Forage producers with grazing livestock have just come through two of the worst growing seasons most folks can remember. Spring grass flush is another six to seven months away. Let's break that down into manageable segments: September to frost, frost to March and March to May. There are management strategies for each segment that can help stretch forage and keep managers in control instead of just reacting to a limited forage situation.
September to Frost
During this time period, dry matter demand for the spring-calving cow herd will drop at weaning along with crude protein and energy demand. This means you can gain a few extra days from forage supplies on hand. For fall-calving herds, the opposite is true, which means more diligence on the manager's part to meet the fall herd's nutritional demand.
On average, we receive close to one-third of our total yearly rainfall during this period. This gives us an opportunity for both perennial and annual forage growth. For warm-season perennials, this growth response depends on forage condition. It takes grass to grow grass, and if pasture condition is poor (1 to 2 inches and sparse for bermudagrass, less than 4 inches and sparse for native), then the ability to stockpile will be limited prior to frost. That said, it is still a good strategy to hold some pasture for stockpile if you can. Growth may not be exceptional, but you are giving pastures a period of rest prior to frost, which will help growth in the spring.
For cool-season perennials and annuals, the growth season is just beginning. With rain and cooler temperatures, the potential is there for good forage growth, but expect below-average fall growth because of such depletion in soil moisture. Because we expect limited forage growth this fall, it becomes all the more important to take full advantage of what you do grow. For stockpiled forage, limiting access by strip grazing or paddock rotation will increase forage use. Normally, we do not see a lot of rotation on winter annual pastures, but, this year, it can have merit. Don't graze the winter annual forage you do grow in the fall to the point that you limit tillering. This would then limit spring production. You can help manage this by controlling access with a rotation. The same is true for cool-season perennials; don't limit spring production by overuse in the fall.
Frost to March
If you have been able to stockpile or capture a fall hay crop, then use it to its full benefit. For stockpile, use strip or paddock grazing; use what is there, but try to leave some residual to carry over to spring. There are several reasons for this: maintaining plant vigor for spring growth, capturing more rainfall by maintaining ground cover, and reducing spring weed flush by maintaining ground cover.
There is not much of a question that hay will be fed during this period. If you are limit-feeding hay with a commodity to meet cow nutrient demand but not dry matter intake, make sure access to hay is not limiting. Hay intake in this feeding scenario is important to maintain rumen function.
If hay is being full fed, use some type of bale feeder to restrict access and reduce feeding waste. Move hay feeding sites around, because as thatch builds up on the ground around a feeding site, waste increases. If you roll hay out on the ground, only roll out the amount required to meet daily demand. Even with only 5 percent feeding waste on a 1,100-pound bale priced at $65/bale, that is $3.30 and two days of dry matter intake lost.
As we move into February and temperatures begin to moderate, the spring growing season begins. If we have done a good job of fall forage management, we could expect near-normal spring forage production. Make preparations to use this flush with haying or grazing.
March to May
During this time, we should be back in grass or at least in a very active growing period. Start into your rotation, and, as forage gets ahead of you, hay it or defer for summer grazing.
Ryegrass in bermudagrass can be very aggressive and heavy, which will slow down initiation of bermudagrass growth. Put enough grazing pressure on the ryegrass to take advantage of its spring growth. If this can't be done, hay it many folks are under the false impression that ryegrass does not make a quality hay. If cut at the boot to early head stage, it is an excellent quality hay.
Try to grow as much forage during this period as you can. One of the cheaper management practices you can do that will have big benefits is to control weeds. Weeds reduce the forage produced by out-competing forage grasses for sunlight and moisture.
Some Final Thoughts We have to retain our optimism but temper it with realism. It has been a tough couple of years on our forage resources, and we need to allow them time to recover. Maintaining rest periods through the growing season will aid this recovery. Don't avoid fertility on introduced perennial forages. Maintaining good soil fertility helps drought tolerance and improves moisture use efficiency. Play it smart we don't want to see a repeat of 2006 in 2007.