Tony Snow, the host farmer at the Illinois Forage Expo, discusses his practice of feeding his cows high-moisture forage. In a demonstration he mowed a stand of Sudangrass and used a tedder to spread it. He said his cows readily eat the hay, which may have as much as 60 percent moisture. “I have never had a problem with them eating that hay,” he said.
Tony Snow, the host farmer at the Illinois Forage Expo, discusses his practice of feeding his cows high-moisture forage. In a demonstration he mowed a stand of Sudangrass and used a tedder to spread it. He said his cows readily eat the hay, which may have as much as 60 percent moisture. “I have never had a problem with them eating that hay,” he said.
MULBERRY GROVE, Ill. — Since grazing is the most economical means of feeding livestock, it makes sense to keep cows on pasture as long as possible.

That may be common sense, but producers interested in taking advantage of their fields are faced with a multitude of issues along with opportunities.

“Feed cost accounts for 60 percent or more of what it costs to produce livestock,” said Dean Oswald, a regional cover crop specialist with the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices. Oswald spoke at the annual Illinois Forage Expo here.

“Anything that the animals harvest themselves is almost always cheaper than something that we purchase and store to be fed later. That always adds cost. We need to increase the number of grazing days for our livestock and look at going as far as we can toward year-round grazing.”

Of course, there is much more to efficient grazing than merely turning animals out on pasture. Producers must deal with a number of factors in realizing an economic return.

“It’s important that livestock folks have a grazing plan,” Oswald said. “Develop a plan, look at your needs and determine how much you’re able to produce.

“You need to use managed grazing in your grazing program. It can reduce your feed costs. It can improve your feed quantity and quality. Managed grazing will almost double the amount of forage that you can utilize with your livestock.”

Stockpiling Forages

That plan should include stockpiling forages. By setting aside pastures of cool-season grasses, producers can extend their grazing season substantially. Beginning such a plan will require some sacrifice and work up front.

“A lot of folks say they don’t have enough pasture to stockpile cool-season grasses for later in the year. That’s probably true,” Oswald said. “You may need to put in some annual crops so that you’re able to have something to graze while you’re stockpiling cool-season grasses.”

One considering a stockpiling system should start about 70 days before the average killing frost by putting on about 50 pounds of nitrogen and let the forage accumulate.

About a ton of dry matter per acre can be accumulated. It pairs well with cornstalks and crop residues, Oswald said.

“That’s something that’s not utilized much in Illinois,” he said. “We have all this corn crop residue — really, really cheap feed. All we need are temporary fences. It’s cheap feed, so you can afford that.”

Cover crops also play a role.

“There are a lot of advantages to cover crops in addition to soil erosion and soil health,” Oswald said. “The livestock producer is a really in a win-win situation in using cover crops. You can see that hay pile stay in the barn all winter while you’re out there grazing those cover crops.

“It adds a lot of flexibility to your grazing season. It gives you forage in off-peak times. It gives you a place to stockpile your cool-season grasses while you’re feeding some of your annuals.”

Annual Choices

Cool-season annuals such as cereal rye, wheat, barley and triticale are all good choices.

“All of these can be extremely high quality,” Oswald said. “They can also be used as a protein supplement when you’re grazing stalks. They can reduce the amount of purchased protein in your feeding protein.”

Bloat can be an issue.

“Generally, livestock will eat according to quality. If you have extremely high quality, they’re going to eat more of it,” Oswald said. “When they’re getting adjusted, that might be an issue. Have them full when they go on and use some good management practices when you’re getting them adjusted to that forage.”

Brassicas, which are becoming more commonly used in winter grazing, have proved effective. Plants such as radishes and turnips are nutritional and hardy.

But balance is the key, Oswald said.

“A caution would be to use grasses with them, to add more fiber to the diet,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s like just feeding grain to livestock. You need to put some oats or rye in there with the brassicas.”

Regardless of a livestock producer’s forage and grazing intentions, planning is key.

“Know the rules before you start playing the game,” Oswald said.