Our Best Winter Forage May be Stockpiled Fescue

Chris Penrose, OSU Extension Educator, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Morgan County (originally published in the Summer issue of the Ohio Cattleman)

As I drove around Morgan County in late June and even on my farm, there was still a lot of hay to make. Stems and seed heads on orchardgrass and fescue had turned brown and the quality was poor. We still have a great and inexpensive option for quality forages this fall and winter, and without much effort or cost: stockpiling pastures and even hayfields for grazing.

Stockpile beginning sometime during the next month can result in some of our highest quality and most affordable winter feed.

After feeding corn stalks, probably the lowest cost way to feed cattle in the fall and winter is to stockpile forages. Stockpiling means to make the last harvest by clipping or grazing of a hay field or pasture and then let it grow for grazing latter; in this situation, in the fall or winter. While most predominantly cool season grass based fields will work, fescue works the best as it maintains quality into and throughout the winter better. Many studies have demonstrated that one way to improve the quality and yield is to apply nitrogen (N) when stockpiling is initiated. Urea is the most common form of N used for stockpiling in most areas, but the biggest risk is applying the urea, then not getting a rain allowing much of the nitrogen to be lost by evaporating (volatilizing) in warm, dry conditions before it has a chance to react with the soil.

One product available to reduce nitrogen loss is Agrotain®, a urease inhibitor. Several universities have done research on urease inhibitors and the University of Kentucky has an excellent factsheet on Nitrogen Inhibitors (http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/agr/agr185/agr185.pdf).

In Southeast Ohio, studies and demonstrations have been conducted to evaluate quality and quantity of stockpiling cool season grasses such as fescue with no nitrogen (N), 100# of urea (46# N), 100# of urea with Agrotain®, and 218# of ammonium sulfate per acre (all treatments were 46# N per acre). We are in the third year of this study. Last year, we started the study July 31 and harvested the plots November 13. Plots with no N averaged 1781# of dry matter per acre, and the plots with N added ranged from 2757 to 3244# of dry matter per acre. Crude protein was also slightly higher when N was added for stockpiling (crude protein averaged 12.06% for the control plots and 12.26-12.91% when N was added). The one thing we can say at this point is that we get a yield and quality response when we add nitrogen. From a cost standpoint, urea is much less expensive than ammonium sulfate.

Another fertilizer option for stockpiling that was not used in these trials is 18-46-0 or DAP. In areas of Southeast Ohio where phosphorus levels are very low in pastures and hayfields, this can be an option and the nitrogen in this fertilizer is more stable than urea.

So, what do I recommend? As a farmer and an Extension Educator, I recommend stockpiling cool season grasses to reduce our need for stored forages. It can save money and definitely save time.
I have been involved on and off with these studies for thirty years and also practicing this on my farm as well, and my conclusions are the earlier you begin stockpiling, the higher the yield and lower the quality. The later you begin stockpiling, the lower the yield and higher the quality. Quality and yield will go down the later you begin grazing.

On my farm, I keep a stockpiled field until March when my cows start calving and they really like the stockpiled grass, however I am seeing more deer grazing pressure waiting that long to graze in that field. Finally, adding N will increase yield and quality. If you have some pastures or even hay fields that you could set aside for fall and winter grazing, between now and mid-August would be a great time to start. In many situations, it may be the best winter forages we will have.