Grazing Options for Supplementing Poor Quality Forages

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

Many of us will be feeding poor quality hay again this winter, likely similar to last winter. When I mowed down hay over the weekend, the grass was past mature to the point that fescue had already dropped seeds and the tops were brown. Weeds were continuing to overtake the stand and I am not halfway done with first cutting. We have learned of many issues arising from feeding poor quality hay this past winter including lower body conditions, difficulty calving, not re-breeding, and even some cows starving to death with full stomachs. What can we do to avoid problems for this winter? One simple answer will be to add corn to the diet. Quite often, energy is the most limiting factor, maybe protein, maybe both. It is critical to take a forage test on your hay to determine what additional needs will be. Simply a few pounds of corn a day may work. Dr. Francis Fluharty recommended corn cracked into 3-4 pieces will maximize digestibility. When I supplement with corn, often I find a heavy sod and feed whole shell corn on the ground to cattle and they clean it up. If protein is limiting, protein tubs may help. Don’t forget that grinding hay will improve digestibility, but if protein and energy is too low, you still need to supplement.

We are still early enough in the year to consider additional grazing options such as planting crops to supplement poor quality hay and extending the grazing season. Stockpiling fescue and orchardgrass will likely provide higher quality feed than our late cut hay, but we have some other options while feeding. Oats, cereal rye and turnips are three crops that come to mind. Oats and cereal rye can be planted in August and September and provide a high protein feed. Turnips have good protein (8-10% in the tubers and 16-18% in the leaves) and good energy, but are low in fiber. Some of our hay may be low in protein and energy but high in fiber. If we can plant any of these crops or a combination of them and feed with the poor quality hay, we may be able to provide a decent ration to our cattle.

Rye, oats and turnips each have their place, but if you need an emergency crop, I think turnips are a viable option. In addition to the good protein and energy, they can provide up to 10,000 pounds of dry matter per acre in less than 90 days. The cost is only a few pounds of seed per acre (two will work broadcasted but in trials conducted, we needed at least four per acre to run through the drill) and if fertility is adequate, only an additional 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. I recommend planting turnips in late July but you can get by seeding into early August. The key to feeding turnips is to finish grazing before it gets too cold, around 15-20 degrees. One way to allow grazing them in a little colder weather is to plant them with cereal rye and/or oats. In any of these scenarios, I would have the poor quality hay available to help balance the ration.

Turnips can likely be grazed through November and oats through the end of the year, if not longer. Cereal rye is good through the winter. One downfall to growing these crops is that deer can put a lot of pressure on these forages. We still have time to make the best of a bad developing feeding program for this winter, but we can minimize problems by planning now and stockpiling grass, and planting oats, cereal rye and turnips may be an option.