Stockpiling is a practice graziers use to reduce winter feed costs and increase profitability. It’s nothing more than setting aside some of your pastures so that livestock will have something to graze into the fall and winter. But while that sounds simple enough, it requires some forethought and planning, an understanding of your environment and an awareness of animal feed requirements.
We start thinking about stockpiling the first part of August when a change in day length means slower grass growth and a countdown to the first frosty day of fall. To help you get going, this “Grazier’s Focus of the Month” covers advice from graziers and other experts who practice stockpiling. I’ve also provided links to On Pasture articles so you can choose to read as much as you’d like. Remember that every grazier speaks from experience with his operation and location, so you’ll need to adapt what you find here to fit your needs.
The Grass Whisperer’s Winter Stockpile Grazing Series
Grass Whisperer Troy Bishopp has been diligently working on grazing longer and longer each winter. Back in 2014, he shared his stockpiled grazing season as it happened in a series of On Pasture articles, saying “I want to share the planning that went into it and how it works, to give you a better idea of what you might be facing as you make a similar change.” As it turned out, it was an excellent look at how weather and life can impact your winter grazing season. I highly recommend taking time to read all five articles in the series.
In the first in the series he shows you how he’s used his grazing chart to help him plan where his animals would graze when, and then how his plans for where they would graze into January. The introductory video shows how much forage he saved up for the dairy heifers, bulls and a couple of cow calf pairs to graze and he shows his math for figuring how much forage his herd needs, and how many days the stockpile would last.
Matching forage available to what your animals need is critical to your success. So Troy also gives some instruction here on how to figure how much forage you have and how much your animals need. I also put together On Pasture Forage Needs Calculator to help with some of the math.
What Can be Stockpiled?
Almost any forage can be stockpiled, though some grasses work better than others. Tall fescue is one of the best stockpile forages. It grows well into the late summer and fall to provide lots of biomass and its stiff, waxy leaves hold up well through the winter.
In a study in Wisconsin looking at 7 different forages, researchers found that tall fescue and early-maturing orchard grass performed the best, followed by late-maturing orchardgrass. Timothy and reed canarygrass both had average yields and average levels of crude protein, though Timothy had the highest digestible, and reed canarygrass among the lowest. Smooth bromegrass and quackgrass had the lowest yields, but higher than average protein, though quackgrass digestibility was low.
Legumes like alfafa and red clover can provide good nutrition as well as nitrogen to the pasture, but tend to live for a shorter amount of time in mixed stands where stockpile grazing is practiced. Fortunately, red clover has good seeding vigor and can be reestablished in the pasture during spring frost seeding or inter-seeding in the spring.
How Do I Start Stockpiling?
The most common practice is to allow forage to accumulate for the last 70 to 90 days of the growing season in pastures planned for stockpile. That means removing livestock from those pastures to allow forages to grow uninterrupted. Autumn forage is leafy and high in nutrition.
In some areas, an application of 40 to 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen is recommended to boost forage yield. If you plan on applying fertilizer, August is a better time for it so that plants can take advantage of the extra nutrients. Fertilizing in late September doesn’t help much. Rain is an important part of the stockpiling process. If it doesn’t rain in the fall, forage growth will be reduced and fertilizer efficiency will be impacted.
Grazing livestock while at the same time stockpiling for the winter poses some problems. First, stockpiling begins in August and September, months that are also known for pasture shortages. If you’ve set your stocking rate to manage for grazing into the winter months, this may not be as big a problem.
Which Pastures Are Best for Stockpiling?
The best pastures for stockpiling are those with a good water supply and easy winter access so that, if necessary, you can provide supplemental feed. Having a backup feed source is a good idea if you’re trying this for the first time, and to provide supplemental nutrition in cases where snow and rain reduce the nutritional value of your stockpiled forages.
If you’d like even more on this topic, check out these fact sheets from Iowa State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Setting Pastures Aside for Stockpile
As Troy shows you in the video, he actively managed his pastures through the year to ensure stockpile into the fall and winter. This included some leased pasture where he sent his herd toward the end of the summer to allow his pastures to recover and grow.
Greg Judy has been trying a different stockpiling method. In this 5:39, August 2019 video, Greg starts with a look at different methods of stockpiling. One way is to shift animals to just a few pastures and allow the rest to grow, something Greg used to do. Now, he keeps his animals moving through all the pastures making sure they only graze the tips of the plants so he can maintain the bulk of the forage in the pasture. When fall rains come he gets an explosion of growth. This allows him to feed his animals, while still growing a stockpile. He also shares a lot of good grazing management tips, especially for those of us managing through drought.
