How to Grow Cool-season Pastures
By John HowleA cool-season pasture can dramatically reduce your need for stored feed and extend your grazing season through the winter months. The key to having winter grazing is stockpiling or saving forage for winter, picking hearty cool-season forage to plant, and practicing rotational grazing. With adequate rainfall, you’ll be set for success this winter.
David Wright has 65 cows in his dairy operation in Alexandria, Ala., and his cattle graze throughout the winter, eliminating his need for stored hay.
“I can have high-quality winter forage through my ryegrass from November until May,” Wright says. “The only time I’ve had to feed hay is during drought years.”
In the 1990s, dairy farming across the U.S. changed, with large commercial dairies replacing small family-owned-and-operated dairies. Wright realized that competing with commercial operations was possible by downsizing his herd and feeding only grass to his cows.
“Our cows were healthier and happier, the milk was higher quality, the tractors were in the fields less, and my wife, Leianne, and I had more time to spend with our children,” he says.
Wright’s operation centers on dairy cows, but the principles he’s learned can be applied to winter grazing for any type of livestock. His search for the best forage-management practices has led him overseas to places like New Zealand, Africa and Ireland.
“When you look closely and walk through the fields in other countries where rotational grazing is truly effective and stored-feed expenses are high, you see the importance of making grazing available through the winter,” Wright says.
He adds that by establishing winter pastures, rotating grazing and stockpiling forage, winter hay can be virtually eliminated from livestock diets, as long as fertilizer and rainfall amounts are adequate.
Stock Up on Forage
Stockpiling fescue can extend the grazing season up to 60 days, according to Gary Bates, PhD, forage specialist with the University of Tennessee.
“Fescue stockpiling is simple,” Bates says. “About the first of September, either graze or clip the pastures to remove all the mature forage. Then apply 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre after the fall rains begin. Then allow the fescue to grow as long as possible without grazing, even up to a killing frost.”
Bates recommends rotationally grazing fescue when possible so that less of the forage is trampled and wasted by the cattle.
“Tall fescue that is stockpiled for winter forage can be grazed down to 2 inches since the plant is dormant and not trying to grow,” Bates says. “It will lose some quality over the winter, but research has shown that the protein content will remain at 10 percent, even into February.”
The only time stockpiling fescue doesn’t work is during periods of limited rainfall.
“Stockpiled fescue makes substantial growth during autumn, and the waxy layer on its leaves makes it resistant to frost damage and weathering,” says Auburn University professor emeritus and retired extension agronomist Don Ball. “In addition, tall-fescue forage accumulates a high concentration of soluble carbohydrates in the fall and maintains its quality through the winter.”
Ball says that producers should closely examine the relationship between stockpiled fescue and other cool-season forages versus hay-production costs.
“Many cattle producers in the South, for instance, are feeding hay for 120 days or more,” he says. “However, some producers have developed approaches, such as stockpiling and planting additional cool-season forages, that allow them to feed little or no hay in some years.”
Some fescue carry endophyte fungus, which can affect the health of your livestock. Look for endophyte-free fescue to avoid fescue toxicosis in cattle as well as birth defects and premature labor in pregnant mares.
Seed Your Pastures
Once warm-season forage goes dormant, seeding cool-season, annual forage in the pastures can extend the grazing season.
“Ryegrass is normally broadcast or drilled into dormant sods of warm-season species,” Ball says. “Small grains and ryegrass, often with an annual clover, are planted on a prepared seedbed.”
Cool-season clovers provide winter forage and reduce your fertilizer bill. Red clover—nicknamed cow clover—is a hearty variety that germinates well and is adapted for growth in the eastern half of the U.S. White clover varieties also provide hearty growth and produce nitrogen in the nodules of the root system, delivering nutrients back to the soil.
Clover can be planted on a prepared seedbed, drilled or even frost-seeded. Frost-seeding, the least labor-intensive method, requires no equipment other than a hand sower. Simply sow the clover on top of the grazed forage or seedbed, and the frosting and heaving of the soil in cold weather will create the seed-to-soil contact necessary for germination. Some producers frost-seed and allow the livestock to trample the seed into the ground via hoof traffic.
