for adequate growth for the primary purpose(s) of the planned cover crop, such as adequate cover for erosion control, winter survival, and adequate leaf area available for termination; sufficient root growth to reduce compaction and recycling nutrients; etc.

Dry or frozen soils are the ideal conditions to graze cover crops. The livestock should not be grazing the cover crop under wet soil conditions unless a large amount (>2 tons/acre) of mature vegetation is present. These larger amounts are normally only accomplished from a summer planting. The key here is to not increase compaction…at all…nor to cause pugging that will cause erosion or hinder no-till planting of the cash crop next spring.

The cover crops also need adequate growth available before any grazing is initiated. The start grazing height will vary some according to the species, but generally a minimum of eight (8) inches of growth is recommended for most species and rarely would you want to graze it down any lower than four (4) inches. Maintaining adequate live plant residual is critical for keeping the plant growing and serving the intended primary purpose. Some annuals may not have enough growth on them in the fall to graze due to date planted or plant species.

Livestock should not be left in any one area for a long period. Ideally, livestock should be moved or allocated new forage every one to two days. Larger allotments can be utilized, but expect slightly less efficiency. Livestock can remove vegetation very fast so keep a keen eye on the cover crops to make sure they are not overgrazed. The cover crop should be checked every day, whether moving the livestock or not.

OK, back to the inventory. I got sidetracked on cover crops there for a minute. Besides knowing how much hay you have on hand, you should also really know the quality of that hay. Will it meet the nutritional requirements of the livestock you are feeding it to? I listened to Dr. Ron Lemenager, Purdue Extension beef specialist last month talk about the abundance of poor quality early hay and as usual he is right on target. “A lot of hay got rained on; that reduces both quality and yield.” He also talked about common themes for low quality hay, especially first cutting; it includes rained on hay, (sometimes multiple times), not cut until mature, and baled too wet causing heat damage and or mold. Poor quality hay lowers intake and increases waste.

moldy-roll-bale-of-hayBesides looking at the color (presence of seed heads, weeds, and or mold) and smell of the hay, a forage analysis will tell you exactly what you have. Hay should be sampled in “lots” which would include hay harvested in different time frames, on different farms, and different forages. Use a forage probe. These are often available through your local Extension Office, and collect at least 20 sub-samples per lot. Package it up and send to a certified lab. It generally costs about $20 per sample. Once you have the information back on your hay, you can match nutrient analysis to animal requirements and supplement as needed. Purdue Extension is always willing to help you figure out where shortfalls occur and how to balance those out. Energy is most commonly the factor that is lacking.

Keep on grazing!

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.


  1. Thank You for a good article. Thanks especially for the last paragraph and last sentence. We worry so much about CP, CP, CP but protein doesn’t keep animals fat– unless you have A LOT of it and that is expensive. Sugar is king!

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