Plan for Alternative Forages, Even During the Growing Season

Allen Gahler, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Sandusky County

Winter has come and gone, and despite the many scares Mother Nature provided, and the well-in-advance warnings by local weather stations around the state, many of us chose not to rush out and stock up on break and milk. And miraculously, we survived. Hopefully, all of your livestock, with the proper planning and nutrition, survived the cold snaps and snow storms as well.

So now that we are moving into the growing season and will soon be, or maybe already are, grazing in some areas, all of those concerns about what and when to feed livestock are over until next winter approaches. Right?

Progressive beef, dairy, goat, and sheep producers are constantly searching for the most economical way to feed their herds, and sometimes matching nutritional requirements with available forages is a challenge, even during the growing season.

Many weather forecasters have been saying for the last few weeks that we will continue to experience the effects of La Niña this spring and summer. They are indicating that could mean short and intense heavy rainfalls throughout the season with extended periods of hot and dry in between. With that in mind, it may be one of those years when properly matching available forages with the nutritional needs of different classes of livestock and different contemporary groups within a species could become a significant challenge. This challenge may not present itself this spring or even into early summer, but a mid- or late-summer dry period could create a need to rest pastures and find alternative feeds. While we may not have the same luxury of warnings from the weatherman as we do for winter storms that tell us when to go stock up on that bread and milk, we still have to be prepared ahead of time. That includes meeting the nutritional needs of livestock.

In many cases, those emergency feeds are stored hay, but most producers know the value of that hay and cringe at the thought of feeding it during the summer months. Several other stored feeds can also fit the bill if necessary, but most producers, at least the ones who want to remain profitable, will have a plan in place to be grazing alternative areas or alternative forages during such times. Many do not have the luxury of just moving to a spare pasture. However, there are several annual forages that can be used to meet the challenge and keep livestock grazing nearly year round, allowing a producer to use those stored feeds during the summer and graze alternative forages in the fall and winter. Below is a quick summary and reference to some of those options that can be utilized if the planning process is started now. If those dry periods do not materialize and stored feed is not necessary, a producer may be able to graze well past the normal window, and the “bread and milk” can be left on the store shelves for someone else.

Plan and prepare
Know how many animal units you have, what their seasonal nutrient requirements are, and calculate how much additional forage is needed beyond current pasture, both for winter needs and in an emergency dry time. Find a lab to test forages, and know their procedures and turnaround time. Check fences and water supplies in advance.

Know your options
Consider oats, cereal rye, annual ryegrass, turnips, rape, kale, crop residues, stockpiled grass and unharvested hay fields. Locate a source for seed, and compare seed costs, fertilizer costs, and grazing versus baling costs.

Be timely
Planting dates, fertilizer application, and grazing or baling dates will have a major impact on tonnage and quality, and weather can impact both significantly. So, have equipment and supplies ready.  Visit with your local Extension office to develop these plans and timing, as well as seeding rates, fertility needs, etc.

Be flexible
Mother Nature and the markets can change even the best devised plan — protecting your bottom line is the ultimate goal, so know what affects it.

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to be successful:

    • A well-organized plan
    • A source of seed
    • Weed control strategy
    • A source of nitrogen and a nutrient management plan
    • Willingness to rotate fence or make hay in the fall
    • Mother Nature on your team
    • Record keeping ability to learn what works
    • Willingness to ask questions

Don’t be left out in the heat this summer, or the cold next winter, without a good plan to keep the livestock fed.