NRCS offers planning advice for winter forage supplies

There is much concern now among beef production farmers about winter forage supplies. Last winter shaped up to be long and expensive. Most hay reserves were depleted after a dry fall caused early hay feeding, and those hay reserves have not yet been replenished due to the lack of available forage this year. One option farmers have this year is to stockpile fescue. This is “living hay,” “unbaled hay” or “hay on the stump.” The following information about stockpiling forages, especially tall fescue, is adapted from Extending Grazing and Reducing Stored Feed Needs published by the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, now called the National Grazing Lands Coalition. (See

Stockpiling (also referred to as deferred grazing) can be defined as the managed accumulation of vegetative growth to be used at a later time. In this context, stockpiling refers to accumulating standing forage for grazing by livestock. Most stockpiling is done to extend grazing into autumn and winter, but in some situations it can also be useful in keeping animals grazing when dry periods during the growing season slow forage growth. 

Nearly any type of forage can be stockpiled, but tall fescue is the species most widely used for this purpose. Tall fescue typically makes a good amount of growth in autumn. It has a waxy layer that makes its leaves resistant to frost damage and weathering, and grazing to a low winter residual height has little effect on its spring regrowth or stand density. In addition, tall fescue forage accumulates a high concentration of soluble carbohydrates in the fall. The result is that stockpiled tall fescue not only has good forage quality, it also maintains this quality extremely well through the winter. In fact, the total digestible nutrient (TDN) and crude protein (CP) content of stockpiled tall fescue is typically significantly higher than the average hay fed to beef cattle. 

Stockpiling may also help reduce the toxicity of endophyte-infected tall fescue. A 2001 study showed that levels of the toxin egrovaline found in endophyte-infested fescue dropped during the winter grazing period. In light of the slow decline in protein content and digestibility of stockpiled fescue forage, this makes a strong case for delaying the use of stockpiled toxic endophyte fescue as long as possible into the winter months. This can be done by grazing winter annuals or stockpile summer forage first.


Techniques for stockpiling tall fescue

The following steps have proven successful for stockpiling tall fescue forage:

1. Sixty to 90 days before the end of the fall growing season (about the first to middle of August), graze or clip pastures, leaving 3 to 5 inches of forage growth.

2. Immediately after grazing or clipping, apply 40 to 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Both the rate and timing of nitrogen fertilizer have an important impact on yield. Applying fertilizer earlier than 90 days before the end of the growing season will not significantly increase the yield. (It is OK to apply phosphorus and potassium with the nitrogen. Obtain a soil test for fertilizer recommendations.) 

3. Defer grazing stockpiled tall fescue forage until late fall or winter. Be sure to properly use forage growth in other pastures before beginning to use stockpiled forage. However, late-season growth of warm-season species may be of lower quality and thus may require supplementation.

4. If possible, stockpile 1 acre per cow. Under normal conditions this will give a 75- to 90-day feed supply if grazed properly. (A 1,000-pound cow eating 2.6 percent of her body weight per day in dry matter consumes 26 pounds of forage per day. An acre of fescue stockpiled for 90 days typically produces 3,000 pounds of forage. Assuming 70 percent efficiency during strip grazing, this translates to 2,100 pounds of useable forage, or about 80 days’ worth of food.)

5. Although low-quality, highly perishable material such as crop residues or stockpiled warm-season forage should be used first, once the use of stockpiled fescue has begun, start with the highest quality stockpiled fescue forage, because weathering causes more valuable loss in high-quality material than in low-quality material.


Use stockpiled forage efficiently

Once forage has been stockpiled, using it efficiently is important in developing a low-cost winter-feeding system. The most economical way is to strip graze the pastures. By allocating forage in strips calculated to be used within three days, animals consume 70 percent or more of the forage; by comparison, when given access to a two-week feed supply, animals will consume 40 percent or less of the forage. That difference allows a significantly longer grazing period of quality forage for livestock. Many producers like to allocate a new strip every other day, which works well. If stockpiled grass is available, hay will only need to be fed if there is a deep cover of snow (6 inches or more). However, as little as 1/4 inch of ice alone or as a crust on snow may prevent grazing of stockpiled forage.

For more information about stockpiling fall forages for winter grazing or about protecting or enhancing your farm’s resources, contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Ava, 417-683-4816 extension 3.

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