GALENA, Mo. – “If there was ever a year to focus on stockpiled tall fescue, this is it,” says Tim Schnakenberg, University of Missouri Extension agronomy specialist in Galena.
The 2022 drought in southern Missouri has been significant, with extended periods of dry weather along with record high heat. This was preceded by a wet spring with abnormally cool temperatures. As a result, the fescue hay crop was mostly delayed this year, resulting in it being more mature with lower nutrient value, Schnakenberg says. There was little to no opportunity for a second cutting of dry hay. Pastures had ample opportunity to grow well this spring but were cut short by dry weather.
Even as a few rains have come in parts of the area, the effect of the drought and heat has continued, he says. Hay sellers have been hesitant to let go of hay because of uncertainty about the weather. Hay supplies from the southwest and west are nonexistent due to even worse drought situations there, which has tightened up the availability of hay on the market and helped to raise hay prices.
Shorter hay supplies this summer along with some producers having to begin feeding hay in drought has farmers and ranchers worried there may not be enough hay to get through the winter, Schnakenberg says.
That has many realizing the importance of fall grazing to offset the need for hay, he says. The cost of hay may exceed $150 per ton and is usually much lower in quality compared to lush pasture. “If you figure cost of feeding hay along with typical feeding losses associated with hay, it could potentially cost well over $3 per day to feed a 1,200-pound lactating cow,” he says.
In contrast, factoring fall pasture rent, the cost of putting about 40 pounds of nitrogen (even at today’s prices) on your strongest fescue pastures and closing gates until about December, the cost to feed during that time could be closer to $1.30 per day. As in any year, the success will depend on fall rains and no early freezes that could deteriorate the grass prematurely.
In university models, improving grass utilization rates makes this most profitable, Schnakenberg says. This involves raising rates up to 60% or better. This is best done with strip grazing using short grazing intervals allowing the maximum use of this prized forage. Those who stockpile routinely have the benefit of having top-quality feed that their cows are harvesting themselves rather than having to rely on a more labor-intensive, higher-priced and lower-quality feed source.
The recipe is simple for stockpiling, he says. Around mid-to-late August, set aside a few of your best stands of fescue by applying nitrogen on them and closing the gates. Leave these pastures alone for a few months during what are normally the best months for fescue growth. Fall growth may typically produce 1,500-3,000 pounds per acre of forage with good fertility. Schnakenberg has calculated that 1 to 2 acres of properly stockpiled fescue can meet the nutrient requirements of a 1,200-pound beef cow well into the winter months (50-100 days).
Even though fescue will respond to high rates of nitrogen in the fall, the high use can make endophyte problems worse on Kentucky 31 fields, Schnakenberg says. When to apply nitrogen may depend on the source of nitrogen available at your local dealers. “Most dealers are handling urea,” he says. “In this case, it is imperative to use a nitrogen stabilizer such as Agrotain, Anvol or a SuperU product. These materials will give you at least a 14-day protection from dry weather that could prevent significant nitrogen losses to the atmosphere.” If there is no chance of rain in the forecast, it may pay to delay application until there is a change in the weather. Regardless, it is generally best to have all nitrogen applied by early September. If you are using ammonium nitrate, there is little issue with losses that will occur, so it is best to proceed with the application. The fertilizer will wait for rain to activate it.
Find more information on forages and drought at mizzou.us/DroughtResources.
A longer version of this article is available at muext.us/n5751.
— MU Extension