Keep in mind that Greg is able to do this because his pastures are not overstocked. If you’re running too many animals, you won’t be successful at this.
Greg’s pastures have a healthy fescue component that he’s learned to use quite well. It’s an excellent grass for stockpiling as he describes here:
What is the Nutritional Value of Your Stockpiled Forage?
Feeding your livestock through the winter isn’t just about quantity. It’s also about quality, and the quality of forage does decline over time. That means you need to be aware of the class of animal you’re feeding and their nutritional requirements to maintain body condition or gain weight.
In his series of articles taking readers through his 2014-2015 grazing season, Troy Bishopp, went the extra mile to give his fellow graziers information that would help them make the transition to winter grazing. He even tested his standing forage so that they would have an idea of what to expect. Here’s what he learned:
“The Paddock 10 forage sample came back. This may not represent the quality of the green forage that they’re eating because I took a sample with green, brown and seedheads mixed together. I chose this sample because the cows will eventually go back and clean-up after they’ve grazed off the best stuff in the first 8 hours. But as Kathy Voth points out, its possible that my green forage is quite high in protein and they are balancing their diet by adding the older, browner forage to balance the high protein.
“According to the nutritional needs of an early to mid gestation 850lb heifer, this feed just meets their daily requirement. The energy should be 60 ME, and we’re at 56. However since they can eat all they want they tend to get what they need.
“Penn State’s Craig Williams and Virginia Ishler, and Cornell’s April Wright Lucas and Larry Chase helped me calculate the value of this feed. Based on the cost of the ingredients, they say my pasture is worth between $53 and $62 dollars per ton. Meanwhile, This forage displaces $150/ton hay (delivered). This is a key factor for reducing feed costs by planning out your grazing, letting the animals harvest it themselves and getting the fertility transfer not to mention you have rested plants going into nest grazing season. (Are you wondering, like I am why they pasture that is feeding my cattle is worth less than what I’d pay for hay? This is an interesting discussion opportunity.)”
Troy’s experience is similar to results of three years of forage testing in southwestern Manitoba and to work done on
“Total digestible nutrients (TDN) in stockpiled forage decline over winter. Fifty per cent TDN is sufficient to feed a dry cow in early to mid gestation. All of the stockpiled grasses tested retained more than 50 per cent TDN over winter and spring. However, energy levels in stockpiled alfalfa dropped significantly between October and December. By early December, testing showed alfalfa did not have adequate TDN to maintain a dry cow.”
As the graph above shows, many of the grasses meet the needs of dry cows. However, after November in Manitoba, stockpiled grasses don’t contain adequate energy to support lactating cows that require 60 per cent to 65 per cent TDN to maintain milk production, or of young, growing stock that need 65 per cent to 70 per cent TDN to gain 2 pounds per day. Their forage tests for Crude Protein and Relative Feed Value, below, tell a similar story. But as you look at these graphs, keep in mind that your forage values may decline at different rates, depending on your latitude and climate. Discussion with your local forage extension specialist or NRCS or Conservation District staff can help you calibrate this information to your area.
Standing Annual Forages
Karla H. Jenkins, Aaron Berger and Gary Herbert of University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducted research on behalf of farmers and ranchers planting annual forages in pasture who want to graze them through the winter. Those producers wanted to know if these annual forages would provide adequate nutrition through these colder months.
For the study researchers planted annual forages after irrigated wheat was harvested, and some additional water was applied to the forage crop. (The total tonnage and the quality produced would likely vary if the forage was planted earlier in the summer and on dryland acres.) Then they tested them through the winter season. Interestingly, as you can see from the table below, quality changed very little over the winter.
“While some nutrient loss did occur, all forages studied in both years maintained enough quality to support rumen function without additional protein. The available nutrients would also support about 1-1.5 lb/d gain on weaned calves if quantity was adequate,” said Karla Jenkins. She also noted that the severe drought in the first year of the study raised nitrate levels about the recommended 1600 ppm for safe grazing when they harvested just prior to the frost, but that nitrate dissipated over the winter until forage was safe to graze in March. She cautions producers to sample forages for nitrates and nutrient content before beginning grazing.
This should give you a good start on stockpiling and preparing to extend your grazing season. To add to this, this month’s “The Thinking Grazier” will focus on how to extend your grazing season by working with crop farming neighbors to graze cover crops and crop residue.