Does Stockpiling Pay?

Chris Penrose, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Morgan County

For much of my career, I have worked with colleagues to try to figure out the best ways to reduce costs of feeding our cattle during the winter. I am still convinced that along with grazing corn fields after harvest, stockpiling grass, especially fescue is a great option. The how, when and what to do stockpiling grass is where it becomes “fuzzy”. From a scientific standpoint, after 32 years of various stockpiling research, all I can really say with statistical confidence today is that adding nitrogen will increase yields. Can adding a nitrogen stabilizer help? Maybe. Will urea volatize if it does not receive a ½” of rain within 48 hours? Maybe but likely not as much as we thought. Will adding nitrogen increase protein? Maybe but it likely depends on how soon the grass is fed and do the cattle really need the increased protein? Will adding nitrogen increase the endophyte levels? Maybe but depending on when the stockpiled grass is fed and cold temperatures, will it even be an issue? When is the best time to initiate stockpiling? I still am not sure from a science standpoint, but I will argue that the earlier you start stockpiling, the more you will have and the lower the quality will eventually be. When should you start grazing the stockpile? Likewise, the sooner you start grazing, the higher the quality will be and the lower the yield in the fall. If you wait until later in the winter to start grazing, the yield and quality will also start to decline from the weather and on my farm, and the deer can pressure yields.

Now comes the big question. Should we fertilize with nitrogen? For years, this was an obvious yes but now with the high prices, it is not. Our standard recommendation over the years has been to apply 100# of urea per acre and we would expect around 1000# of additional yield after several months. Right now with urea around $0.50 per pound, and during our three year three site study, yields increased only from 500-900# per acre with the addition of 46# nitrogen or 100# of urea. That makes the cost of an additional pound of stockpiled grass 5.5-10 cents per pound. As a comparison, corn right now is around 10 cents per pound. Then we need to figure out utilization of the stockpiled grass, increasing the real cost.

I am also starting to work with colleagues in other states to try to figure out better ways to stockpile. Have the weather patterns changed over the past 30 years resulting in a warmer fall? Is there more nitrogen already in the soil help the grass grow better than we think? Can we do an early light grazing, allow some regrowth and finish off later in the season? How much and when should we add nitrogen if any? These are some questions we will likely explore.

So much from the perspective of research. How about from the producer perspective? What should we do? My most basic principle is to try to stockpile as much grass as I can each year. On my farm, we are now in December, and I have fed a little hay for a few days only to stage paddocks for personal and management reasons. I still have weeks’ worth of grass left. For me, the planning starts in May with first cutting hay. If I have plenty, I may graze some hay fields, then start to stockpile in August. If hay is short, I will leave more fields to make a second and even a third cutting, then start stockpiling. If winter feed supplies are still short like they were last winter, I may add nitrogen (if not too expensive) to increase yields, then if needed, plan on acquiring more feed in the fall to make it through the winter. Last year it made sense to feed a part of the diet with shelled corn and limit feed the hay and that worked very well when feed was short. This year, I had a great first cutting of hay, did not put up as much second cutting and stockpiled more fields. I even put some round bales out in some paddocks to reduce tearing up the ground later. Right now, it looks like I will have excess hay to sell and not feed hay stored inside in case needed next year.

I am convinced stockpiling still pays, and maybe just as important, reduces time, labor and equipment use. Having said that, I saw good yields this year just sitting fields aside and letting them grow without adding nitrogen. There are still reasons to add nitrogen but before doing so, consider all the factors and the cost for the added yield.