Cool-season grasses, such as ryegrass, wheat and oats, germinate well and provide plenty of winter grazing. Before purchasing seeds, check with your local extension office or university agronomist to find out which cool-season grasses and clovers grow best in your area. Also, check with fellow hobby farmers in your area to see what species have performed well for them in seasons past.
Fertilize the Pastures
As with any planted forage, fertilizer is a major component of success. With the proper amount of rainfall (i.e., average for your area), the nitrogen—whether in commercial or organic form—will help the grass grow fast and green. A soil test is the only way to accurately determine how much fertilizer to apply. Once the soil report comes back, the soil analysis will show your soil’s pH, so you can determine if the pasture needs lime and fertilizer and in what amounts.
On a typical bag of commercial fertilizer, you’ll see three numbers indicating the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. For instance, ammonium nitrate will have the numbers 34-0-0 on the bag, which means there are 34 pounds of nitrogen for every 100 pounds of fertilizer. A bag of 13-13-13 has 13 percent each of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
For Wright’s winter pastures, consisting mostly of Marshall ryegrass, he applies cow manure from his dairy barn at a rate of approximately 60 pounds per acre. In August, he lightly disks his fields, then broadcasts ryegrass seeds in mid-September. As the seeds are broadcast, he uses a cultipacker, an implement that packs the seed into the soil on a prepared seedbed as it’s pulled behind a tractor. The cultipacker also helps firm the soil and prevent erosion in the event of large amounts of rainfall.
If you plan to use an organic fertilizer, such as cattle, poultry or rabbit manure, it’s important to get an analysis of its content to know just how much fertilizer you’re actually getting. Most land-grant universities will analyze manure for its nutrient levels. Although typically lower in nutrient quality than commercial fertilizer, due to its high organic content, organic fertilizer builds the soil while commercial fertilizer does not.
“Fertilizer will be the biggest expense in creating plentiful winter forage for livestock,” Bates says. “However, it’s cheaper to grow the forage than it is to produce the hay and feed it.”
Cutting, raking and baling hay is a big expense, not to mention the issue of storage. Although you may not be able to entirely eliminate feeding hay, the amount fed can be greatly reduced when the forage is growing live.
Implement Rotational Grazing
Wright rotationally grazes 5-acre paddocks. He says the only feed he supplements with the ryegrass pasture is grain with added minerals.
“The grain I use has magnesium and calcium,” he explains. “The magnesium guards against grass tetany, and the calcium prevents milk fever.”
According to Wright, his rotational grazing is keeping nutrients on the farm.
“When you cut hay, you are removing nutrients from the field in the hay,” he says. “When the cows graze the grass, they are getting the nutrients they need as well as returning many of those nutrients back to the soil in their droppings.”
It’s important not to graze the forage to less than 2 inches when using rotational grazing. If livestock are allowed to graze too long, weeds will be given a greater opportunity to sprout, the forage will become excessively trampled, and the plants’ root systems and overall quality will be stressed.
Spring into Action
Bates recommends evaluating the forage quality in spring to determine the forage needed in the winter.
“When the forage is about 8 inches tall, walk over the stand to estimate what percent of the ground is covered with leaves, and if there is 70 percent or better coverage, just add clover,” he says. “If there’s 40 to 70 percent, you can drill more tall fescue in the fall once it has been grazed low and the ground moisture is higher.”
If the stand is less than 40 percent, Bates recommends killing it and replanting.
The onset of cold weather doesn’t mean you have to stop grazing livestock and put them on hay. There are plenty of cool-season forage options for extending your grazing season well into the cold months of the year. Your livestock and your wallet will reap the benefits.
About the Author: John Howle is a freelance writer, hobby farmer, English teacher, and singer/songwriter from Heflin, Ala. He and his wife and three children share the rich farming heritage handed down to them by their ancestors.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Hobby Farms.