Pasture and Forage Minute: Winter Grazing Pastures and Hay Testing

Stacked hay bales
Quality hay probes and good sampling techniques are important factors for accurate hay test results and will help producers save money on supplemental feed during the winter.

Pasture and Forage Minute: Winter Grazing Pastures and Hay Testing

Winter Grazing Pastures

By Jerry Volesky

Grazing stockpiled winter range or pastures has several benefits. It is much less costly compared to feeding hay. On native range, there is little risk of damage to the grasses because they are dormant and winter stocking rates can be somewhat higher compared to the summer. Oftentimes, you will notice that native pastures only grazed during the winter are the most vigorous and productive.

It is important that you closely monitor body condition of the cows during the winter grazing period though. Crude protein is generally the most limiting nutrient during winter grazing. The crude protein content of dormant warm-season grasses will be around 5% to 7% and will slowly decline through the winter months from weathering and as the cattle selectively grazing the higher quality forage in a pasture.

Stockpiled cool-season grass pastures are those that have been only lightly or not grazed during the growing season. These pastures may have slightly higher crude protein levels, but that quality will also decline as the winter progresses. Feeding the right amount of protein supplement while winter grazing will allow the cows to effectively utilize that winter forage and maintain the desired body condition.

A possible grazing management strategy that can be used is to do simple rotational grazing where cattle are periodically moved to a new winter pasture. This will allow for a more consistent diet quality when winter grazing.

Whatever your strategy, consider carefully what kind of nutrition animals are getting from the pasture so you neither underfeed nor overfeed expensive supplements. And be sure to provide salt, calcium, phosphorus and vitamin A free choice at all times.

Winter grazing is a great opportunity to reduce winter feed costs. With proper management, it can help you meet many of your feeding goals.  

Testing Hay

By Ben Beckman

While we, as producers, do all we can in season to store up quality hay, nutrient value in hay can change drastically from year to year.  Even in the same field cut at a similar time, annual swings of 5% crude protein content and 10% TDN are not uncommon. With crop residues like cornstalk bales, we may have a smaller swing in nutrient differences, but a drop from 5% CP to 3% can have a big impact on supplement strategies and need. When it comes time to feed this winter, knowing what quality hay you have can mean the difference between over or underfeeding hay and/or supplement. Ultimately, differences can affect the bottom line as well as have negative consequences for herd health and fertility.

Testing hay isn’t hard, it just takes a bit of time and planning. The first step is to get a quality hay probe. Next, divide your hay into lots, bales that were harvested from the same field under similar conditions.

Sample 15-20 bales per lot, using the probe on the side that will capture the most layers. For round bales, sample from the rounded side; for squares, sample the shorter front or back end. Mix these samples from a lot together in a bucket and take out a quart-sized Ziploc bag-worth. Label the final sample with the hay type, lot number, and producer name and address, and store in a cool, dry place until you can send it to your lab of choice for analysis. To avoid your sample sitting in the mail, ship during the first part of the week so the lab can begin processing before the weekend shutdown.

Testing hay can take a bit of time, but accurately knowing the value of forages this winter can save money and help when it’s time to make decisions about providing supplemental feed. If you haven’t done so yet, now’s the time to test before winter sets in.

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