First off, let’s not panic. You have options for stretching your forage supply. One or a combination of the options below could improve forage utilization and your production. While these suggestions are best for folks in my neck of the woods (Tennessee) by contacting your local NRCS or Conservation District, or your extension agent, you’ll be able to figure out which of these can be adapted to your environment and needs.
Change your rotations to let grass regrow.
You can start by combining your herd and restricting them to one paddock (field) until other paddocks re-grow. If you carry on with your rotations into pastures that haven’t had adequate time for regrowth, you’ll further slow recovery and could even kill your grass. When forage has recovered to five inches or taller you can move them into other pastures. When heading back to rotation, limit pasture size to four days or less of forage at a time. This typically increases forage utilization by 20% or more.
Graze fields traditionally used for fall hay.
This is a particularly good option when you consider harvest efficiency for both hay and strip grazing is typically 70%. That means you get the same utilization without the cost of making hay! (Note that if you don’t strip graze, utilization will drop to 50% efficiency.) Save on the high costs of fuel and let your cattle harvest the forage for you.
Wean early and let calves creep.
Weaning will reduce stress on the cow, so she’ll eat less, and you’ll extend your forage supply. Worried about how you might feed those young ones? Set your fences at “creep feed” height. Place your fence wire at about 42 inches above the ground to allow calves to free range choosing the best forage ahead of the cows. When weaned calves are grazing an adjacent pasture field to the mother cow, there is naturally less stress for both. Your calves will gain better and your cows will be in better condition so they will breed back sooner.
Feed your animals while forage re-grows.
You’ll want to look carefully at your bottom line if you’re thinking of choosing this option. If you have left over hay from a previous season you can use it here. You can also consider ruminant friendly by-products like soy hulls or corn gluten.
In areas where graziers have tall fescue, many graziers choose to stockpile it, setting aside 0.5 to 1 acre per cow. This extends the grazing season and provides higher quality grazing. Many producers stockpile tall fescue without fertilizing with nitrogen. This is a consideration especially when fertilizer prices are high. But by fertilizing, you can realize better returns. Fertilizing tall fescue with 60 pounds of Nitrogen (180 pounds of ammonia nitrate) will produce an extra ton of forage. At a cost of $0.50/pound of nitrogen x 60 pounds of nitrogen, you’ll spend $30/acre. Next, manage your cattle to get the most out of that ext a ton of forage. As I mentioned above, strip grazing animals will consume 70% of the 2,000 pounds. When you factor in waste, the real cost of your extra ton of forage is about $43. Compare that to hay. Hay costs about $80/ton and you lose about 10% or much more depending on your method of storage and feeding. That makes the real cost of hay about $88/ton or higher. As you can see, fertilizing and strip grazing saves you $37/ton.
Some producers prefer to stock as if they are always in a drought, carrying about 20% fewer animals. Others prefer to focus on high production, and then make adjustments if necessary. Those folks typically have a list of which animals will go first, then second, then third, so that they can make decisions quickly if they have to reduce herd numbers. You can check out this On Pasture article for more guidelines for selecting which animals should go.
Consider leasing additional pasture.
This is hard to do in an emergency because everyone around you is probably having similar challenges. But it never hurts to look.
Over-seed pastures with winter annuals in preparation for potential problems next year.
It’s best to seed cool season annuals into warm season pastures. This typically isn’t feasible unless your grass/tall fescue stand is less than 50% and even then it is questionable. But in an emergency, it is an option. In our area spring oats provide the quickest growth in the fall but die out during the winter. Winter oats are another option. Seed 4 bushels of oats by Oct 1. Rye is second quickest growing. Seed 2-3 bushels/acre prior to October 15 for fall growth. Wheat seed 2-3 bushels/acre by October 1. Ryegrass generally just provides late winter quality forage the same time that tall fescue is growing. Check with your local NRCS and Conservation District Staffs, or your Extension agent to see what will work for you. Good luck. You can make it through this!